Culture

Contemporary art gives new life to a modernist ruin

MARRAKECH: In Katia Kameli’s 12-minute video “The Storyteller,” a man with a rumbling voice and a bashed up nose stalks the raw concrete balconies of an unfinished opera house. His movements are timed to the twists and turns of an elaborate story he tells about two young boys who are bound by misfortune.

One blind, the other crippled, both of them orphaned, they become friends and street performers, playing music for spare change. The objective of their entertainment enterprise is to raise enough money to pay for their school fees. Once they succeed, however, they are separated and face further hardship. As befits the arc of melodrama, eventually they find each other again.

Kameli, who is based between Paris and Algiers, found her storyteller in a fairly obvious place – on Djemaa al-Fna, the massive public square in Marrakech. In addition to snake charmers and street food stalls, Djemaa al-Fna is famous for al-halqa, the storyteller’s circle.

There’s a catch. The narrative being spun here has nothing to do with anecdotes drawn from popular literature or ancient tales passed down through generations of oral tradition. It’s the plot of Satyen Bose’s 1964 film “Dosti,” recounted by a man whose niche is narrating Bollywood, a 21st-century specialty enabled by satellite television and pirated DVDs.

The seemingly endless coiling of form and content in Kameli’s work is mesmerizing. Just as the storyteller makes his wage by gathering a crowd around him on Djemaa al-Fna, the characters in “Dosti” find sustenance (and possible emancipation) in the circles they draw through songs.

Spatially and temporally, the film loops as the viewer sits in one box seat, facing a screen that projects images of the storyteller, opposite another box seat where he was filmed. All of this spins in the strange cavernous sphere that is Marrakech’s Theatre Royale.

That space is in many ways the unintended superstar of “Higher Atlas,” the main exhibition of the fourth Marrakech Biennale, which opened this month and runs through June 3. Organized by the architecture critic Carson Chan and the independent curator Nadim Samman, the show features mostly newly commissioned works by close to 40 artists who fill five different venues around the city. But the heart of the exhibition is the theater’s sad state of decay.

According to legend, Morocco’s late king, Hassan II, initiated the building in the 1960s, and wanted it to house a local opera company, even though nothing of the sort existed at the time in Marrakech. As soon as the regime started inviting foreign opera companies to come and check it out and begin planning performances there, problems emerged.

The acoustics were all wrong, the visiting musicians said, and the architecture was never going to work. Stuck midway through construction, the building was abandoned. The exterior appears polished and complete, but beyond the foyer and a few elegant rooms, the interior is an empty shell, adorned with exposed rebar – a modernist ruin not unlike the Dome near Martyrs Square in Beirut or the Oscar Niemeyer-designed experimental theater at Tripoli’s international fairgrounds.

This isn’t the first time the Marrakech Biennale has tapped the site for an exhibition of contemporary art. For the last edition, which opened in 2009, curator Abdellah Karroum used it to show Isaac Julien’s five-screen video installation “Western Union: Small Boats,” about the fate of economic migrants crossing the Mediterranean between North Africa and Europe, leavened with a bit of tribute to the history of Italian cinema.

Where Karroum’s exhibition – which also included works by Adel Abdessemed, Francis Al?s, Yto Barrada, Ninar Esbar and Bouchra Khalili, among others – explored various and relevant themes of movement, “Higher Atlas” pursues a vaguer notion of transcendence, and, in practical terms, is more about the manufacture of works in Marrakech.

Chan and Samman’s show not only fills the opera house’s disemboweled main hall, it also creeps into every corner and corridor with works both subtle and bombastic. All seem to celebrate a kind of low-fi, handcrafted variation on biennial-style spectacle.

Most obvious is Alexander Ponomarev’s “Agravitation” – an upside-down helicopter erected above the fountains in the garden beside the theater.

Ethan Hayes-Chute’s “Built-Up Site/Settled Down” is a lovely but somewhat random reconstruction of a two-story cabin located in rural Maine.

Jon Nash’s “Morocco Drift” is a smashed up, customized Hyundai parked on the other side of the building, a relic “displayed as sculptural evidence of the artist’s ongoing social investigation of Moroccan car culture,” according to the exhibition literature.

If that makes the biennale sound like an exercise in light anthropology on the part of visiting artists enjoying a brief vacation, then to a certain extent it is. In many ways, Kameli’s video is the most thoughtful, probing and direct piece in the entire show, though the four works arranged in and around the Koutoubia Cisterns – by Joe Clark, Felix Kiessling, Finnbogi Petersson and the architecture firm Barlow-Liebinger – deserve credit for creating the biennale’s most memorable encounter.

Established eight years ago by Vanessa Branson, a former London gallery owner and boutique hotel proprietor (and Richard Branson’s sister), the Marrakech Biennale began its life as a festival for art, literature and film.

The first edition, in 2005, revolved around the exhibition of a collection Branson had built with Prue O’Day, the Wonderful Fund, whereby 15 people jointly acquired some 100 artworks to share. The second edition, in 2007, featured an exhibition of South African photography and a record of works produced by L’Appartement 22, Karroum’s art space in Rabat. The third edition was the first truly curatorial effort. The fourth is likely to determine the event’s staying power.

In the end, “Higher Atlas” raises more questions than its curators could possibly answer, though the organizers should probably take them on in the planning for next time.

Between the art world and the local community, two vexed constructs from the start, who is this biennale for? Why are so few participating artists from Morocco, the rest of Africa and the Middle East? What does contemporary art have to say, if anything, about political convulsions a la the Arab Spring?

What happened to the links – forged through Arab nationalism, the question of Palestine, postcolonial liberation movements, Third World solidarity and intellectual exile in Paris – that once made artistic exchanges from Baghdad to Beirut to Casablanca easier and more obvious? Why did they become so tenuous, and to what effect?

Beyond the exhibition itself, the biennale’s more discursive platforms – such as a series of panel discussions on identity politics, protest imagery and public art, organized by the poet and translator Omar Berrada – began to unpack some of those questions. Like Kameli’s video, however, they are intricate and tightly wound. It will take a good deal more work – in both senses of the word – to address them all.

“Higher Atlas” is on view through June 3. For more information, please see www.marrakechbiennale.org and www.higheratlas.org.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2012, on page 15.

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