SHARJAH: The artist Simon Fujiwara has filled a floor of a former bank building in Sharjah with an elaborate installation of photographs, random papers, receipts, a folding ruler, an uncapped highlighter, plastic cups, a water bottle, white gloves, push pins, yarn, sand, a pile of rocks and a raised stage-set doubling as a photo studio.
All of this material, meticulously arranged, relates to a lost photograph of Fujiwara’s mother draped in the arms of a Lebanese boyfriend, whom she met, allegedly, while working as a cabaret dancer in the 1960s at Casino du Liban.
From memory, she appears sun-kissed, bikini’d and wet, having just emerged from the sea on a beach north of Beirut. The boyfriend, meanwhile, is dark and hairy, charming and dangerous. A disembodied voice asks Fujiwara if he remembers anything erotic about the photograph, the couple or his mother’s lover.
“No,” he says firmly. “I didn’t like the look on his face.”
“So you didn’t find him attractive?”
A long pause, and then the durational component of the piece (a video looping on a large screen) comes to an end, leaving the question to linger unanswered, slightly awkward and a little creepy – but seductive nonetheless.
Fujiwara’s installation, titled “Studio Pieta (King Kong Komplex),” stems from the artist’s time in Lebanon five months ago, when he was a visiting professor in the Home Workspace Program, Ashkal Alwan’s experimental art school. The central video will be screened here in May, as part of Home Works 6, Ashkal Alwan’s forthcoming forum on cultural practices.
For now, Fujiwara’s wildly varied study of a single, possibly unreal image anchors one of the 33 sites featured in this year’s Sharjah Biennial, on view through May 13. Like much of his work, “Studio Pieta (King Kong Komplex)” seems embarrassingly autobiographical, until the viewer strikes a delicate balance with the work between fact, fiction, confession, fantasy, self-indulgent detail and a language to be slowly, curiously discerned.
As such, the piece is representative of this particular biennial at its best. It suggests more than it states. Like the exhibition overall, featuring some hundred artists whose works are clustered into four groups strung along the arts and heritage areas running parallel to the Sharjah Creek, it isn’t apolitical. It’s just that its politics are complicated, and to a certain extent coded.
Curated by Yuko Hasegawa, this is the 11th edition of Sharjah’s biennial, and it marks the somewhat traumatic start of its third micro-epoch. Founded in 1993, the event was run for a decade as a committee-organized exhibition of paintings, primarily, which was said to have been sloppy, folkloric and often lasted little more than a week.
Leading up to the event in 2003, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi took issue with the biennial’s outdated approach. One of the daughters of Sharjah’s only ruler in modern times – Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi (briefly deposed by his brother’s palace coup of 1987, then safely restored) – Sheikha Hoor was an art school student in her early 20s at the time. When the organizing committee dissolved, she took over and totally re-imagined the event.
The current edition, titled “Re-Emerge: Towards a New Cultural Cartography,” is a reinvention of another kind. Two years ago, curators Rasha Salti, Suzanne Cotter and Haig Aivazian organized a daring and prescient exhibition in Sharjah, which opened as the full tumult of the so-called Arab spring was still unfolding.
Concerned with plots, intrigues and other conspiracies, the show also cast a historicizing eye on revolutionary fervor, with a suite of drawings by the renowned Syrian dissident Youssef Abdelke and a magisterial film on regime change in Romania, Videograms of a Revolution, by Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica.
The timing couldn’t have been better, and it couldn’t have been worse. A tiny protest against the UAE’s participation in suppressing dissent (and killing protesters) in neighboring Bahrain did not go over well with the authorities. The art world’s international caravanserai was miffed about the censorship of a film by the Iranian-American provocateur Caveh Zahedi.
Everything imploded when a work by the Algerian journalist and playwright Mustapha Benfodil was deemed blasphemous and removed, followed by the abrupt sacking of the biennial’s artistic director Jack Persekian, who had been involved in the event since 2005.
Petitions and a good long season of disapproval ensued.
Hasegawa’s biennial, then, is a highly diplomatic, resolutely community-minded salvage mission. Her centerpiece is a public playground by the Danish artists’ group Superflex.
A consummate professional who’s been in the institutional biennial game for decades, Hasegawa has given the event its third wind with a show that is essentially decent. It doesn’t break curatorial ground. It takes few risks. It relies too heavily on well-known international artists – such as Francis Alys, Matthew Barney, Elizabeth Peyton, Thomas Demand, Olafur Eliasson and Gabriel Orozco – whose works here appear halfhearted at best.
That said, there are layers at work in “Re-Emerge,” and the most interesting material becomes visible when the explicitly stated themes of courtyards and cartographies are removed, their supporting works disregarded.
What’s left? There’s a wealth of work related to sound and music, including an installation by Madgi Mostafa (exploring the contradictions of Friday routines in Cairo), a performance by Wael Shawky (featuring 32 qawwali singers who translate artspeak into Urdu songs) and Angelica Mesiti’s ardent four-screen video portrait of traditional musicians from Algeria, Cameroon, Mongolia and Sudan.
There’s an intriguing recurrence of provocative literary references. Yazan Khalili evokes Ghassan Kanafani’s “Men in the Sun.” Wael Shawky uses a Mohamed Mustagab story in his video “Al-Araba al-Madfuna.”
John Akomfrah’s terrific three-screen video installation “The Unfinished Conversation” beautifully braids together texts by William Blake, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens to narrate a history of our times through the biography of Stuart Hall, the founder of cultural studies. “We’re no longer in transition,” Hall says memorably. “Culturally, we’re in a phase of permanent revolution now.”
The famous names may disappoint, but it’s truly a gift to be given the time and space to discover old and new work by Eduardo Terrazas (abstract woolen tapestries), Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (cut glass mosaics), Jumana Manna and Sille Storihle (a fine film troubling the notion that the Oslo Accords reinforced Norway’s reputation as a benevolent nation), and Fumito Urabe (wise beyond his years with a mediation on life and death through tiny drawings, toy boats and a floor full of sand).
The exhibition isn’t perfect. And showing Amar Kanwar’s video “A Love Story” in this biennial when it was already included in the last probably deserves to be named to some list of serious curatorial gaffes. But as a revival, reincarnation and restitution of an event that faltered, it works.
“Re-Emerge: Towards a New Cultural Cartography” continues through May 13. For more information, please see www.sharjahart.org.