With the announcement of Abu Dhabi’s multi-billion-dollar cultural tourism plans and last month’s DIFC Gulf Art Fair in Dubai hogging the limelight, it was easy to overlook neighboring Sharjah’s more modest cultural efforts, with the Sharjah Biennial (its eighth installment opened last week) as the centrepiece. In contrast to DIFC governor Dr Omar Bin Sulaiman’s frank admission (at the Dubai fair’s opening) of having no knowledge of art, Sharjah’s Biennial is headed by Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, daughter of Sharjah’s ruler, who holds degrees in fine art and curating from London’s Slade School and the Royal College of Art. While the day-to-day artistic direction was in the hands of Jack Persekian, the peripatetic Palestinian curator, the Sheikha herself reportedly chose the theme of the Biennial “Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change”. A BIG, and on the face of it, highly controversial theme to tackle in the United Arab Emirates, where a reported 30 percent of the construction world’s cranes currently reside.
Driving around Sharjah, the text (Less Oil More Courage) – from Rikrit Tiravanija’s small painted contribution to the biennial – screams at you from numerous roadside signs. The tiny painting itself has been hung on the wall facing you as you enter the Sharjah Art Museum, above a formal portrait of the Sheikh. The incongruity of this stark message serving as the biennial’s main publicity poster perhaps best embodies Sharjah’s own cultural positioning in the UAE’s nascent but fast-emerging art world. As Abu Dhabi uses economic-impact assessments drawn up by management consultants to plan a cultural island as tourist destination, and Dubai extends its ambition of being a clearinghouse to the artworld, Sharjah is attempting to create an infrastructure for artistic production and exchange. The reported biennial budget of $3 million enabled over 50 projects to be specially commissioned.
In this role of regional champion, Sharjah is an interesting example to examine the evolutionary path of the biennial phenomenon. Venice is perhaps the exemplar of the biennial as prize distribution/artworld validation, a fine-arts version of the Oscars, with a similar impact on box office. At the other end of the spectrum lies the ‘biennial as art infrastructure’. Sharjah, to my mind, is part of this group. (Others would include the Liverpool Biennial’s efforts to regenerate the city, and Brisbane’s using the Asia Pacific Triennial as a way to build an institution with a world-class collection in Asian art.) Most other biennials lie somewhere in between – initiated by governments seeking to meet their own diplomatic, branding or tourist aims (think Singapore) or by local artworld folks wanting one of their own (too many to mention). In that way, biennials are the new airlines: Every country thinks they need one, but very few have a distinctive enough offering to bring to the world.
Having slotted Sharjah into the biennial-as-infrastructure category, the question that remains unanswered is: “Infrastructure for whom?” Ten days was more than enough to notice that the Biennial had skirted around the uniqueness of the UAE’s (and Sharjah’s) social structure. The majority of its population is expatriate – an astounding 78 percent. And a large percentage of this is composed of male immigrant labour from the Asian subcontinent, living with limited rights and virtually no voice. In fact, most of the technical teams in the Museum, and the labourers in the Sharjah Expo Centre, where larger-scale installations are housed, came from the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. But this element of Sharjah’s and the UAE’s ecology remained largely untouched by the Biennial itself, or its participating artists. The two notable exceptions were Dan Perjovschi’s finely weighted cartoons, and a collaborative project between e-Xplo (Erin McGonigle, Heimo Lattner, and Rene Gabri) and Ayreen Anastas in the form of public sound installations (also produced as a CD) of migrant workers singing or reciting poetry in their mother tongues.
Neither the demographics of the UAE, nor the emerging centres of art production/consumption seem to have had much influence in the choice of artists invited to the Biennial. Of the more than 80 artists present, just one (Ranjani Shettar) came from the subcontinent, and precisely zero from China. And while I would hate to argue for a UN model for international art events, I was disappointed to see that Sharjah’s version of “international” seemed to look mostly westwards. As the UAE’s ambitions for being the centre of the art world grow, future biennials, art fairs and collections would do well to start experimenting with different ways of looking.