Is it just me or have others noticed the ubiquity of American exhibitions in West London over the past year? Whether it’s NY Fashion at the V&A, yet another exhibition of an American artist at the Serpentine — old (Ellsworth Kelly) or new (Paul Chan) — or group shows put together to show visiting Americans some American art at Frieze fair time (the Royal Academy / Saatchi’s USA Today or the Serpentine’s Uncertain States of America), it looks like London’s expensive postcodes just can’t get enough of a good thing.
The combination of American corporate largesse, political will (the US Embassy funded Karen Kilimnik’s recent show at the Serpentine) and rich friends (cocktails with the Blairs for American Friends of the Tate) is convincing enough as it is. Combine this with a dearth of curators that can look beyond – or are interested in anything other than – the Euro-American nexus, and we see a pattern emerging. One in which much of London’s public art world (at least in those parts of town where corporate hospitality is at a premium) seems at risk of being ‘captured’ by one country. So while the world rhapsodises about ‘new’ art coming out of Asia, London gets to see very little of it, whereas Tate Liverpool is showing contemporary Chinese art and Newcastle’s Baltic had a recent Subodh Gupta show.
One wonders how long this will continue? As the 2012 London Olympics-related cuts to arts funding start biting, the allure of American patronage will only grow stronger. Perhaps, as the current show of British photography at Tate Britain suggests, American Friends will act with ‘enlightened self-interest’ and start supporting non-American shows, lest the natives get restless.
Or perhaps London is set to be the battleground for a cultural version of the new Great Game — one where America is the dominant power; the Russians have an outpost in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, which can be leveraged by Russian oligarchs (once they grow tired of running football clubs or funding revolutions); and the Chinese have the Red Mansion Foundation ‘co-producing’ exhibitions. The only ones yet to show their hands are India’s billionaires and its ranks of art-market entrepreneurs. Surely it is only a matter of time — I’d give it a few months.
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 Continue reading “Sharjah Biennial: Less Oil More Courage”