"We are living in a world where the glut of radical violence is often performed in the name of judiciousness, enlightenment and utopia," writes Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, in her statement on In Spite of It All, the new exhibition she's curated at the Collections Building in the Heart of Sharjah.
This paradoxical relationship between idealistic vision and the often ruthless way that it's put into practice is explored in works by 14 artists, largely through video works. In Spite of It All also offers a look back over some key pieces that have featured in the Sharjah Biennial from 2003 to 2011, ahead of the event's return in March.
Sharif Waked's video work, To Be Continued…, plays on a very potent and contemporary symbol of violent resistance: the suicide bomber's last testimony. Seated before a green banner emblazoned with Kalashnikovs and wearing a waistcoat ominously lined with pockets, a man recites from a book and stares with finality at the viewer.
But he isn't declaring a call-to-arms, religious edict or triumphant oath of martyrdom: it's actually passages from the one of the world's greatest myths, the One Thousand and One Nights. The discord between terrorist and fantasy tale may be absurd, but the piece may well have a darker vein reflecting on how tropes of broadcast media carry their own mythmaking power today.
In another work, we see a landfill not too far from the Chinese artist Liu Wei's rural studio. It blooms daily with refuse from homes in Beijing, and the farmers who once worked the local land are now earning a wage by rummaging through this heap in search of items of value.
Wei's Hopeless Lands captures this bewitchingly bleak scene on film. It is a visual echo of how Mao's agrarian revolution has been stampeded by the dreams of the city, but also a terrifyingly epic vision in itself, as hard-working people clamber over a tide of cast-offs deluging out of a huge lorry. "Wei's disturbing work," Al Qasimi explains, "asks what will become of the future if the path towards it is lined with excess."
Jean-Luc Moulène's Le Vigie is a photographic biography of a plant that has sprouted in the soil beneath France's Ministry of Economy, Industry and Employment, while Maha Maamoun has spliced together films that feature scenes of Cairo's pyramids in the background. Spanning the 1950s to the 2000s, the resulting work is a record of how these ancient monuments have served as the backdrop to radical changes in perceptions of the city during its recent history.
There's some spark of tension in the works that feature in this show, as opposing ideas jostle for preeminence. We see the past tussle with the future, reality with fiction and, as an underpinning inquiry among several of the artists included, high-minded vision with less salubrious action.
• Until January 3, Collections Building, Heart of Sharjah.
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