The Sharjah Biennial is one of the most celebrated art events in the Arab world, and is increasingly well regarded on the international scene, too. Helena Frith Powell meets Jack Persekian, the artistic director who shapes every aspect of the two-month exhibition. On Jack Persekian's desk there is a sign that reads "Jack lives here". Lots of people have signs like that on their desks, but in this case it is almost true. Jack works almost 17 hours a day, every day. "I work until 2am, go home, sleep and come back at 9am," he tells me, looking remarkably cheerful about it. One might think that with those hours he is an investment banker and smiling about his enormous salary and bonus scheme.
Not so, Persekian is the artistic director of the Sharjah Biennial arts exhibition. The Sharjah Biennial was founded in 1993 by Sharjah's ruler Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi. It is now firmly established as the biggest and most celebrated art event in the Arab world. "His Highness instigated it at a time when there was nothing happening in the arts world here," says Persekian. "His absolute belief is that exposure to arts and culture is part of the education process."
Persekian has worked on the last three biennials. "When we started we were simply trying to find a niche for the Sharjah Biennial in the international art world," he tells me sitting at his desk surrounded by ringing phones and people queuing to ask him questions. To add to the frenetic atmosphere the recently installed fire alarm goes off at regular intervals. "Now we are trying to define its role and its raison d'être. So far we have defined our constituency and our focus on the Arab world."
Persikian, who bears a vague resemblance to the late French designer Yves St Laurent, says the central tenet is that the exhibition is much more than just a venue. "What is very important in the process of making the biennial is the idea that it needs to be involved in the process of creating the art. It has to be involved in the actual transformation of an idea into an object or a happening." The works that visitors to the Sharjah Biennial will see during the two-month long event are the result of collaborations between the artist and the organisers lasting weeks and sometimes months. Hence the long hours. Every detail has to be agreed upon by both sides, from the lighting to the position in the exhibition as well as any technical issues. For example, one of the exhibits involves two screens with two videos that have to run at exactly the same time and then have to re-start on the same fraction of a second because if there is even a millisecond of a delay you lose what the artist is trying to do. "And it has to run at precisely the same moment not for an hour but for two whole months," says Persekian. "This process has involved me dealing with the artist and technicians all over the world to get it spot on."
During my visit in late February, just a few weeks before the press launch on Wednesday, I ask the technical coordinator Yazan Khalili how many exhibits are ready to be shown. "You mean totally ready, with like nothing else at all to be done at all," he pauses, "one." So one down, 57 to go? "Yes," confirms Mariam al Dabbagh, head of communications. "I left at midnight the other night and felt guilty. There is just so much to do. We all spend more time together than we do with our families. But these people have become family to me," she adds gesturing around the large room we are sitting in just off the main exhibition halls in the Sharjah Art Museum.
The room in which the 25-strong team putting together the exhibition sits is charged with atmosphere. It is obvious there is a lot of work to be done if they are to open on time; the catalogues are not yet finished, nor are the VIP invitations, let alone the works of art. Persekian sits through most of the interview with one phone in each hand, barking instructions in Arabic and then English to various callers. But the family atmosphere al Dabbagh mentions is also evident. These are clearly people who like each other and are driven by a common aim; to be the best at what they do in the Arab world and to bring Arab art to the attention of the international art world.
One of the common aims over the past few weeks has been to realise one work of art that could be the centerpiece of the whole show. It consists of 26 shopping trolleys made into a 12-metre-tall structure. Quite apart from the obvious technical challenge of creating a column out of 26 shopping trolleys, the crane needed to put them in position costs Dh50,000 to hire for one day. And although there is no set budget on the Sharjah Biennial, funds are by no means unlimited. The whole team is reluctantly coming closer to conceding defeat on the project which has already taken countless hours in thought, effort and negotiation.
The 58 artists who have been chosen to appear in this biennial have come through either an open bidding process or they have been invited to come up with ideas by Persekian or the curators working on the exhibition. This has been a new initiative Persekian introduced this year. "What I am trying to do in every edition is to challenge what we see as given," he explains. "Every time we sit back and think about what we have done and how we have done it and we get to a stage when feel that this is great and running smoothly - that's an alarm for me. Anything that becomes comfortable and seems perfect is a red alarm for me. One of the things we changed this year is how we select and invite the artists."
In previous biennials curators would be invited to come up with lists of artists based on a certain concept or theme. For example, in 2007 the theme was "Ecology and the Politics of Change". "I realised this was too constricting both in terms of the artist and how the audience was looking at the work," says Persekian. "If you give the audience a defined theme they see that first and the work second. Also, if you are an artist you are tailoring your work to fit a theme. I also felt that, and I include myself in this, curators tend to work with a certain number of artists they have got to know well and feel comfortable with and have a relationship with. They tend to take the same artists from exhibition to exhibition and fit them in. This year what we did was to start with an open call basically asking anybody who had an idea to send it to us for consideration, for production and for possible inclusion in the biennial."
The fire alarm goes off again. "The biennial is on fire!" he jokes. I ask him if anyone leaves the office in case there really is a fire. "Normally we just leave the office to sleep," he answers. This year they have opted for a much broader theme, which can be interpreted in countless ways: "Provisions for the Future". It was the idea of Isabel Carlos, a Portuguese-born curator with more than 20 years' experience in the arts who has overseen more than 20 exhibitions worldwide and is the founder of the Instituto de Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon.
"Jack invited me last June to be part of the nine-month project," she tells me. "I have never been in this part of the world before so it was quite a challenge. I found it very different, almost like another planet. The way I work, the concept almost always comes from the place and here the future is an obsession. If you look around you at the architecture you get the feeling you are in a futuristic movie from the 1950s. So I said to myself, 'OK we need provisions for the future to give this notion a past as well as a present'. I also wanted to combine that with the idea that humans move from one place to another in pursuit of happiness. This place is a very good example of that."
They had more than 400 applications. "We went through each and every proposal to see if it would work," says Persekian. "And also if we could afford it. We also considered whether the artist actually had enough experience to carry off the proposal. We judged the merits of each proposal and made sure there were no commercial undercurrents at work, in other words that the artist wasn't treating it like a commercial proposition, building in fees and hiking up prices just to make money."
Carlos stresses that this theme is not in any way constricting and that the quality of the work has proved that fact. "The title and the concept is broad enough for good artwork to fit. We are just providing a platform to show it. I am really very happy about how many of the art works are connected with Sharjah. For example the way they filmed Sharjah was very interesting in the video Going South which is a journey from Slovenia to Sharjah. This to me is real 'provisions for the future', we are creating a memory of the place and for that I am very pleased because that was one of my aims in coming here."
From the 400 applications, they selected an intial 29. "Then we needed to think about how to complement this selection process with artists who are not properly represented. So we went back to our old contacts, inviting others to send proposals. The committee rejected ones that did not live up to expectations and those who we found interesting we have commissioned. This is how we ended up with 58," says Persekian.
As well as supporting and financing artists from the Arab world, Persekian sees his role as a conduit between them and the outside world. "We are a major bridge, brimming in experience from all over and creating educational and networking opportunities such as the Art Education Day and the March Meeting." The March Meeting was created by Persekian at the last biennial. "I always aim to maintain an overview of what is happening in the art world vis à vis Sharjah and how we are engaging with the rest of the world," he says. "It has become the main perspective on art in the Arab world. If anyone is interested in knowing about art or artists in the Arab world, they come to Sharjah. So I had the idea of the March Meeting. If you think about it, the biennial is a platform for art and artists and then there are the art fairs, which are platforms for galleries in the market. But in between there are all the people who are the directors of institutes who operate in cities across the Arab world and are the main source for nurturing and presenting and funding Arab talent. These people have no voice and you can never find them anywhere. There was never a kind of place or forum for them to talk about what they are doing."
This year, for four days, 40 people from 40 different institutions will meet during the biennial to swap ideas and network. But for Persekian, the most important thing remains the art and the capacity that the Sharjah biennial offers artists to experiment away from both financial and market constraints. "Artists can afford to experiment and take risks, to push new ideas and concepts that other events or art fairs such as mainstream exhibitions cannot afford to. In a way we have defined its role as some kind of laboratory, a place where people can limit the effects of certain constraints that come from the market or the social context or even a political or ethical or cultural influence that can be a constraint on art. We can somehow mitigate the effect by allowing the artist to behave a little as you would imagine scientists in a laboratory. They are even allowed to fail because failure is another step towards another area. Failure in the biennial is not going backwards but going forwards, you know then what you cannot do or are not supposed to do."
The one time the staff leaves the office is to eat lunch. "This kind of work is about dedication, about being totally immersed and consumed by the work by the creative process," says Persekian. "But we always have lunch." It is during a buffet lunch at the Sharjah Beach Rotana hotel that he gets the phone call he has been waiting for. He talks excitedly in Arabic for a few minutes then makes the announcement to the rest of the table.
"It's do-able," he says. They all know he is talking about the shopping trolleys. Immediately the calculations begin; how many more shopping trolleys do they need to buy to be on the safe side should one fall and get wrecked? Can the artist come this afternoon to discuss the installation with the person who is going to build the column the trolleys will be hooked on? How will they get the crane here? Happily the man who owns the crane is a friend of a friend of Persekian's, who tells us the man asked if the biennial has the money to pay for it. "I said no," says Persekian. "'OK,' he said. 'I will sponsor it'," he laughs. "Art is expensive." And time-consuming.