It is difficult not to be impressed. Within the 10-minute walk from the Sharjah Art Museum to the Heritage area you will pass through a tube that makes the world spin, sit on a swing in a darkened room full of mirrors, traverse tarmac sand dunes, rest on a Pakistani bench and enter into a fog garden. If you wander a little farther, you can even taste salt and pepper ice cream.
This is the Sharjah Biennial, which, every two years, through the installation of temporary art in public areas and a variety of community programmes, attempts to engage people from all segments of society in conversation about art over a two-month period.
"There are so many sides to the community in Sharjah and we are not selective," says Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the founder and president of the Sharjah Art Foundation that hosts the event. "It is vital to have the works outside and free to access. People who aren't necessarily museum goers still interact with the work."
Every other spring, artists gather in the emirate to contribute work under a new theme. With more than 100 artists, 30 venues (not including the outside spaces) and almost three months of installation time needed, planning and preparation for each biennial begins at the start of the last. So now, Sheikha Hoor and her team are already looking ahead to 2015. However, when the event begins tomorrow, all eyes will be firmly on the present and, according to Yuko Hasegawa, this year's curator, they will be oriented towards a "global south".
Hasegawa is the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and a professor of art theory at Tama Art University in the Japanese capital. She has curated many international biennials and brings more than 30 years of experience to Sharjah. Nevertheless, she says, with this event she is trying something new.
"I have selected 80 per cent of my artists from the global south," she explains. "This is a term economists and media theorists are using to reference countries in Far-East Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Under modernisation by the West, these areas were disregarded for two centuries and their great and ancient cultures were forgotten. With Sharjah Biennial 11 [SB11], I am proposing a new cultural cartography."
This concept, summarised by Hasegawa and Sheikha Hoor in the title of the biennial - Re:emerge. Towards a New Cultural Cartography - is inspired by the courtyard in Islamic architecture and the courtyard gardens of the Far East.
The courtyard is used throughout the biennial as a metaphor, a place for meditation, knowledge-sharing and where people can meet. It is a private yet public place where artists can bring their own traditions but make a dialogue among each other. For this, Sharjah makes the perfect setting. The old buildings such as Bait Al Serkal (home to Thilo Frank's Infinite Rock) and Bait Al Shamsi (where the Emirati Zeinab Al Hashemi has constructed a three-by-four-metre fishing trap as an ode to a bygone era) maximise the use of the courtyards. The exhibition infiltrates all corners of Sharjah's central historic area; with the foundation even delaying the demolition of the old Sharjah Islamic Bank on Bank Street so it could be used as a temporary space.
Also, within the heritage area, five new, stunning contemporary spaces will be inaugurated. Within 20,000 square feet of new space, sculptures from Liu Wei, an emerging talent from China, a seating area by the Indian architectural firm Studio Mumbai and the fog garden from the Japanese artist Shiro Takatani will take pride of place among countless other works.
"This is a very exciting moment for me, because I see myself like a composer who brings everything together in a harmonious way," says Hasegawa. "I am lucky to have these new spaces to express the true capacity of the artists' works."
The spaces, designed by Mona El Mousfi, epitomise what the Sharjah Biennial is all about. They are large, impressive and magnificently understated; in fact, unless you knew they were there, you could walk right past and not notice them. They meld fluidly with their surroundings but at the same time they are very contemporary, with clean-lined whitewashed walls giving way to air-conditioned and light-bathed spaces.
"For us, the biennial is not about tourism, making money or being flamboyant," says Sheikha Hoor. "It is about supporting the seriousness of the art."
And what better philosophy to couch Hasegawa's strong and poignant statement? "Global art history was written by western minds and now we all see through their eyes," concludes the petite Japanese as she trots around various sites, putting finishing touches on her 24-month long creation. "My statement is that much deeper and richer culture comes from the rest of the world and it is time to change the map. Here in the Middle East is the perfect place to do it from, because it is in the middle of everything and that is my point."
Sharjah Biennial 11 runs from March 13 until May 13. For more information, visit www.sharjahart.org
Sharjah Biennial is the biggest non-commercial art event in the UAE.
Founded in 1993, it takes place in the spring of every odd-numbered year.
More than 100 artists are exhibiting their work or performing in the two-month-long event.
The opening of SB11 will mark the inauguration of Sharjah Art Foundation's five new art spaces in the heritage area of the town.
Within the first week, The March Meetings will take place. This is an annual conference where art professionals gather to share ideas and expertise and form partnerships for future projects.
Rapidly becoming one of the most respected contemporary artists of the region, Mater explores the narratives and aesthetics of Islamic culture in an era of globalisation, consumerism and flux. He is a Saudi national, a trained medical doctor and a co-founder of the Edge of Arabia arts initiative. His Desert of Pharan series is an ongoing project that documents the rapid development of Islam’s holiest city, and takes its title from the ancient name of the region surrounding Mecca.
Mohamed Ali Fadlabi
Fadlabi is a Sudanese national who has lived in Norway for the past decade – and both cultures play into his work through irony and postcolonial theoretical discourse. In The Prediction Machine, a painting commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, Fadlabi references Ethiopian church paintings, African barber salon art, Sun Ra’s afrofuturism and music.
Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA
In 2010, Sejima was the first woman to curate the Venice Architecture Biennale and her architectural firm SANAA, which she cofounded with Nishizawa, won the Pritzker Prize that same year. The firm relies heavily on glass to open its spaces up to the world. The Sharjah Art Foundation commissioned a temporary pavilion in the emirate’s Calligraphy Square, consisting of transparent bubbles.
Through mixed media, Joreige explores Beirut, the Lebanese wars and their aftermath. The co-founder and co-director of the Beirut Art Center, a non-profit space, Joreige presents Under-Writing Beirut – Mathaf that focuses on the artist’s neighbourhood and the area home to the National Museum of Beirut, which was destroyed during the wars.
As the vice president of the Emirates Fine Arts Society, he is known for experimenting with and synthesising materials, whether physical objects or ideas. His work The Story Converter is an interactive project where visitors are invited to write something on cards they are unable to see.
On his first trip to Sharjah he said it reminded him of Okinawa in southern Japan. In a commissioned project, he invites the Biennial audience onto an abra, to meet workers from the Indian subcontinent and to purchase salt and pepper ice cream, which he says is a contemporary proverb and a metaphor for experience.
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