Notions of Ecology

Sharjah Biennial 8 Review
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
April 4 – June 4, 2007
Originally printed in the July/ August 2007 issue of Afterimage
Posted: August 19, 2007

"Brick Sellers of Kabul (2006) by Lida AbdulThe oil in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has fueled rapid growth for its country. Theme malls, hotels, apartments, and businesses are being built at such a rapid rate that an estimated 15 to 25 percent of the world’s cranes are in Dubai, one of UAE’s seven emirates. Just over thirty years ago, most of the area was an empty desert and this rapid cultural and economic growth begs the questions, Is the United Arab Emirates building too fast? How is it dealing with issues of sustainability? Thus, it is not surprising that this year’s 8th Sharjah Biennial is entitled, “Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change.” The Biennial’s curators, Mohammad Kazem, Eva Scharrer, and Jonathan Watkins, with the assistance of Artistic Director Jack Persekian, have put together an eclectic show developed by Director Hoor Al Qasimi that brings together many different philosophies and ideologies by artists whose work addresses notions of ecology. Persekian states that he sees the role of the Sharjah Biennial team as “opening possibilities, providing the means, and establishing the platform for individuals and groups … to raise awareness of pressing ecological issues and sound the alarm.”(1) However, at the Biennial’s press conference, Persekian pointed out that this Biennial, “is not a place to go for answers but rather a place to raise questions.”(2) Nevertheless, the program went beyond the traditional notion that ecology deals solely with the physical environment.

A decentralized exhibition, the Biennial presents works by forty-two artists that span the emirate of Sharjah and fill the main venues: Sharjah Art Museum, Expo Center Sharjah, and Sharjah Heritage Area. From the poetic single-channel video installation by Alfredo Jaar that immerses the viewer in Angolan life and history (Maxim, 2005) to the floating utopian city project of Thomas Saraceno (Air-Port-City, 2007) to the hard-hitting documentary installation addressing the controversy of the Brazilian Chiquitano forest by Sergio Vega (Paradise on Fire, 2007), the Sharjah Biennial offers food for thought regarding contemporary culture. In order to help facilitate dialogue, the Biennial also presented a three-day symposium where artists, curators, architects, and contemporary thinkers discussed various aspects of ecology.

At the Expo Center Sharjah, the vast space was transformed from a room for convention attendees to buy and sell their wares into a sophisticated space to view large-scale works of art. Exhibition designer Mona El-Mousfy created a navigatable exhibition space that allows the work to be viewed from a number of different vantage points. From the catwalk allowing visitors a bird’s-eye view of the artwork to the video installation rooms where there were very few sound leaks, the exhibition space is well designed. El-Mousfy writes, “The exhibition’s spatial strategy takes shape through its performance. Visitors can establish their own route, and it is as they weave freely through the exhibition space that they tangibly perceive the fluid morphology of the scheme and discover at every turn a new layering of installations.”(3)

Entering the exhibition space, the viewer is first confronted with Mona Hatoum’s Hot Spot (2006). This large cage-like metal globe structure is tilted at the same axis as the earth with a red neon light outlining the contours of the continents and eliciting issues of global warming and political hotspots. To the left of Hatoum’s work is El Anatsui’s Wrinkle Of The Earth (2007), a large colorful tapestry made of copper wire and discarded liquor bottle tops. The piece appears to be an aesthetic charmer at first but contains a biting commentary regarding the negative impact of western influence on parts of Africa.

In an alcove is Annie Anawana Haloba’s Road Map (2007), an interactive sound installation where the crudely drawn sign at the entrance of the piece states, “Draw a road map to peace with your ‘tongue’ on the map surface.” As one enters the installation the silent room becomes filled with sounds of everyday life—telephones ring and people converse in the background. Salt laden table-like structures of cut-out maps of countries in the Middle East including Afghanistan and Pakistan are strategically placed throughout the space. Haloba uses salt because of its importance both physically and culturally—from its politically charged associations with Africa to its importance in the maintenance of one’s life. As the participant draws his hands through the salt, the rubbing of the surface is amplified multiple times as it is picked up by a microphone or one may hear such sampled sounds as footsteps, children playing, or an ambulance siren. The piece eloquently states that there is more to the Middle East than sounds of bombs and guns.

Roba Vecchia (The Wheel of Fortune, 2006), created by Lara Baladi, is a life-size kaleidoscope in which the participant becomes immersed in a psychedelic-like environment where rapidly yet systematically changing imagery engulfs the viewer. Even though children and adults love the work for its visual stimuli, it also presents an interesting metaphor on how one may construct and deconstruct memory from our complex histories.

However, not all the work is socially or politically motivated. Graham Gussin’s film Spill (2006) uses the ephemeral nature of fog to create breathtaking imagery. As the film begins, a quiet and meditative nightscape evolves in an overlooked scrubland. Fog begins to the fill the screen—drenching the sedate green landscape to create beautiful and fleeting imagery that seduces the eye. Just as the fog mysteriously enters the screen, it slowly vanishes into the night only to start again as the film loops to the beginning. Gussin writes, “I am interested in the way the dry ice both obscures and reveals in the way it is used … It is a hypnotic process yet threatening, acting a little like a narcotic.”(4)

At the Sharjah Art Museum, Lida Abdul’s hauntingly beautiful photographs and video installation engage the viewer to investigate the intention of the imagery. The meaning derived from the seemingly simple imagery in the installation, Brick Sellers of Kabul (2006), which portrays young boys lined up to sell bricks to a man in the middle of the desert, is quite poignant in regard to the current state of Afghanistan. In an email interview with this author, Abdul writes, “It’s hard not to see people buying and selling virtually everything. Nothing is wasted and yet everything is destroyed. The children are the most lively presence in Kabul amidst all the destruction. It’s almost as if the weight of history has escaped them and they can move forward almost playfully. This is not to suggest that there is no trauma there but I think children are much more emotionally and socially flexible and forgiving. The newness of the world makes it hard to maintain the desire for revenge which is what the adults are seething with.”(5)

Amal Kenawy’s disturbing video, You Will Be Killed (2006), explores the ecology of the self. Juxtaposing a crude yet effective drawing style with photography, this hybrid video animation presents disturbing surreal images of a woman’s face trapped within closed spatial elements. Throughout the piece, using stop-motion animation, decapitated and dismembered women are presented to further the idea of senseless violence. Kenawy references Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1485) to further the polarity of death and life. In an e-mail interview with the author, Kenawy writes, “using the [Birth of Venus] animation was expressing the maximum violence against the maximum beauty. Death against life. Devouring against creating.”(6) The irony that Kenawy’s video depicts is that through violence and death, life begins—such as the crude animation of the tree growing from a mutilated body. Kenawy writes, “To me, war is the easiest way to depict violence. However, my aim was to depict that violence in a circle of imagination far from war itself, and to show how it affects oneself and one’s surroundings.”(7)

Co-curator Scharrer writes in the Sharjah Biennial Catalog, “Contemporary art practice has become a continually expanding, interdisciplinary and multiple science-embracing field of activity, which is in itself as diverse and trans-disciplinary as the cultural understanding of the term ‘ecology’ [in its plural sense] has become during the past decades.”(8) The show incorporates the three ecologies—environmental, social, and mental—from such works as Kenawy’s internal ecological investigation to Tea Mäkipää’s 10 Commandments for the 21st Century (2007), a postcard that gives pointers on how to live a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle. At times overwhelming and disjointed, the Sharjah Biennial puts forth a noble effort to present an environment for contemplation and critical discourse regarding ecology in a time of such rapid growth in the UAE.

1. Jack Persekian, “Not Deliverance,” Sharjah Biennial 8 (exhibition catalog) (Sharjah, United Arab Emirates: Sharjah Biennial, 2007), 29.
2. Jack Persekian at the Sharjah Biennial press conference on April 3, 2007.
3. Mona El-Mousfy, “Exhibition Design,” Sharjah Biennial 8, 42.
4. Graham Gussin, Artist Statement, Sharjah Biennial 8, 162.
5. Author email interview with Lida Abdul on May 11, 2007
6. Author email interview with Amal Kenawy on May 10, 2007.
7. Amal Kenawy, Artist Statement, Sharjah Biennial 8, 182.
8. Eva Scharrer, “Global Warming Ready,” Sharjah Biennial 8, 35.