Feeling out of place, I found myself marching through the streets of Sharjah with hundreds of others—artists, curators, critics and students—who had come for the opening weekend of the ambitious biennial in this tiny emirate bordering Dubai. We were being led by Congolese artist Papy Ebotani and three of his compatriots. The group periodically stopped at intersections to pose in their crisp suits, showing off the brand labels and still-attached price tags. Titled Fanfare funérailles (Funeral Brass), the performance took on aspects of a memorial (though for whom or what remained unclear), a fashion show, a carnival parade and a street protest.
Having reached a plaza near one of the biennial’s low-slung venues clustered in Sharjah’s historic district, the performers took turns speaking in French, passionately expressing uncertainty about the very action they had just initiated. One of them became so heated that he had to be carried away from the microphone, still gesticulating and shouting questions about the purpose of the procession. They had organized a demonstration, but what exactly had been shown, and to whom?
The rally crystallized themes and anxieties evident throughout this biennial, organized by Eungie Joo, former program director of the Instituto Inhotim in Brumadinho, Brazil, along with Ryan Inouye, former assistant curator at New York’s New Museum. A desire to express political awareness is evident among the show’s 55 artists and collectives, as it is in most international biennials. But, like Ebotani’s march, many of the strongest projects also reflect the limits of culture in the face of power.
Sky Blue Flag (2015), by American artist Byron Kim, may be a fitting emblem for the entire biennial. Waving on a pole along Sharjah’s main riverside promenade, the monochromatic banner blends into its surroundings and suggests a Zen-like negation of political affiliations. Taking a similar tone, Lebanese filmmaker Ahmad Ghossein’s The Fourth Stage (2015) interweaves melancholy reflections on his childhood job as a traveling magician’s assistant with detailed cinematic studies of the war monuments—masses of melted weaponry surrounded by futuristic concrete forms—that dot the landscape of southern Lebanon. The aging magician’s modest tricks seem more honest than the ambiguous memorials, which commemorate an ultimately unknowable past.
A gallery at the far end of the Sharjah Art Museum, one of the biennial venues, features a group of 1970s relief paintings that project political certainty and therefore stand out from the rest of the show. Made by Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara, once an active member of the P.L.O., these sawdust and pigment compositions depict scenes from the Palestinian resistance and advocate armed struggle by anticolonialists around the world. The works belong to a moment that feels long past, when radicals could act as artists and vice versa, all in the unified service of a cause.
A cool examination of the rhetoric of such moments unfolds in Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s video installation The Incidental Insurgents (Parts 1-3), 2012-15. Displayed in several galleries of the Bait Al Serkal, a traditional palace built around a courtyard, projections on multiple screens follow two men driving around the West Bank. Flashed in English and Arabic, texts from an array of historical sources equate artists and poets with bandits, outlaws and revolutionaries. The wandering protagonists dream of a poetry that “brings back into play all the unsettled debts of history”—as one Situationist slogan has it—even as the pair confronts stark facts on the ground, such as the security wall that separates Israel from Palestine.
The biennial’s title, “The past, the present, the possible,” is a catchall that nonetheless harbors some complexity. The show offers an almost utopian notion of artistic possibility, best exemplified by Adrián Villar Rojas’s Planetarium (2015). The Argentine artist took over an abandoned ice factory in a coastal enclave some two hours from central Sharjah. Working with a team of nine craftsmen, Rojas transformed the structure into a vast artwork: the interior became a gallery for dozens of multicolored pillars made of layers of construction materials and living matter. Outside, a series of earthwork berms appear like fortifications for the newly vibrant site.
Yet this expansive vision for art is balanced by a more constrained notion of “the possible” as a process of eking out spaces for expression within existing limits. Hassan Khan presents a group of related works in a former fast-food restaurant known as the Flying Saucer for its “Jetsons”-type architecture. Almost everything Khan added to the site amplified its playful feel. Window tints in bright colors produce a kaleidoscope effect, animating an interior space that also includes two rainbow-colored minimalistic sculptures and a wall painted in a yellow gradient. A black-and-white video plays on a linked array of monitors. Part Abbott and Costello, part Vladimir and Estragon, the film’s two actors mimic classic comedic tropes from the artist’s native Egypt, while arguing over who owns a wooden prop called a “slapper.” For the exterior of the building, Khan commissioned two billboards depicting cartoon characters speaking opaque phrases in Arabic, Urdu and English. Rather than transform the site, Khan let its eccentricity guide his own contributions.
A hallmark of the Sharjah Biennial is its large number of site-specific projects. Artists’ responses to the particularities of the emirate took various forms, from Haegue Yang’s installation employing coral brick and other local building materials to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s figurative paintings of women of African descent caught in the harsh light of the Arabian Gulf. The care that many contributors took to understand the particularities of Sharjah underscores the failure of a lackadaisical film by Brooklyn-based duo Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri. The superficial documentary-style work casts the artists as moral authorities on everything from immigrant labor in the Gulf to the Armenian genocide to the gentrification of Williamsburg.
Still, the possibility of failure may be what makes this biennial significant in the region. It’s hard to imagine anything less than a vetted masterpiece being presented at the international cultural behemoths currently under construction in Abu Dhabi. There, art is presented as a luxury amenity. The modestly scaled Sharjah Biennial, by contrast, makes a powerful case for artwork as a mode of critical inquiry.