The First Sharjah Architecture Triennial: Can Art Be an Applied Science?

Working with traditional ‘technologies’, artists show how the past might hold answers for the future

Al-Qasimiyah School, Sharjah, 2019. Courtesy: Sharjah Architecture Triennial

In his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that when it comes to achieving progress, ‘the difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.’ For both the good and the bad, this sentiment rippled throughout ‘Rights of Future Generations,’ the inaugural Sharjah Architecture Triennial. According to its curator, Adrian Lahoud, this edition is committed to ‘radically rethinking fundamental questions about architecture,’ which here seems to partly involve an inquiry into what is lost when financial capital dictates design. Reflecting an ethos of adaptive reuse, the new institution, led by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, has been set up in the Al-Qasimiyah School, a former state elementary school complex.

Cooking Sections, Becoming Xerophile, 2019, installation view. Commissioned for ‘Rights of Future Generations’, inaugural edition of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. Courtesy: Antoine Espinasseau

The site, one of the primary venues of this edition, is host to Becoming Xerophile (2019), a collaborative project between the artist duo Cooking Sections and the engineering firm AKT II, which transformed the compound’s front yard into an apparatus that produces microclimates for desert fauna to flourish in. The project’s title, a neologism created by combining the Greek words for ‘dry’ and ‘love,’ shifts away from contemporary landscape design, and its use of energy-intensive irrigation, in favour of native plant species and ancient watering methods. Xenophile adopts the sci-fi aesthetic of dusty lunar outposts by recuperating rubble from the school’s renovation into inhabitable earthwork mounds and amphitheatre-like spaces that trap moisture from the air.

The exhibition’s other main venue, Al Jubail Souq Fruit & Vegetable Market, hosts Priests and Programmers (2019), a series of installations ranging from films, archival documents, music, models and interactive displays that trace the history of Bali’s Subak rice farming heritage. This infrastructural network, active since the 9th century, spans countless rice terraces managed by priests from water temples. While the research-heavy presentations touch on many aspects of this culture, the cumulative effect is to suggest that these religious rites serve not only as metaphysical practices, but also management systems that enable sustainable farming.

Adam Jasper with Li Tavor, Alessandro Bosshard, Matthew van der Ploeg, Max Kriegleder, Vivian Wang, Dewa Alit, Vibeke Sorensen and U5, Priests and Programmers, 2019, installation view. Commissioned for ‘Rights of Future Generations’, inaugural edition of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. Courtesy: Antoine Espinasseau

Ritual ‘technologies’ were also on display in the ‘awakening ceremony’ that inaugurated Ngurrara Canvas II (1997), a vibrant 8 × 10-metre painting made by activist-artists whose ancestors traditionally occupied the region known today as Great Sandy Desert in Australia. (Ngurrara means ‘country’ in the indigenous Walmadjari language.) Resembling a kind of hypnotic aerial photograph, the canvas is inundated with undulating swirls of colour forming contour-like lines that chart sacred waterholes and soaks across the desert. This iconography, an alternative system to the European cartography that aided colonization, was entered in support of an official native land title claim. Considered a tool by its makers, the canvas could be seen as a retort to considerations of art for art’s sake, just as Priests and Programmers undermines the idea of ritual for ritual’s sake. With these considerations in mind, the curators appear to be making a necessary, if somewhat sweeping, claim for artistic and spiritual practices to be understood as a form of applied science.

Ngurrara Canvas II Awakening Ceremony, 2019, performance documentation. ‘Rights of Future Generations’,  inaugural edition of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. Courtesy: Sharjah Architecture Triennial

Ngurrara Canvas II Awakening Ceremony, 2019, performance documentation. ‘Rights of Future Generations’,  inaugural edition of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. Courtesy: Sharjah Architecture Triennial

The Triennial’s events programme also reflects this synergistic view of advocacy as both descriptive and proscriptive. A series of policy workshops assembled global leaders, including the former President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, to draft a ‘Sharjah Charter’ on the ‘Rights of Future Generations’. While their positions primarily voiced concerns about climate change and the inequities of globalisation, the addition of a controversial AIDS denialist, Thabo Mbeki, cast a disconcerting pall over the whole endeavour.  

As the President of South Africa, Mbeki’s government recommended the use of strong garlic and beetroot as a treatment for AIDS preferable to anti-retroviral drugs. Several studies, including one from the Harvard School of Public Health, claim that this policy resulted in over 330,000 premature deaths and the infection of 35,000 infants, after their mothers were unable to obtain access to preventative medicine. Mbeki secretly authored and circulated a paper stating that the scientific link between HIV and AIDS was predicated on ‘centuries-old white racist beliefs and concepts about Africans.’ Although Mbeki has tried to spin his words and deeds, historical scapegoats shouldn’t give him license to escape accountability. 

Nidhi Mahajan, Silences and Spectres of the Indian Ocean, 2019, installation view. Commissioned for ‘Rights of Future Generations’, inaugural edition of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. Courtesy: Antoine Espinasseau

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s lecture-performance Once Removed (2019), meanwhile, offered a stark contrast, imagining how the dead might give testimony. Hamdan told the story of Bassel Abi Chahine, a 31-year-old historian of the Lebanese Civil War who believes he is a reincarnated child solider from that conflict. Specious as this may sound, current advancements in epigenetic research have shown that life trauma can actually affect the gene expression of one’s offspring. Likewise, culture is itself a kind of gene, passed on to future generations. While the Triennial claims to be forward-looking, it is most impactful when it reflects on the past.

The inaugural Sharjah Architecture Triennial continues at various locations around Sharjah, UAE, through 8 February 2020.

Adam Kleinman is a writer and curator based in New York, USA.

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