Out of the Echo Chamber and into the Noise: Sharjah Biennial 14

This year’s biennial amplifies previously silenced voices, but the results are discordant

The snake lives a double-life, its lithe body encasing twin souls. The first is forged from sin, while the second, harder to discern, speaks of repair, protection, rebirth. The ouroboros, emblem of renewal, clamps its jaws on its tail; the twin snakes of the caduceus, clutched in the hands of Hermes, interlock in solidarity. In the Book of Numbers, Moses lifts a bronze serpent to deter the hordes of flaming seraphim.

Pamela Rosenkranz’s Healer (2019) carries a similar connotation and colour, its glinting, serpentine body coiling S-marks in the sands of Bait Al Serkal, one of the central venues of Sharjah Biennial 14. The work, a bio-robotic snake jittering at the whim of an algorithm, seems an appropriate totem for a biennial that advocates for another ouroborean renewal, of sorts. Titled ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’ and curated by Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons, the exhibition calls for a re-evaluation of our contemporary condition – or, to follow their co-devised metaphor, the plush furnishings of our ‘chamber’, one that was constructed in the west through political exclusion, colonial subjugation and enforced silence.

Kidlat Tahimik, Ang Ma-bagyong Sabungan ng 2 Bathala ng Hangin, A Stormy Clash Between 2 Goddesses of the Winds (WW III –the Protracted Kultur War), 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation

Kidlat Tahimik, Ang Ma-bagyong Sabungan ng 2 Bathala ng Hangin, A Stormy Clash Between 2 Goddesses of the Winds (WW III –the Protracted Kultur War), 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation

This is not a proposal for radical demolition, per se, but a re-examination of the chamber’s entrance policy. Responding in kind, many of the 81 included artists and collectives strive to reanimate the various historical narratives that have been concealed or consumed or broken to pieces by the devouring ideologies of expansionism. But they do so with a didacticism that numbs. Khadim Ali’s ‘Flowers of Evil’ (2019), for example, installed at the Sharjah Art Museum, is a collection of formal tapestries and paintings upon which Afghani customs intermingle with blunt cyphers for the occupying west. (Think armed soldiers in a pastoral scene, or Donald Trump in a gilded frame.) Wael Shawky’s work-on-paper series ‘The Gulf Project Camp’ (2019) tells a semi-fictional modern history of the Arabian Peninsula, in which the toxic influence of American and British oil companies, foreign tourism and military control is underscored. Kidlat Tahimik’s Ang Ma-bagyong Sabungan ng 2 Bathala ng Hangin, A Stormy Clash Between 2 Goddesses of the Winds (WW III – the Protracted Kultur War) (2019), an immersive environment-cum-battleground, tackles Hollywood’s taste for indigenous narratives: a wooden flag of Marilyn Monroe soars; fishing boats career into a missile; the cresting arc of carved icons denotes a ‘tsunami-wave of all things American’. But as with so many blockbusters, once the excitement stems, all we are left with is a one-track storyline and second-rate closing scene.

Others ventriloquize lost voices with greater delicacy. Phan Thào Nguyên’s three-channel projection Mute Grain (2019), one of the biennial’s stand-outs, revisits the Vietnamese Famine of 1945, which occurred in French Indochina at the time of Japanese occupation (1940-45) and claimed the lives of over two million people. The film tells the story of two siblings: Tám, a young ghost, incapable of passing to the next life, and Ba, who scours the living realm for his sister. Elusive, poignant, loving: the work is a séance, perhaps, an incantation or a death poem. Whatever it is, it whispers, as does Lee Mingwei’s The Letter Writing Project (1998/2019), installed at Al Hamriyah Studios, which invites viewers to compose letters to loved ones deceased or distant. Those who are gone are not lost, after all, but lingering in the dusty recesses of the present. On the opening weekend, Neo Muyanga brushed down the memory of singer and apartheid activist Miriam Makeba. As records looped and warped within the domestic installation house of MAKEdbA (2019), a laptop drew forth a grainy monologue, spoken by Makeba, which aligned horrors past and ever-present: ‘You don’t know anything about any place until the white man gets there’.

Mohau Modisakeng, Land of Zanj, 2019, processional performance with Thembekile Komani and Aphiwe Mpahleni Mohau Modisakeng. Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation

Muyanga’s recital amounted to little more than a tribute, and performance is a problem across the board. Tancons’ curated section, ‘Look for Me All Around You’, predominantly deals with ‘site activation’, ‘choreographed work’ and performance proper (I am told that these three are distinct), much of which prioritises spectacle over substance. Mohau Modisakeng’s Land of Zanj (2019), a durational performance staged at Kalba Ice Factory on Sharjah’s east coast, addresses the history of migration and trade between the Arabian Peninsula and the Swahili Coast in southeast Africa. Symbolism, here, is anything but subtle: a cast of over 20 dancers, cloaked in black, journey along a coastline: they start, stop, fall; they board a boat, fall from a boat, mourn. The sheer legibility of this tragic history is excused, momentarily, by the sight of a large, dramatically-costumed cast moving in slow synchronicity, but as narrative fails to develop across an extended, two-act run, the spectacle reveals itself to be little but a veil for a lack of meaningful content.

The same criticism can be levelled at Ulrik López’s Pataki 1921 (2019), a choreographed reimagining of a chess game that was performed as a ballet before the 1966 World Chess Olympics in Havana, and Carlos Martiel’s critique of the pearl diving trade, Sabor a Lágrimas (2019), in which the artist hangs suspended from a roof while the audience are offered gold platters of Arabic sweets studded with, you guessed it, pearls. These performances are cinematic, dramatic, striking – but, in their collective prioritisation of the event over the subversion or stretching of their respective subjects, they amount to little but bad theatre: that which does not transform, but tells the same story in a different voice.

Marwan, Munif al Razzaz, 1965, oil on canvas, 130 × 89 cm. Courtesy: the artist’s estate & Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg / Beirut

‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’ is frantic, disjointed and diverse. While, intermittently, fragments of untold histories flare, the vast majority of the hosted narratives are quickly lost to disarray. (A predictable upshot, perhaps, of the decision to appoint three co-curators who each lay faith in the sheer unpredictability of new commissions.) A rare moment of quietude comes in the northern wing of the Sharjah Art Museum, where Kholeif has assembled an elegant collection of paintings from the likes of Semiha Berksoy, Huguette Caland, Marwan and Lubaina Himid. Diffuse bodies, wayward marks and internal fears made visible. These are meditative, often shadowy works that, while archival and while oblique, drift across terrains tested elsewhere in the biennial to lesser degrees of success. We have fracture, of both society and self; we have contortion, confusion, calm; we have that which is forgotten and might be reclaimed. There is no didacticism here, nor are there dramatics. What there is, is a space between the work and the world in which to move.

If we are to ‘leave the echo chamber’, we will surely be deafened by the racket. If the intention of Sharjah Biennial 14 is to make the existence of this white noise known, then the momentary exposure will go down as a success, of sorts. There is merit in raising awareness alone. But, barraged by so many stories from so many timelines and tongues and temperatures, inaudibility remains a problem – the cacophony is as deafening as the echoes were before. If we are to converse with those beyond our walls, we will need a way of filtering the noise. To hear is not to listen; to acknowledge is not to act.

The 14th Sharjah Biennial, ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’ runs at Sharjah Art Foundation until 10 June 2019.

Main image: Ulrik López, Patakí 1921, 2019, performance with Karime León Barreiro, La Trinchera, Sara Cruz and Rafael Maya Ulrik López. Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation; photograph: Bait Obaid Al Shamsi

Harry Thorne is associate editor of frieze and a contributing editor of The White Review. He is based in Berlin, Germany.

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