Upon completing one orbit through Al Hamriyah Studios, one of the venues of the Sharjah Biennial, Tamawuj, I almost wished that I had done it first with my eyes closed. The sensory experience of the installations is so rich that one could walk through once while focusing on the auditory experience, next on the visual experience, and only then combine them together, something akin to the way we close our eyes to isolate our palate when tasting something especially complex.
Indeed, several of the installations involve a degree of sensory deprivation. Tamawuj, curated by Christine Tohmé, is an Arabic word that has been translated most simply as 'wave', but the Sharjah Biennial correctly points out that "it is also a flowing, swelling, surging, fluctuation or a wavy undulating appearance outline or form."
Passing through the blackout curtain into the first installation at Al Hamriyah Studios, Rustle 2.0, by artist, Em'kal Eyongakpa, one is struck first by the swelling soundscape of the recordings taken in the rainforests of the Amazon and the Congo. The natural echoes are punctuated by harsh cracks of of chainsaws, a sobering reminder of the tenuous lifeline of those ecosystems.
After one’s pupils have dilated enough to see the bales of hay that double as stools, it’s then possible to sit and take in the dim central lights, two lung-like slabs on the hay-strewn floor that pulse slowly beneath an LED light that occasionally sends a wave through the darkness. Although it’s difficult to see the walls, we read (before entering) that they are “custom-built wall structures composed of plant fibres that are held together by biopolymers and mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus.” Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but the air felt cool and moist to me, as if I’d stepped into a rainforest. The transmutation of reality in this piece made it, in my opinion, one of the strongest of the works at Al Hamriyah Studios.
Many of the other works are video installations, meaning that one could spend hours in Al Hamriyah Studios to properly take in all of them in a sort of meditative tour. One video, commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, that draws you into a pleasantly catatonic state is Extended Sea, by Nesrine Khodr, in which the artist films herself for 12 hours swimming laps in a pool in Beirut. The pool is separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a cement wall, a membrane that is insignificant in its thickness compared to the bodies of water on either side, and yet powerful in the liminal space it creates.
In Lebanon, it’s easy to feel boxed in by the membranous borders that contain such vastly different worlds. Like Lebanon and Syria, a pool and a sea don’t seem so materially different at first glance, except when you consider that one is a protected haven for recreation or exercise, and the other has lately been a fatal last resort for many of its travelers, both besieged and adrift, seeking more hospitable shores. Yet, how easily the tide could rise over the concrete wall and the salty sea mix with the pristine chlorine. Khodr appears and disappears from either side of the frame in a calm, deliberate freestyle stroke, again and again, begging the thought of what would happen if the cement dissolved and she were to continue into the sea in one indefinite line.
If you've been meaning to experience the Sharjah Biennial, an excursion to Al Hamriyah Studios is a very worthwhile trip. The space, with its white right angles and diffuse natural light, is enough to justify the drive. Although the Sharjah Biennial's program will continue in Beirut, the exhibitions in Sharjah will come to a close on June 12, so don't miss the opportunity to venture into an unusual weekend of undulating through Tamawuj.
* Lola Boatwright is a guest blogger for The National. She lives in Dubai, where she is the managing director of Gulf Photo Plus.