The Sharjah Biennial, the high-profile international exhibition held every two years at the Sharjah Art Foundation, opens its doors today. Put together unusually by three separate curators, this year’s edition tackles the question of how social media and technology affect global politics.
The title “Beyond the Echo Chamber” unites the curators, who all (roughly) cover different regions: Zoe Butt, who is based in Vietnam; Claire Tancons, who looks at Afro-Caribbean work; and Omar Kholeif, whose specialism is in the Middle Eastern region. They also all have slightly different predilections in terms of work, from Butt’s emphasis on research-based practices to Kholeif’s more performative and technologically driven pieces.
Butt's selection gives this biennial, the 14th, its first in-depth presentation of Southeast Asian work. "I wanted to focus on histories that are often not circulating, whether in dominant history or in the art world," she explains.
“And to focus on how those interconnected histories rely on — and necessitate — the movement of people.”
Works in her programme by artists such as Meiro Koizumi, Ahmad Fuad Osman and Kidlat Tahimik explore the Malay world as a site of colonialism and empire — both Western and Japanese — as well as a current-day node within the geography of migrant labour.
Migration, generally an important topic in the cultural field of late, is a unifying thread with the other curator’s programmes. Tancons’s selection, for example, bridges the Gulf and the Americas.
A Caribbean by birth, she notes "the feel of the new world settlement of the Gulf is familiar to me," and the works she commissioned draw links in terms of migration, histories, and environmental facets between the Middle East and South America.
One abiding problem of thinking through biennials and other large group shows is toggling between the merits of the artworks themselves and their ability to support the theme of the curation.
An added wrinkle for this biennial might well be trying suss out which of the curators commissioned which work, in a kind of guess-the-curator parlour game.
But happily, much of the work leads itself to crossovers on a formal level. An interest in sonic vibrations in Tancon's programme in a work by the US artist Annie Dorsen, overlapped with the extraordinarily beautiful vocal installation by the Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga, in which Nkanga performs a story about a dying palm tree, with a choral crescendo that unfolds spatially around the work's courtyard site(this occupies Bait Al Aboudi: don't miss it).
"I worked on my own obsession with time and its warped acceleration," Kholeif says at the press conference, a sentiment he echoed later while standing amidst Nkanga's installation.
“Otobong’s work provides a space for experience, where you can need to spend time to feel and enjoy the work. The first time I heard the gospel, operatic score, I nearly cried.”
The biennial’s mix of off-site venues and performances and screenings, alongside the straight presentation of work in the Heritage Area, likewise underlines a temporal aspect to the “Echo Chamber” show, which seems already to be about much more than its title.
Hordes of international visitors are flying in for the opening festivities; if you're a UAE resident, you have no excuse not to swing by yourself.
The Sharjah Biennial: Leaving the Echo Chamber is at the Sharjah Art Foundation and other venues until June 10th.