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Sharjah Biennial 12: A March Through the City

04/08/2015 05:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

Papy Ebotani, Fanfare funérailles [Funeral brass], 2014-2015. Produced by Studios Kabako. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Alfredo Rubio.

The reedy, plaintive cry of the mizmar undulates through the air while hands beat drums with languorous rhythms. Ahead of the musicians, four men, impeccably dressed in high street fashion, lead the funeral procession with heads held high. But they don't walk in mournful solemnity. They strut. Every so often one will open his jacket, revealing the label, calling attention to the finery of his suit. Parading through the city thus, the people of Sharjah joined in, following the procession or watching from balconies, as the men wound their way through the streets, finally congregating in Calligraphy Square.

Uriel Barthélémi, Souls' Landscapes: The great mantle of night which has enveloped us...,2015. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Deema Shahin.

The performance, Fanfare funérailles (funeral brass), conceptualized and performed by the Congolese dancer and choreographer Papy Ebotani, and based on a text by young Congolese writer and choreographer Dorine Mokha, took place on March 6 as one of the opening events of the 12th Sharjah Biennial. The rituals of the funerary procession here provide a showcase for the rites of the adherents to a dandy-ish Congolese subculture known as les sapeurs, or Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), forming a kind of resistance, however fashionable, to the pain, grief, oppression, or impoverishment of daily life. Ebotani's performance incorporated traditional North African instrumentation and Congolese pop culture (the performers included rapper Shoggy Angoy, sapeur Lesasa Jocker and comedian Gaylor Yogolelo), the rites of death with the social rites of the living, and the residents of the city with the visitors to the Biennial, all taking place on the streets of Sharjah. As one UAE-based art critic described it, "With this brilliant performance, the Biennial came to the city and the city came to the Biennial. Visitors were suddenly part of the streets and residents were drawn for a moment into the art world."

Eduardo Navarro, XYZ, 2015. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Deema Shahin.

Eungie Joo, curator of the "Sharjah Biennial 12: The past, the present, the possible," set out to bring the Biennial into the city, with performances occupying the streets and site-specific installations inhabiting interstitial, iconic and derelict spaces of Sharjah. Henri Lefebvre's 1967 essay "The Right to the City" inspired the exhibition's title and curatorial premise, which looks to Sharjah as a city full of potential and possibility, "a city and emirate still in the process of imagining itself through education, culture, religion, heritage and science." Joo's Biennial spreads throughout Sharjah, investing new meanings and possibilities into an old city, where humans have been living for 125,000 years. "It is a city imagining a new city," said Joo.

Nikhil Chopra, Use Like Water, 2015. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Alfredo Rubio.

The human presence is strongly felt in this biennial, particularly during its opening days with a great number of performances taking place throughout the city incorporating music, singing, dance, and play. Argentinian artist Eduardo Navarro developed a game with local children, involving the manipulation of a massive blue ball, which was performed in a courtyard in Al Hamdan Bin Mousa Square. French composer and musician Uriel Barthélémi presented a striking three-part performance with a troupe of dancers, actors, and visual artists. And Faustin Linyekula, Congolese singer, dancer and leader of the Kisangani-based contemporary dance company Studios Kabako (of which Papy Ebotani is also a member), delivered Le Cargo, a highly personal solo performance comprising dance mixed with storytelling.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2015 (Eau de RRose of Damascus). Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Shanavas Jamaluddin.

Many of the artists invited to participate in the Biennial took up residence in Sharjah for extended periods of time, letting the environment prompt new commissions and site-specific interventions. Rirkrit Tiravanija constructed an elaborate rose garden within the courtyard of the Calligraphers' Studios, outfitting it with a rosewater distillery and kitchen, where visitors are invited to eat fragrant rosewater delicacies while relaxing atop ottomans in the lounge. Nikhil Chopra undertook a nine-day performance, entitled Use Like Water, beginning with one of his large-scale drawings at the Bait Obaid Al Shamsi, and ending with a transcendent performance as the artist, dressed in silver slippers and a white gauze-like garb illuminated from beneath by LED lights, glided from the interior of the studio and along the waterfront promenade at sunset to a rapt audience.

Taro Shinoda, Karesansui, 2015. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo, and the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Deema Shahin.

The sharp and arid landscape of Sharjah, between desert and sea, sun and shadow, provides impetus for two of the Biennial's most striking site-specific installations. In a courtyard of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Taro Shinoda has constructed a meditative karesansui, or Japanese rock garden, composed of white and black gravel framing an expanse of perfectly smooth, flat white sand. Two precisely carved depressions punctuate the plane of sand and a wooden platform offers viewers a sheltered space from which to contemplate the landscape. Nearby, Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle's installation, At the Risk of the Real, also hinges upon the element of desert sand, but here it is a dynamic material, rather than a silent object of meditation. Sand comes tumbling down over the heads of visitors, shaken through the mesh screens that make up an incomplete roof by the footsteps of workers on the simple wooden framework overhead.

Cinthia Marcelle, AT THE RISK OF THE REAL, 2015. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo, and the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Shanavas Jamaluddin.

The derelict roof is somewhat of a common sight in the spaces of the Sharjah Biennial: some of the interventions by Biennial artists are serving to christen once abandoned ruins to serve as new art spaces in the city and beyond. Hassan Khan has taken over the iconic yet vacant "Flying Saucer" building in Sharjah with a colorful installation inaugurating what will become a permanent exhibition space of the Sharjah Art Foundation. And Adrián Villar Rojas's installation, evoking the cycles of death, decomposition, and rebirth, takes place in the immense abandoned Kalba Ice Factory, located about a two-hour drive from Sharjah on the opposite end of the peninsula, another space acquired by the Foundation, designated for restoration, and destined for the production and presentation of further art works.

Hassan Khan, various works and intervention, 2014-2015. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris and the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Deema Shahin.

Sharjah Biennial 12, which continues until June 5, marks the most expansive edition to date, with locations spread throughout the city and into far-flung corners of the Emirate, and the Sharjah Art Foundation seems poised to continue its march further into this ancient and continually new city.

Adrián Villar Rojas, Planetarium, 2015. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy kurimanzutto, Mexico City; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; and the artist. Photo by Jörg Baumann © 2015 baumann fotografie frankfurt a.m.

--Natalie Hegert