The subtext of the larger Sharjah Biennial 13 program is as much about the present and future of art institutions as it is about the art itself. Seeing the two as inextricable makes sense, and a very particular kind of sense within the region, where many of the leading institutions are relatively new, very much in flux these days (mostly for the worse). Many regional institutions have also been the facilitators, or even products of, particular kinds of art practice—photographic archive Arab Image Foundation, say, or the collaborative, discursively orientedAshkal Alwan (directed by Sharjah Biennial 13 curator Christine Tohmé). Appropriately then, the second panel of the opening-week program entitled “Desiring Institutions” kicked off the fourth day of Sharjah Biennial 13’s March Meeting, picking up the many threads left dangling by the first part on day one.
Moderator Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez introduced the idea that talking about institutions means fundamentally talking about people, and she first wondered aloud what it means to be cultural workers and artists at a time of heightened surveillance of indivduals and large-scale displacements of whole populations. Partially in response to her own question, she suggested that institutions need to create “ecologies of care” and radically open up their borders in acts of transparency, before asking the panelists to give some of their sources of inspiration for their own practices. Francis McKee of CCA Glasglow began by talking about the unlikely story of the CCA’s predecessor, the Third Eye Center, which was founded by reformed-junkie-turned-writer Tom McGrath who was inspired by Sri Chinmoy, a guru and Olympic weightlifter who insisted there was a vegetarian restaurant in the cultural space, and by the model of the Grateful Dead who gave away their music for free to “tapers,” thereby creating legions of loyal followers. McKee explained that CCA Glasglow’s approach has been to give away its space to more than 400 local organizations for all kinds of events and is itself home to 18 independent groups. Following on McKee’s themes, Brussels-based Laurence Rassel, the director of École de Recherche Graphique, spoke about “radical hospitality” and explained the mission of the nonprofit Constant (with which she was involved for a decade) to create “free software” that can be modified and distributed by its users, as a model for institutions themselves. Finally, journalist Lina Attalah, founder of the independent Egyptian online newspaperMada Masr, read a reflective text about the responsibility of witnessing and the journalistic responsible of making the world visible. In the Q&A session, the moderator from day one’s “Desiring Institutions” panel, Charles Esche, asked the panelists what they thought about the use of institutions and academies, as products of specific modern traditions. Petrešin-Bachelez replied that institutions are for subverting; for McKee, acknowledging institutions as imperfect means having to build on or around their foundations and histories. Rassel gave the example of a debate in Belgium about the fate of a colonial history museum and whether to preserve it or not, whether to erase the past or to acknowledge it. Attalah chimed in to say that individual curiosity is crucial in order to thwart institutional tendencies toward the “immanence of knowledge,” that is, searching to find what you already know. While I’m not sure that the question of whether or not to “desire” institutions—posed by Esche on day one—was fully addressed, the panelists in part two certainly proposed alternative models that already exist using more radical ideas of transparency and public engagement such that the whole idea of institutions can seem more desirable, if radically reconceived.
I spent more time at the Biennial in the afternoon and encountered works that answered certain concerns I had in the previous day about artists’ own relationship with the subjects they were raising. The one that resonated most deeply with me was İz Öztat and Fatma Belkis’s installation in the coral-walled Bait al-Hurma, where the two artists had constructed a curving pathway demarcated by dried palm fronds (areesh) lashed together with rope, creating tripod-like structures to suspend hand-printed textiles with Anatolian designs. Inside the enclosure was a large conical form lying on the floor, containing pieces of carob tied with red string. A bound text, made with hand-operated mimeograph machine, is the script to a radio play Who Carries the Water (also the title of the installation), whose “agents” include the river, a chorus of goats, trees, citizens, friends, birds, artists, poets, even concrete and a pipe and many others. An outgrowth of the artists’ own travels in the Dersim region (eastern central Turkey and the site of an infamous 1937 rebellion and then massacre of the local Alevi Zaza people) and conversations with local activists and residents, the narrative of the play relates to the residents’ ongoing struggle against the government, which is building hydroelectric dams in the region. The story is tied up with the Turkish state’s authoritarian lineage, its collusion with corporations building the dams, the environmental degradation the dams have caused, ideas of ecological feminism (as many of the activists are women), sustainable food and farming practices. And even more emotively than Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’s work in the Biennial, Forest Law (2014), at al-Hamriyah Studios, about the resistance of the Sarayaku people of the Andes against the exploitation of their lands, Öztat and Belkis’s work bridges ecological and political concerns with aesthetic ones. And, to the artists’ credit, their entire piece, was produced without using any electricity—from the type-written and then hand-copied texts to the hand-printed or dyed fabrics and hand-made structures on which they are shown. It was the work in the Biennial that addressed something I had felt was missing elsewhere—namely the bridge between ecological concerns and real-world human politics. Öztat and Belkis couched their interest in ecology in political terms, both discursively and in reality, without abandoning a metaphorical aesthetics in favor of documentary practices, as with Biemann and Tavares’s largely descriptive installation. The snaking pathway in the courtyard, for example, refers to the rivers being dammed, the conical shape of the sculpture inside to the cornucopia, the prints on the fabrics to the long Anatolian heritage of reverence to nature itself.
The works in spaces clustered around Calligraphy Square similarly offered a welcome internal coherence and dialogue. Jonathas de Andrade’s film O Peixe [The Fish] (2016) comprises a series of vignettes depicting fishermen in northeastern Brazil, where the São Francisco River meets the sea, hugging to their chests one of their catches and stroking it until its life is extinguished. Nida Sinnokrot’s film installation When Her Eyes Lifted (1998/99) features three large screens where a 16-mm film of a woman pulling down a large metal garage door is being protected. Its projector is a hand-rigged contraption that projects onto the screens simultaneously and advances the film rapidly in response to someone entering the room, and to the sound of walking in the space—the action of the woman, pulling a chain, mirroring the mechanism of the film project itself. Nearby is Ismaïl Bahri’s 45-minute video Revers (2016) showing two hands crumbling up a magazine page and then smoothing it out again, until the ink has been transferred to the hands and the image itself is a muddy mess in an act of transference and destruction. İnci Eviner’s animation Beuys Underground (2017) was one of the artist’s video tableaus depicting an underground city populated by small, absurdist, live-action figures enacting concepts (captioned with text bubbles) like “study of solidarity” or “dissemination of ideas” while predatory, bat-like figures patrol the polluted earth’s surface. Setareh Shahbazi’s installationAntedoom (2017) resembled an MRI chamber with a large set of owl eyes on the walls, embedded with video monitors playing distorted imagery culled from the news, and features an imagined dialogue (written by Mirene Arsanios) between a corpse and mortician, cumulatively probing what can and cannot be known about a person’s interior life.
This suggestion of violence and the body, and exploring the boundaries between the visible and the invisible, was made most dramatically clear in Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s installation Saydnaya (the missing 19db) (2017), a pitch-black room with a lone spotlight on an automated mixing board. A voice narrates the experience of prisoners from Syria’s most notorious prison, Saydnaya, where they were prohibited from making any noises lest they incur a likely fatal beating. This led the prisoners (largely escapees or those released before the 2011 uprising) to develop an acute sonic ability, which researchers at Amnesty International, with the Forensic Architecture program at Goldsmiths, including Hamdan, harnessed to recreate the interior architecture of the prison—a site that the Assad regime is using as a death camp to kill more than 17,000 people since 2011. In a lecture that afternoon Hamdan elaborated on these stories and the techniques of “echo profiling” devised by researchers to make this horrific estimate and to “see” inside this otherwise un-visitable, invisible location. At that point, I felt a long way from the Biennial’s keywords of water, crops, soil and culinary, but felt an emotional “flowing, swelling, surging or fluctuation” of the biennial’s title, “Tamawuj.” And perhaps inadvertently here was an institution that no one desires (well, except Assad and loyalists) being made brutally transparent.
HG Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.