Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change
8ème Biennale de Sharjah, 2007
Biennale de Sharjah
April 4–June 4, 2007
The Sharjah Biennial continues to exist as a critical aporia of sorts. Much has changed in the UAE’s contemporary art scene since the event’s impressive seventh edition in 2005. A frenzied, unabashedly commercial market has emerged out of nowhere in neighboring development-mad Dubai, while Abu Dhabi’s ambitious Saadiyat Island project has embraced “art as cultural tourism” with such reckless abandon, it has ruffled feathers as far away as France (the French, of course, know absolutely nothing about building a tourist economy around art and culture). Such high-profile initiatives have drawn much criticism from an occasionally condescending Western media, which has unfairly overshadowed Sharjah’s commitment to creating both infrastructure and space for a critical contemporary art practice in the region; it appears that guilt by association has replaced relative obscurity as the biennial’s main hurdle to recognition.
The chosen themes of the current and previous editions (“belonging” was one past theme) evince self-examination and reflection about the role of the biennial as an institution deeply implicated in the problematic economic, political, cultural, and developmental processes of globalization itself. In addition, tempered by concerns about censorship, these themes have afforded opportunities to obliquely critique the biennial’s specific site. This obliqueness has encouraged curatorial creativity and artistic ingenuity and modesty, ensuring the kind of measured balance between poetics and politics that can provide for the most interesting art.
Recognizing the impossibility of an ecologically sound biennial, this edition’s organizers presented their exhibition as a platform through which issues of environment, ecology, and sustainable living could be raised and debated. Deploying its reported three-million-dollar budget to commission fifty-three new projects, the biennial encouraged an ecological rather than object-based practice, asking artists to respond specifically to and interact with Sharjah’s environment and inhabitants. A number of public projects throughout the city explored the limits of art’s own ecology by engaging local audiences outside the white boxes that are the Sharjah Art Museum and Expo Centre.