Sharjah Biennial 2017: Tamawuj

A seed was planted in Piraeus two millennia ago and germinates near Rub’ al Khali, the empty quarter of the Arabian Desert. The Greek philosopher Plato illustrated how the parameters of one’s reality are drawn by sensory knowledge, using a simple metaphor of prisoners trapped in a cave. Having seen only moving shadows of passersby or puppets in its shadows, the cave’s inhabitants accept this as the totality of reality—they’ve witnessed nothing else. Once they are exposed to sunlight, their eyes adapt and take in everything in front of them; the universe expands. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave opens Tamawuj, the eponymous online publication for the 13th Sharjah Biennial. Offered less as historical context than as an omen of our looming global collapse, Plato’s fable has found fertile ground many generations later, at the other end of the Incense Route.

Plato’s Allegory distends in its moral weight when manifested in the inverse; Saydnaya (the missing 19 db), 2017, is Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s representation of the Syrian city’s torture prison (still in operation) rendered using an “earwitness account” given by the few who had ever been released. A small, darkened theater held the faint, floating soundwaves of the former prisoners’ whispers, hanging heavily in the air. Detainees had to stay kneeling, facing the wall, in silence; speaking was a capital offense, so they cultivated hypersensitive hearing and listened to guards’ movements to form an unseen estimate of the architecture of the prison. Sparrows were the sole independent observers of this regime, and though starved themselves, prisoners would leave morsels out to tempt them to visit, using their reaction to approaching wards as a kind of alarm system. In an introductory lecture-performance presented during the annual March Meeting summit, which this year doubled as the biennial’s opening program, Abu Ham dan described the sparrows as a tool of countersurveillance. Diminishing one’s elements of reality and sensory intelligence is a form of torture; the proverbial eclipsed cave of deceipt is only remedied by the truth of sunlight. It’s a parable to keep in mind today, in our age of energetic truth fabrication and multiplicitous reality assemblage.

Tamawuj is the Arabic concept of undulating waves refusing to take a stable form. The biennial, curated by Christine Tohme, founder of Ashkal Alwan—the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts—is also anchored by the core themes of the exhibition: water, earth, crops, and culinary pursuits. This environmental framework conceptually extends to the natural conclusion of a harvest—what is left, and what we carry back home, whether nostalgia, knowledge, or trauma. In Palestinian artist Ali Jabri’s line of diorama boxes (Untitled, 1989–92), delicate, collaged, scraps of newspaper photographs an headlines capture the Arab world’s era of accelerated nation- and identity-building in the mid-20th century. In collecting these clippings Jabri is able to distance himself by taking on the role of archeologist in addition to that of citizen. A dialogue between Ibn Sina and Al Beruni—two of the preeminent voices during the Islamic Golden Age (8th to 13th centuries)—performed by members of Raqs Media Collective, reveals the duo’s ideals and suspicions about the universe, while relaying their perception of their difference in age: “I had 27 autumns to my name, and you had lit the flames of nowruz, the new day of spring, merely, what, 18 times?”

The earth and its yield are tools for progress in philosophy and human history—nature is not neutral. Hind Mezaina documents the revision of her native Dubai’s ecological heritage with a series of indigo cyanotype prints of a sampling of alien plants from the sharply demarcated, unnaturally green plots that are a result of the city’s careful and ambitious urban planning. Offering oases yet restricting their access, fields are often planted in a roundabout as a traffic buffer or as central lanes of boulevards, making them highly regulated against actual public uses, such as taking naps and hosting picnics. The wall-sized collage of deeply saturated prints is accompanied by a text by the architect Todd Reisz, who recounts Dubai’s many iterations of city plans.

Khalil Rabah’s Palestine after Palestine: New sites for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind Departments, 2017, presents the history and wealth of the contested state of Palestine using the visual language of the art museum, composing a cohesive, impossible yet imperative narrative of the disputed land. There are crops of healing as well: Tonico Lemos Auad grows medicinal herbs as an instrument of care, creating a tranquil garden growing out of hexagonal cutouts in the ground of the foundation’s Heritage Area. Basim Magdy’s film No Shooting Stars, 2016, a diary of pastel-hued moving images of open oceans, desolate land formations, bombed-out buildings—uneasily tracing the very edges of habitation and community—muses in its subtitle, “international waters became my eternal salvation.” If land and water are our challenges, our leverage, our privileges, they may be our redemption too.

Modern Painters, June/July 2017

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