Conceptual courtyards

lifestyle April 22, 2013 00:00

By Shinji Inoue
The Yomiuri Shim

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The Sharjah Biennial brings contemporary art to the Persian Gulf

An international contemporary-art exhibition in the Middle East is bringing together artists from all over the world. Curated by Yuko Hasegawa from the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Sharjah Biennial 11 features more than 100 artists and groups from the Middle East, Asia, North Africa, Latin America and other regions.

Held every two years, the exhibition opened on March 13 at the Heritage Area and will run through May 13. The venue, which faces the Persian Gulf, is home to many Islamic buildings and a new section was recently built in the traditional style. Part of Bank Street, which runs through the district, will also serve as an exhibition venue.
Hasegawa, the exhibition’s first Japanese curator, picked “courtyard” as the basic concept behind the event. “I meant it to serve two different roles – as an actual place and as a metaphorical place to exchange awareness of different cultures. Participants interpreted my concept in their own ways. I’m happy with how it turned out.”
While travelling around the courtyards in a maze-like exhibition venue, I noticed there was no clear border separating the “inside” and “outside” of the exhibited pieces.
Among the exhibits by Japanese artists, there was a piece that resembled a small teahouse created by Seigen Ono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shiro Takatani. Soft music wafted around the teahouse as one of Takatani’s devices was seen spraying mist in the courtyard through a large glass panel in the exhibition hall, creating a serene, mysterious atmosphere.
Meanwhile, up-and-coming artist Fumito Urabe created a work in which a fleet of small sailboats made of driftwood and cloth were hung from the ceiling. Urabe says he began work on the piece following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. His paintings of seascapes and other landscapes are displayed near the boats to add a poetic touch. Urabe won the Sharjah Biennial 11 Prize for the work.
Algerian artist Amina Menia’s exhibit features a monument built out of photos, documents and other materials, referencing the way a monument built under French colonial rule was enclosed in a “sarcophagus” following Algeria’s independence.
Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdallah’s exhibit features a dilapidated car. To draw attention to her country’s ban on women driving cars, it’s pink.
Works that highlight the city’s urban planning were also a noteworthy attraction at the event. According to Hoor Al-Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, which hosts the event, the exhibition has changed along with the cityscape and local life, among other factors.
Superflex, a group of Danish artists, installed colourful playground equipment and benches along a section of the central divider on Bank Street. Many families took their children there to enjoy the cool evening breeze, transforming the area into a temporary park.
I also saw Michihiro Shimabuku selling ice cream on a shore that can be reached by abra, a small ferry. In this way, he created a place for communication.
Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architectural duo Sanaa (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) created a cluster of transparent globes, which gave visitors a relaxing alternative to the traditional landscapes in and around the event venue.
I recognised the same effect at a large outdoor piece by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, who created a dome-like frame draped with netted ropes.
The Sharjah Art Museum displayed Islamic calligraphy alongside the works of Japanese calligrapher Yuichi Inoue, amazing me with the surprising closeness between our two cultures.