Greetings from the Emirates, the land of mega shopping malls, seven stars hotels and architectural spectacle equipped with its own brand new World (a man-made archipelago of 300 islands laid out in a shape of a world map, where Israel and Palestine have been replaced with a clutch of celebrity islands). If God created world in six days, how long is it going to take the developers to complete The World using thousands of migrant workers living in labour camps and working 24/7? - I wonder.
One of the many curiosities of this country, such as an underwater hotel or a ski slope in the middle of the desert, is the contemporary art biennial held in the neighbouring with Dubai Emirate of Sharjah.
Its eight edition presented under the title "Still Life. Art, Ecology and The Politics of Change"—so conveniently broad, slick and generic that one could think it had been chosen by the publicist (Brunswick)—nevertheless featured a number of works standing out for being genuinely site-specific and created rigorously in response to the local context and the concept of art and ecology. These included newly commissioned pieces by Lara Almarcegui, Tue Greenfort, Dan Perjovschi and Peter Fend.
The biennial's spectacular set piece was Gustav Metzger's Stockholm, June (phase 1) , involving 120 cars simultaneously blowing combustion fumes into a large square plastic structure. It was staged in Sharjah for the first time ever, 35 years after Metzger presented its model on a conference in Stockholm.
As I later discovered, it wasn't the only performance staged at the show. During the opening I've meet a young and very attractive woman who was using one of museum rooms as her studio, producing cubist collages from recycled wood. She introduced herself to me as Donelle Woolford but her work was credited in the catalogue as Joe Scanlan. Intrigued, I did some googling and discovered that Woolford, a young African-American painter was in fact a fictional character created by artist Joe Scanlan as his female alter ego. But where was Joe? And who was that gorgeous woman playing the lead in his elaborated identity game? I have to admit that I got trapped and I'm still not entirely sure whether the person I've met was a hired performer, Donelle or perhaps Joe after a major plastic surgery.
On less anecdotic note, my favorite work in the show was a somber community-specific project by e-Xplo (comprising Rene Gabri, Heimo Lattner, and Erin McGonigle) and Ayreen Anastas unveiling the harsh reality behind Emirate's glamorous facades. Using recordings of migrant workers singing, the artist created a parcours of sound installations giving the voice to those deprived of any political rights despite the fact that they represent over 80% of local population. Following e-Xplo's instructions, I've spent almost an entire day walking around the city and wondering whether the Middle East will be finished on schedule.
8th Sharjah Biennial Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change Dates: 4 April - 4 June 2007 www.sharjahbiennial.org/en