Dubai/Sharjah/Abu Dhabi - Interviews

“Leaving the Echo Chamber”: Sharjah Biennial 14 Through the Eyes of the Curators

3 weeks ago

Curators Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons, who have collaboratively conceived the SB14 theme, present three distinct exhibitions bringing together a range of experiences and works—including major commissions, large-scale public installations, performances and film—to create a series of provocations about how one might re-negotiate the shape, form, and function of contemporary life’s “echo chamber”. Here they have shared with us their experience as curator of the biennial.

Carla Ingrasciotta: How are you each responding to the biennial’s theme “Leaving the Echo Chamber”? How have you interpreted this concept?

Claire Tancons: “Look for Me All Around You interprets the echo chamber less as a contemporary media concept and a metaphor for a feedback loop society as it attempts to chart perceptual and sensorial experiences that might manipulate or mitigate its effects. Whether life-streamed (Caline Aoun’s “Time Travel), sun-based (Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla’s “Specters of Noon or Hannah Black and Ebba Fransén Waldhör’s “Suntitled), intermodular (Jace Clayton’s 🌊🔊🤷🏽) or algorithmic, (Annie Dorsen’s “Infinite Sun), time-based works in “Look for Me All Around You variably engage with old and new digital and analogic formats and the entanglement thereof while others bring to emergence no less complex natural phenomena of perception such as the rainbow in Aline Baiana’s “Alliance for a Sunny World or The Rainbow Serpent Flows in Free Water & Janna Dam or The Second Murder of Adonis”) or the heliostats in Nikolaus Gansterer’s “Sympoeisis Observatory.) So that the notion of diasporization which can manifest as alternatively dispossessive or repossessive, although rooted in a specific reference which gave the platform its title (a sentence from a well-known speech by Marcus Garvey almost a century old), migrates from the political and the social to the conceptual and the aesthetic with untested artistic potency. In its very poetic expression, “Look for Me All Around You conjoins at once the traces of diaspora, the specters of surveillance, the distance between “ me” and “you”—a multiplicity of rebounds, returns and echoes.

Zoe Butt: Leaving the Echo Chamber” is both a statement and a question. It proposes that our dominant chamber of consciousness – a global-politic economically intertwined yet governmentally divisive – is often culturally stymied by traditional custom, insidiously lined with authoritarianism, popularly motivated by a culture of ‘like’, and blindly participating in an algorithmic world determining quantity for meaning. For me, it is the stories of artists (their artworks, their voices, their actions) that provide necessary alternate readings of humanity and its condition. Their artistic practices have opened my mind to the restrictions placed on the capacity and visibility of our echo due to the chamber in which it predominantly resides.

Omar Kholeif: Well we collectively devised the concept, so we’re not responding to it (which suggests that someone else has decided on that theme) but rather we are developing, nuancing, further evaluating what it means to consider a world that exists outside out of the homogenised political loop that is the Echo Chamber. What does it mean to exist outside of the bounds and confines of surveillance capitalism -the pervading state of consciousness of today. What does it mean to demand one’s own images, one’s own right to see through history – to make time for new ways of seeing. 

Carla Ingrasciotta: Could you briefly introduce your individual exhibition projects to be presented at the biennial?

Claire Tancons: “Look for Me All Around You is an attempt at charting a global history taking the Americas and the Emirates as seemingly distant yet surprisingly proximate coordinates taking modes of migration, development and labor as departure points to examine, experience and possibly affect processes of perception, cognition and reflection around other spatio-temporal coordinates of the contemporary.Look for Me All Around You is host to twenty-seven entirely newly commissioned works that evade visual prehension, resist stable physical materialization and embrace fluid perceptual modes—the aural, the ephemeral, the intangible—forming an open platform of migrant images and fugitive forms. Further, spanning the East and West coasts of the Arabian peninsular across two Emirates, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain, and two cities, Sharjah City and Kalba in myriad non-museological spaces,Look for Me All Around You attempts to contrast gallery-based and object-centered museological developments in the region, and offer instead more intangible means of perceiving and presenting an artistic experience.

Zoe Butt: “Journey Beyond the Arrow” argues that the way forward to increase the echo (the human rituals, language, cultural practices and beliefs) within the chamber of contemporary life is by acknowledging (thus not assuming) the cause and effect of human action – to not focus on the destination of the arrow but rather at the bow which launches its existence. Thus much of the art presented here encompasses artistic provocations of History, challenging its (written) context with interjections of lived experience, re-presenting fact as fiction (and fiction as fact), arguing (and thus celebrating) the necessary, innovative movement of mind and matter and method across the globe. 

Omar Kholeif:  “Making New Time” is one of the three constituent platforms of the 14th Sharjah Biennial and has been devised to question a number of things. 1) What is material culture and how do we relate to it today? 2) How is this material culture judged or justified in an age of heightened acceleration or speed? 3) Have societies burnt out under the current conditions of existence? 4) and how history structures and layers time – becomes a question! This last point made me start to consider sediments that slowly move and weave through time – works that deal with issues of reincarnation, political resistance, the body, mother/daughter relationships to name but a few examples. 

Carla Ingrasciotta:  How did you select the artists involved in the exhibition?

Claire Tancons:  My selection process is the outcome of both a long-standing interest in the work of artists whose development I have been following for years, and discoveries from travels and research at once guided and intuitive, motivated and free. I purposefully chose to work predominantly with artists with whom I didn’t have a prior relationship to start a fresh dialogue around what the intersection between their artistic practice, my curatorial practice, the context of the UAE and the space of Sharjah could produce, as discourse, experience, form. My interest in practices of performance and presence and the manifestation of essence, leading into the consideration of people, bodies and matter as agents, became at once informed and nuanced by conceptual practices operating according to non-linear time-based parameters.

Zoe Butt: “Journey Beyond the Arrow” was a rare opportunity for me to bring together artistic practices that have long pre-occupied my curatorial research (while also bringing new minds to the fore as a delightful consequence of research travel afforded by SB14). My passion for the re-writing and conceiving of what a ‘history’ can be has long been informed by the enquiries of artists, particularly across what I call the ‘globalizing souths’ (the peoples who endured colonial occupation), drawn to their commonalities, differences and contradictions. Many of the artists here have been of significant impact on my practice for quite some time, their storytelling a rich reserve of comparative information and methodology. So artists and artwork were selected largely based on a) engaging paradigms of (colonial) history that re-determines dominant (hegemonic) narrative; b) reveals the necessary movement of humanity and its positive and negative impact, historically; c) engages these subjects within media that demonstrates artistic and conceptual skill (often re-working traditional/disciplinary materials and techniques).

Omar Kholeif:  The idea in fact emerged from the art practices. I always begin my exhibitions and draw their themes by looking at the themes of the works of the artists who I think are making the most urgent work of our time. I then I decide on specific works based on how they dialogue and inter-relate with each other; how they create a layer cake of stories that weave through time and enrich the experience for the viewer. 

Carla Ingrasciotta: How does your idea create a dialogue with the other curatorial projects?

Claire Tancons:  The three projects in Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber intersect in ways natural and open, as they developed out of a common generational grounding in the post-colonial, with at once diverting and overlapping focuses on either or both performance and rituals, new media and the digital, the (non-)narrative and the (non-)representational. Predominantly time-based projects in “Look for Me All Around You set different clocks for “Making New Time while large non-representational and non-figurative segments of my platform offer contrasting aesthetic trajectories to “Journey Beyond the Arrow.

Zoe Butt:  Questions of time and its shaping of potential (as curated by Omar Kholeif) resonates for example, with my preoccupation with empathy and the need to give time in the shaping of human cause and effect with its embrace (evidenced in such work by Lee Mingwei, 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit and Nalini Malani); while the provocation of the senses as not privileging sight (as curated by Claire Tancons) resonates for example, with my preoccupation with music and the need to understand its history as critical reflections of social injustice and human migration (evidenced in such work by Mark Salvatus and Neo Muyanga).

Omar Kholeif: I see all of the works as being constituent elements of one greater whole -one macro narrative about Leaving the Echo Chamber – all three propositions are strongly bound by a political discourse that urges the viewer to look beyond the confines of the status quo, in order to discover new lines of sight. 

Carla Ingrasciotta: How has it been working together for the biennial? Was this your first experience in the UAE?

Claire Tancons: My first encounter with the UAE was with Sharjah. I started to engage with Sharjah back in 2013 when I was invited by Sharjah Art Foundation to visit Yoko Hasegawa’s Sharjah Biennial 11. I started to research the history of the region at that time and became specially interested in the possibility of a contemporary infrastructural reading of special zones in city state-like polities based on the (contested) history of pirate enclaves in the Arabian / Persian Gulf. This ongoing interest in what some have termed the piracy paradigm has continued to inform my current engagement with Sharjah and proposition for Sharjah Biennial 14 in ways both overt and covert.

Zoe Butt:  I’ve learned SO much from working with the Sharjah Art Foundation and I’m forever grateful for this chance to bring all these wonderful people and artwork together. The UAE is my first experience of working in the Middle East and I hope to have another chance to explore again soon. 

Omar Kholeif: The process was very independent, but we shared ideas, crossovers, layered interchanges. This wasn’t my first experience in working in the UAE. The UAE has long been a site of conversation and collaboration for me. I have served for the past couple of years as guest curator for Abu Dhabi Art and have regularly lectured and presented in Sharjah and Dubai from the Global Art Forum to the March Meetings. I have also curated the Abraaj Group Art Prize. And of course the region’s galleries, not for profits, fairs, etc have served as a source of inspiration, conversation and collaboration for years. 

Carla Ingrasciotta

  • Claire Tancons, photo by Nicola Bustreo Claire Tancons, photo by Nicola Bustreo
  • Zoe Butt, 2018. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation Zoe Butt, 2018. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation
  • Omar Kholeif, photo by Eric T. White Omar Kholeif, photo by Eric T. White
  • Caecilia Tripp, Even the Stars Look Lonesome, Film Still New Commission, 2019, Courtesy of the artist Caecilia Tripp, Even the Stars Look Lonesome, Film Still New Commission, 2019, Courtesy of the artist
  • Astrid Klein, Untitled, (What are you fighting for), 1988/93. From 'White paintings, 1988, Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers. © Astrid Klein Astrid Klein, Untitled, (What are you fighting for), 1988/93. From 'White paintings, 1988, Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers. © Astrid Klein
  • Rohini Devasher, Spheres, 2017. Installation view: Dr Bhau Daji, Lad City Museum, Mumbai. Courtesy of Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, Mumbai © Anil Rane Rohini Devasher, Spheres, 2017. Installation view: Dr Bhau Daji, Lad City Museum, Mumbai. Courtesy of Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, Mumbai © Anil Rane