The Cairo Biennale: Political Prescience
A first draft of this review was written at the end of December in Cairo. At the time, I heard from local contacts numerous stories of severe frustration with life in Egypt, and frequent embarrassment about the neglected state of the city. It seemed heroic that people remained so committed to their engagement with the art world despite negligible pay and many restrictions on their creativity. A Dubaian-Egyptian colleague warned me then that Egypt was going to blow up. I stayed in a small hotel on Tahrir Square, opposite the Egyptian Museum. Just days after January 24, when I left, Egypt did blow up—from Tahrir Square—as the Cairo Biennale drew to a close. Since then, I’ve reflected on how easily world governments (including our own) can undermine democratic processes. Consequently, the following review captures a moment that now, in many ways, seems deep in the past—but also, perhaps, somewhat prescient.
The power of all biennales is to be not only confronted with work, but by the particularity of a site. In Cairo at the 2010 biennale, 78 artists represented 45 countries, while a few kilometres away, the pyramids—continuing wonders of the ancient and contemporary world—stood.
Given this placement (and the fact that my visit preceded the recent revolution) a sort of art-world National Geographic tourist experience seemed somewhat inevitable. But I wanted to suspend that thought in another one—in the fact that in an increasingly mobile world, the Western visitor can also be a resident. Having spent five months teaching at Zayed University in Dubai over the fall, my Canadian veil of vagueness about the Middle East began to lift with an appreciation of the dimensions of the rising contemporary Arab art scene. Without this growing awareness, what would I have seen in Egypt? Would I simply have noted familiar artists from Venice or Moscow relocated to Cairo? With a more informed perspective, the result was different, and I interpreted the exhibition differently.
The biennale’s summarizing statement is a good place to begin exploring these issues of perspective:
“ As we end the first decade of a third millennium, the XII Biennale proposes and solicits to partner with artists to develop more questions in total conceptual and technical freedom. We plan for the Cairo Biennale with its 2010 invited artists to work to shed more light on more process questions that would, perhaps, participate in extending limits of the current contemporary visual language and its diversity: the diversity of all and everything possible.” —Commissaire-General Ehab El-Labban
On the surface, this statement has a global contemporary-art-world appeal, perhaps one that is even clichéd. But in context, the undercurrents were existential and political; they initiated an appeal to the ability of visual language to play with metaphor and allegory. In a political terrain marked by ideological tension, the works chosen for this biennale were intended to open up new paths without apparently particular destinations. Given its situation, El-Labban’s appeal had a radical edge that has become muted in the West.
Yet that edge is present in much of contemporary Middle Eastern art, and it was certainly on view in regionally originated works at the biennale. In Mohamed Radwan’s People and Others, computer-generated images, rendered into relief, anonymous, stark white “everyman” faces, emerge to appear like ghosts, while Kareem Alqurity’s very large monochrome Painting depicts the military paradoxically as both farce and despair. One of Egypt’s best known artists, Khaled Hafez, presented an impressive installation, Tomb Sonata In Three Military Movements (And Overture), in which history, irony and war play out in a black tomb-like room into which one finds one’s way by touch alone.
The biennale’s choices extending beyond the Middle East were calculated to support its theme. The Chilean artist Ivan Navarro’s Reality Show is a completely mirrored, infinitely de-centered space of four doors, leaving the viewer inside a non-place. Liquid Geometries 2 by New Zealand’s Gregor Kregar is a suspended construction of mirrored modules; located at the entrance to the exhibition, it was another strongly destabilizing gesture, deflecting its context into unrecognizable fragments. In the video work offered by Australian artist Shaun Gladwell, Pacific Undertow Sequence (Bondi), an apparently upright figure on a surfboard seems eerily suspended until the figure turns upside down, breaking the water’s surface to come up for air.
This practice of disorientation as the hidden dimension of more overt political and social events was further pursued in the looped twin video screen work of Georgian artist Koka Ramishvili, Coffee and Milk. A split video screen of a coffee pot and milk jug incrementally pouring their contents onto a glass table top cease within a hair’s breadth of spilling over the edge, rehearsing the traumatic seconds that stretch out forever before the inevitable disaster. In a very different cautionary register, Canadian artist Matthew Carver’s anamorphic painting Along University at Toronto G20 depicts the shockingly aggressive actions of the Toronto police during the G20 meeting last summer. Here the anamorphic view stands in for the distortion of expanding world cultures on hyperdrive. Janet Bellotto, the other Canadian artist at the biennale, presented an installation, Nile Blue. In this work, a video of the spiraled interior world of a nautilus animated with the movement and shrieking cacophonous sounds of animals – elephants, birds and gazelles – is set into motion by swiping a magnetic card, while a strange composite lenticular creature appears to observe one’s every move.
The local and international components of this biennale interwove the realities of the Middle East with existential dilemmas from around the world. One realized that for all our differences, we share so much, a recognition underlined by the exhibition’s inclusion of a beautifully ironic gesture by the Philippines’ Josephine Turalba. Turalba’s Installation is created of exotic colourful costumes made from ammunition paraphernalia, turning a terrifying sow’s ear into a silk purse. The result was a powerful reflection on the task of any artist, or perhaps any biennale: To try, despite all, to make a better world; or, at the very least, to have the vigilance to hold on to what we have.