3 October 2022
Voice Notes from Venice
Every time I get sucked into the frenzy of major art happenings, I realise the power of first impressions and how they often filter through the deeply considered perspectives underpinning art criticism. Delivered raw, there’s an immediacy to saying what you see and feel, akin to the ‘first thought, best thought’ motto of the Beat Generation. From the Saudi pavilion and the Pavilion of Applied Arts, via those of the UAE, Oman, Singapore and the Philippines, here are first impressions, a handful of casual conversations, tours and impromptu notes-to-self from this year’s Venice Biennale.
Among the three pavilions representing the Gulf region, the Saudi pavilion, entitled ‘The Teaching Tree,’ made a compelling statement. A solo presentation by Muhannad Shono and curated by Reem Fadda, this massive installation of black palm fronds snaked through the space like an otherworldly creature. Emerging from the artist’s fascination with the line and mark-making as acts of creation and regeneration, Shono envisions Al Khidr - a mystical guardian of the sea in Islamic tradition - when he conceived the ceiling-high gargantuan sculpture. Although the word ‘khidr’ translates from Arabic as ‘green’ or ‘verdant’, here it feels like an evocation of charred nature.
While there was a pneumatic system underneath the black tidal wave sculpture, its breathing movement intended by the artist was unfortunately, imperceptible. The pavilion’s assistant curator Rotana Shaker said its form evoked how the younger generation of Saudi Arabia reimagined its history. This is especially poignant at a time when the country is opening up to the world, culturally and politically.
Pavilion of Applied Arts
Next door, Qatari-American artist Sophia Al Maria’s intervention at the Pavilion of Applied Arts, Tiger Strike Red was a special project in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. Cecilia Alemani, curator of the Venice Biennale, commissioned Al Maria to respond to the museum's collection of automata or self-operating mechanical devices. A 20-minute film focused on the automaton ‘Tippoo’s Tiger’ that depicted a tiger attacking a British soldier – originally made for 18th-century South Indian ruler, Tipu Sultan. Music was composed by Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri, who created recordings drawn from the British National Anthem, which would emanate from the automaton. The film raised significant questions on colonial violence, retribution, and relationships between humans, animals and machines. Al Maria’s tongue-in-cheek mixed media works visually placed the V&A’s splintered facade within its controversial history of stolen artefacts as a postcolonial and institutional critique. Her eerily melancholic poem, a collaboration with an AI, was particularly thought-provoking, calling attention to the artistry of non-human voices.
Curated by Maya Allison of NYUAD Art Gallery, the UAE’s pavilion was entitled ‘Between Sunrise and Sunset.’ It presented a single work by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim.
The work was a series of papier-mâché twig-like sculptures in gradations of colour presented on a large plinth. In rows, the sculptures went from not-so-subtle pop colours to organic brown and then black-and-white, indexing the movement of the sun. The impact of Khor Fakkan’s mountainous environment on Ibrahim’s land art is well-noted here. I wondered what the playful-looking sculptures might look like if they were hanging from the ceiling, or if they were to engage with the grand spaciousness of the Venetian pavilion, instead of being stationary on the floor. I spoke to Ibrahim about the lesser-known elements of his practice, such as his use of craft paper, dried grass, leaves, coffee, tea and tobacco and how he leaves the papier-mâché to take form via layers of wetness and dryness.
Being debuted at the unassuming Pavilion is Ibrahim’s first comprehensive monograph. Also entitled Between Sunrise and Sunset, the book is co-edited by Maya Allison and Cristiana de Marchi. This is a long overdue, in-depth look at the artist, who began his career in the 1980s as part of Hassan Sharif’s well-known experimental group of collaborators, The Five.
The Oman pavilion, a first for the Sultanate at the biennale, was powerful in offering a rich context for the evolution of its art scene. Curated by art historian Aisha Stoby, whose research has focused on modern art movements in the GCC, ‘Destined Imaginaries’ brought together the works of three generations of Omani contemporary artists, namely Anwar Sonya, Hassan Meer, Budoor Al Riyami, Radhika Khimji, and the late artist Raiya Al Rawahi. There was topographical materiality to the work that situates Oman, its craggy mountains and cave systems, while casting a lens on important issues such as environmental adaptation or nature’s way of dealing with climate change. Al Riyami’s sleek resin sculptures emulated how the peridotite rocks of Oman’s Hajar mountain range capture and store carbon dioxide in a natural process of decarbonisation, with significant implications for global warming. Al Khimji’s work referenced the fish that have both lost their pigmentation and vision as a result of adapting to the darkness of the Al Hoota caves. Juxtaposed with Meer’s contemporary video work on urbanity and Al Rawahi’s collaboration with Sonya on robotics and the future, this felt like a multi-faceted and relevant pavilion.
Oman’s inaugural pavilion was not about a single work or statement piece, rather it unravelled slowly as you walked through it, giving one a sense of the space and place of its origin. Stoby ended our walkthrough with an enlightening comment on the democratising power of our post-Internet world, in which all artists became equal and the distinction between the modern and the contemporary diminished, casting regional art histories in a more nuanced light.
Pavilions of Note
Other pavilions that stood out included Singapore and the Philippines. Taking the form of a paper labyrinth or a wall-high open book, Singapore’s ‘Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book,’ curated by Ute Meta Bauer, featured Shubigi Rao’s lyrical and visual testaments to destroyed libraries and endangered languages. The Philippines pavilion, ‘Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana/All of us present, This is our gathering,’ was wonderfully sensorial. Upon entry, a video projected the artist Gerardo Tan performing a celebratory chant from the Cordillera region of the Philippines by transcribing its musical notations in squid ink with his tongue. In a central multi-media installation, field recordings of indigenous weaving practices were transmuted into textile designs, where sound responded to the act of weaving in a culturally coded form of communication. Exploring sonics as all forms of material, this was a pavilion no voice note could adequately encapsulate.