Sharjah’s March Project: A review
Courtesy: Noor al Bastaki

“Spaceship Sharjah” is Frank Harris’s response to the March Project, an educational residency program and group exhibition that opened on March 16 at the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF). On the rooftop terrace of one of the foundation’s buildings stands the sculptural installation, pointing to the sky like a rocket ready to be launched. But “Spaceship Sharjah” also has an earthly feel to it. The rocket is built of colored wooden panels and is reminiscent of Lego constructions people build in their childhood years. It is inviting for viewers to touch and climb in.

From the inside, “Spaceship Sharjah” offers a totally different experience. Upon entering the hexagonal structure, one sees shadows of Sharjah’s cityscape cast on the walls. There is the quay, the Shiite mosque, the heritage area which is undergoing a major development plan, and Dubai’s skyscrapers, as seen from a distance.

Harris, a London-based artist, has received much attention lately for the large and functional sculptural installations he builds, inspired by place. Last year, he constructed a gigantic “Bird Nest” out of recycled clay for London’s Crossrail link project. When, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, SAF director and curator of the program and resulting exhibition, invited him to create a work in Sharjah, Harris decided to build the spaceship.

Qasimi invited seven early-career artists from around the world to create new, site-specific works in the emirate. After a research visit in November that involved a series of presentations and discussions, the artists returned to Sharjah in early March to realize their projects. The March Project show was presented alongside solo exhibitions by some of the region’s most prominent contemporary artists, including Wael Shawky (Egypt), Susan Hefuna (Germany/Egypt), Abdullah al-Saadi (UAE) and Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia). The galleries sprinkled across Sharjah’s Arts Area were packed with visitors as the exhibitions coincided with this year’s March Meeting.

This video is produced by Medrar.TV and is featured in partnership with Mada Masr

Dozens of artists, writers and curators flew in from all around the world to attend the annual meeting, conceptualized this year by Sharjah Biennial 12 curator Eungie Joo, and titled “Come Together.” The discussions and artists’ presentations held over four consecutive days covered artworks shown in previous editions of the biennial, while also highlighting the practices of some of the artists taking part in SB12, set to open in 2015. This intense program could not help but also reflect on the emirate’s history, its development plans and growing multi-racial population — topics which some of the March Project artworks also happened to touch upon.

Harris admits that developing a project for a city he was visiting for the first time was challenging. Many aspects of the emirate intrigued him. But he was worried his response might be too outsider to the place’s complex history. Then he remembered Richard Buckminster Fuller’s “Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth.” This futurist text, written in 1969, probes alternative models for development as if the earth were a ship floating in space, which isn’t actually too much of a stretch, as Harris explains in his interview with Medrar TV. He decided to play around with this idea.

Inside “Spaceship Sharjah,” Harris installed three cameras obscura and two pinhole cameras, which in bright daylight reflect shadows of what are to him the emirate’s landmarks. The result is an almost panoramic view of the city that appears and fades away depending on the time of the day.

Holly Hendry also engaged with the city’s built and natural environments through her installation “Homeostasis.” A graduate of London’s Slade School of Fine Art, she re-created the air duct of a modern air conditioning system, magnified to a much larger scale, and placed it in one of the foundation’s courtyards. Each end of the pipe is connected to an old windcatcher tower. The metal pipes are overwhelming in their sheer size, but also somewhat eerie when visitors walk through as if transported into a sci-fi film set.

Three other artists relied more on direct interviews to develop their projects. Nourine Shenawy, one of three Egyptian artists selected from MASS Alexandria, presented “Closed Letter” at the restored Beit Obaid al-Shamsi. From a distance, one only sees strips of black paper hanging on a white wall as if it were a letter with which an official censor has taken too much liberty. As visitors approach the wall, however, the statements handwritten on the paper become legible. “What shall I wear tomorrow?” reads one. “Sex,” reads another.

Shenawy had asked people to anonymously fill in a Google form she published online, answering a single question: “What goes on in your mind until (you sleep)?” The responses were diverse, personal and intimate. Gallery visitors are also invited to jot down their last thoughts before bed on pieces of black paper left in the gallery alongside cushions. Although the connection of the installation to Sharjah is not obvious as it is with the works of Harris and Hendry, Shenawy’s experiment is playful and inviting.

Artist Noor Al Bastaki, from Bahrain, opted for a more obvious response in “Sawalef” (Tales). She decided to highlight the similarities and differences between the cultures of Bahrain and the UAE by showing video interviews she conducted with people in both countries. The videos are screened along the walls and on tabletops in her installation, set in the form of a local coffee shop.

Not far from “Sawalef,” visitors also get to listen to a collection of stories told by the foundation’s employees. Alexandrian artist Ahmed Fouad Rageb spent time with the security guards he met onsite, and convinced them to tell their backstories and reflections on their life in Sharjah, as many are expatriate laborers. He then streamed the audio recordings, looped, using radio transmitters across the hallways of the foundation for others to listen in.

Some discussions held during the March Meeting drifted repeatedly toward the state’s relationship to its expat labor force and the foundation’s connection to the local community, as most of those who attended the meeting came from overseas. Rageb’s untitled piece gave no simple answers to these recurring issues. Instead it emphasized diversity and individuality, with some of the staff commenting on the artworks they got to see through their jobs, others referring to their work as a job like any other. The piece leaves visitors contemplating the topics long after they leave the SAF buildings, and encourages them to tune in to the many local radio stations by which the work is inspired.

In all, the pilot phase of the March Project is proving to be an exciting addition to the foundation’s programs.

The March Project exhibition is showing at the Sharjah Art Spaces until 16 June 2014.

Mai Elwakil 

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