A spring in their step

A simple white sign on the Zattere waterfront in Venice points towards “Arabes” in four different directions. Dreamt up by Lebanese artist Ziad Abillama to mock western anxieties around the ubiquity of the Arab “other”, it functions a little less ironically than the artist intended.

For Arab artists are indeed more numerous than usual at this year’s Biennale. Five national pavilions include debutante Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, which first showed two years ago, Iraq, which returns after a 30-year absence, Syria and Egypt. Supplementing this group is the collateral exhibition The Future of a Promise. Billing itself as a “pan-Arab show” – apparently the largest of its kind ever – it brings together 22 artists from countries that range from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia under the curatorship of Sotheby’s specialist Lina Lazaar.

The recent turmoil in the Middle East bestows this efflorescence with particular poignancy and power. Indeed, the Arab presence would have been swelled further had political instability not forced Lebanon and Bahrain to pull out. Egypt (of which more later) chose an artist, Ahmed Basiony, who himself died in the uprising.

Little wonder then that many works are soaked in socio-political nuance. Those assiduous enough to unravel the stories behind each installation – the prevailing medium – will find themselves on a crash course in Middle Eastern history. Nevertheless, the best art is enriched by its back story but not dependent on it.

Take the work of Nadia Kaabi-Linke. Suspended from the high-beamed ceiling of the medieval warehouse that hosts Future of a Promise, the Tunisian’s “Flying Carpets” (2011) comprises two layers of skeletal, steel squares connected by black cords. Possessing dazzling neo-Constructivist purity, it holds the gaze long before you know that its geometry originates in the blankets – measured by Kaabi-Linke during a pre-Biennale sojourn – laid out on Venetian bridges by illegal African immigrants to display their faux-luxury handbags. In another elegantly minimal installation, “Butcher Bliss” (2010), the same artist hangs a quartet of white porcelain-cast animal hides from a meat rack to capture the tragic story of a butcher “disappeared” by the Ben Ali regime.

Also blessed with formal joie-de-vivre is “Shadow Sites II”, a film by Iraqi Jananne Al-Ani. Shot from a helicopter and making use of both splicing and zooming techniques, it distils the military camps and archeological ruins that scar her country’s desert to an exquisite, ever-shifting palimpsest of hermetically beautiful images.

The disruption of stereotypes is a recurring theme here. Shot by Lebanese artist Ziad Antar on a 1940s camera with film left over from the 1970s, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower is stripped of its status as an icon of frigid, postmodern architecture and suddenly takes on a grainy, vintage charm.

In “Al Maw’oud” (“The Promised”, 2011), Lebanese painter Ayman Baalbaki underlines the humanity of a Palestinian fighter by conjuring him out of a tour de force of post-impressionist impasto against a background inspired by the kitsch cretonne florals of Lebanese domestic textiles.

More chilling is Emily Jacir’s 2005 installation “Embrace”, which consists of an unadorned, circular conveyor belt whose futile cycle, driven by human-activated sensors, is a metaphor for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Born in Saudi Arabia and now based in Ramallah and New York, Jacir exemplifies a hybridness – fruit of the Middle East’s shifting geopolitics – that is typical of modern Arab identity.

The quality of Future of a Promise benefits from having the liberty to reflect this diaspora. Certain exhibitors allegedly chose to be here rather than in their national spaces, while others, such as Iraqi painter Ahmed Alsoudani, are in both. The show’s fluidity highlights the fact that the Biennale’s pavilion system is especially problematic for nations whose boundaries have been endlessly reconfigured by conflict, and where, in the case of the UAE, for example, indigenous populations are relatively small. More concretely, the event’s collateral nature removed all political constraints from the artists’ visions.

Certainly, a contraction in ambition is evident in the pavilion of Saudi Arabia, which contains a single, monumental installation, entitled “The Black Arch”, by sisters Raja and Shadia Alem. Balancing a steel ellipse above an identical pool of mirrored balls amid a soundtrack and images of Venice and Mecca – praying pilgrims, lapping water, Byzantine mosaics – the execution is flawless. But the various tropes (from the projection of cultural identity to Venice’s history of exchange with the east) are too familiar to evoke more than respectful comprehension. (It would have been stronger contrasted with, say, the fiery sentiment of “Suspended Together” (2011). By Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan, this hanging installation of ceramic doves, each printed with the permit required from a male authority figure before a Saudi Arabian women can travel, is on show in Future of a Promise.)

The UAE pavilion is a vast improvement on two years ago, when an attempt to deconstruct the contemporary art world backfired. Nevertheless the gauchely heightened digital photographs of landscapes by Lateefa Bint Maktoum fail to capture the imagination, while the building site recreated by Reem Al-Ghaith and entitled “What’s Left of My Land” makes a bold cultural statement but is too simplistic to live up to the poetry of its title. Far more beguiling, though hampered – as are all the works – by sterile display units, is “Naked Sweet Potato” from Abdullah Al-Saadi. Boasting a refreshing manuality, this labyrinth through clusters of objects – from metal crates filled with painted stones to hand-written lists and drawings – remains pleasingly indecipherable.

Ranging from the 60-year-old, Florence-based video artist Azad Nanakeli to the 36-year-old, New York-based conceptual painter Alsoudani, all six of Iraq’s contingent live beyond their country’s borders. Their distance may account for a failure to engage with the pavilion’s theme of “Wounded Water” – its lack more urgent in Iraq than civil war or terrorism. Although several works are notably dignified – Ali Assaf’s impeccable video re-interpretation of Caravaggio’s “Narcissus”, Alsoudani’s surreal, dissolving images – only “Consumption of Water”, a video by 39-year-old Helsinki-based Adel Abidin, set the heart racing. In this playful nod to Star Wars, two bland businessmen suddenly leap on to their office chairs and attack each other with neon light tubes in a lesson about energy conservation that is laugh-out-loud funny.

And so to Egypt, where wasted energy was also the inspiration for a performance piece by Basiony. In February 2010, he wired himself inside a transparent sweat suit and ran on spot for a month in a glass vitrine. The film of that happening is now part of an exhibition put together by two friends of Basiony, artist Shady El Noshokaty and curator Aida Eltorie. The other work is footage of the protests in Cairo last Janaury, which was shot by Basiony himself three days before he was killed by snipers.

Certain critics assert that the informal nature of this latter film invalidates it as art. How wrong they are. In an installation whose success depends on its simplicity, the juxtaposition of Basiony’s caged, relentless jog with his nerve-wrackingly unpredictable images of the crowds as they chant, pray and flee from police, is riveting. Watching those impassioned yet peaceful faces brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s declaration that he worked “in the gap between art and life”. That was long ago, and in another country. Basiony may be dead but the promise of his revolution lives on – not least in this year’s rich panorama of Arab art.

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