In a far-reaching and thematically adventurous biennale, divided into ‘trans-pavilions’ and centred around a sense of “injecting generous vitality into the world we live in,” in the words of Biennale Commissioner Paola Baratta, the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s choice of play as its thematic lynchpin seems particularly apt. After a couple of existentially heavy editions under the hands of Massimiliano Gioni (2013) and Okwui Enwezor (2015) respectively, Biennale curator Christine Macel has put together an exploration of the art world that she positions midway between “otium and negotium”, or rather, leisure and business, play and work.
Over at the UAE National Pavilion, the resonances between the five artists showcased there and Macel’s overarching theme are tying in nicely. “The practices of the artists in the UAE Pavilion are in natural conversation with the umbrella theme of the 57th International Exhibition at Venice,” says curator Hammad Nasar. “The three ‘sites’ of the pavilion – the exhibition, a publication and a programme – see artists working through paradox, analogy, appropriation, repetition, symmetry, rhythm and rhyme. They make artistic gestures that are whimsical, imaginative, follow arbitrary rules, and are open to chance. They ‘play’ their way through living a life – making a place home.”
These notions of openness and home are particularly relevant, given Macel’s interventions in the main show will include twice-weekly public lunches between the artists and visitors, live-streamed performances and online videos by each participating artist. The spirit of free sharing and dialogue pervades, and the UAE’s representative artists are no exception. Take, for example, Lantian Xie’s ‘A rumble interrupted our chat’ – a newly commissioned work that sees a series of events unfold not just in biennale site, but across the city of Venice, a series of ephemeral performances, such as interns making daily cups of Saffron chai. “[It also includes] a band from Hong Kong playing in the lobby of the Hotel Danieli for the opening weekend of the Biennale; and four friends meeting every morning of June at the Café Ala Bragora to drink coffee, smoke and talk about home,” explains Nasar. “In his work, Xie asks whether belonging can be enacted, not as flag-waving polemic, but as a daily practice of communal presence and imagination.”
This sense of communal presence is evident in the installation of Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play, at the UAE’s permanent pavilion. Works by Xie, Nujoom Alghanem, Sara Al Haddad, Vikram Divecha and Dr Mohamed Yousif speak to each other across the room’s atmospheric brick walls. “I am struck by the multiplicity of conversations between works, artistic positions and even the role of the publication,” admits Nasar. “The artists in the exhibition are interested in how bodies mark time and occupy space. Divecha converts time into value and engages labour at hourly rates. Al Haddad counts stitches and records them in diurnal drawings. Dr Yousif is concerned with cyclical time: tides, seasons, generations. Xie measures time in cigarettes, chai, and daily conversations with friends. Al Ghanem’s early poems include examples of playful visual insertions to shape a form of concrete poetry. This echoes Deepak Unnikrishnan’s interventions in the publication for Rock, Paper, Scissors.”
Indeed, the publication acts as an extended (or second) site of play for Nasar’s exhibition, with text and images by a host of collaborators, including artist trio Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, who have created a 30-page romp, which Nasar refers to as “a playground in book form.” Creating these extra artistic interventions beyond the physical bounds of the Arsenale, where the pavilion is placed, has proved to be a boon. “You stumble across it,” says Nasar. “Through the millennial DIY tools of WhatsApp, scanning and printing, they have created a set of collaged images that recall the Surrealist game of cadavre exquis, in its openness to chance… the book form allows them to roam free with their imagination.”
Other contributions to the book include essays by Nasar as well as Murtaza Vali (reading the works of Hassan Sharif and Abdullah Al Saadi), extracts from an interview with Alghanem and poet Khalid Aludoor, as well as a mapping of informal spaces of play within the Emirates by WTD Magazine. “Given the project’s ambitions to explore the multifarious notions of play as a life practice, the publication ventures beyond regimented definitions of art,” explains Nasar. This means that it also allows for a “seeping into cricket (Osman Samiuddin asks if home can be “the team you represent”); music and folklore (Aisha Bilkhair explores the musical genre of Laywa and Al Nuban performance): heritage (Uzma Rizvi introduces the idea of fluid subjectivity); and social clubs,” – the latter through a selection of works by artist Lamya Gargash, by Reem Fadda and Maisa Al Qassimi.
The host of conversations brought to the fore by both the physical and published site of ‘Rock, Paper Scissors’ – as well as a complimentary series of programming (that has to date included film screenings at The Art Gallery at NYUAD, as well as advancing plans with Central Saint Martins in London for October 2017) – is certainly very much in line with the rigorous questions on creativity, artistic self and our place within the world that Macel has been bringing up in the main exhibition. “I see the exhibition and the publication (and the collaborative programme) as part of the same project,” asserts Nasar. “They are both quite ambitious I think, in the range of conversations they seek to bring together. How well they talk to each other, I will leave it to others to judge.”