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Interview with Eungie Joo, curator of Sharjah Biennial 12, about her curatorial approach, and experience of working with the artists in Sharjah. SB12 is open until 5 June 2015.By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Apr 2015
Haupt & Binder: You were very familiar with Sharjah before being appointed the Biennial’s curator. How did you come up with this special theme for the Biennial’s 12th edition, which combines the specific situation of Sharjah with the general situation of the region?
Eungie Joo: Yes, I’ve been here many times, but of course it takes a long time to understand a place. I’m only beginning to understand Sharjah. After having this great opportunity of being here for a longer time, who knows whether I would do the same exhibition. We are outsiders coming here; I don’t speak Arabic, I don’t speak Urdu, but I had a very strong impression and admiration for the work of the Foundation, and I think that is where it all begins. The title comes from a sentence in “The Right to the City” by Henri Lefebvre, “The past, the present, the possible cannot be separated” , but the idea for the Biennial came before I read the essay. It just matched the sentiment well. What Lefebvre is writing about in his approach to the city is very much related to what contemporary artists are thinking about right now—there is some kind of crossover in the way he puts everything in the present. One of the things that I thought about not only for Sharjah, but for the greater region usually called the Middle East and for the world, is how do we deal with history, how do we respect history, even share information about it, without being burdened by history, where we can’t move.
I really wanted to figure out a way to approach the Biennial as a method of working, avoiding a theme, because I don’t think thematically, in balance with this great Foundation that is supporting artistic production fearlessly—almost to a crazy extent, because they would try anything. As you know, many biennials have the desire to support artistic production and experimentation but not the funds, or have the funds but not the staff, or often not the time or infrastructure—all these mismatches. Sharjah Art Foundation is such a unique organization that grew out of the Biennial, so it always has respect for what the Biennial needs, and now the consistency of a year-round program, so I think it’s an incredible opportunity for artists. We were able to commission so many people, so many artists were able to come multiple times, or to send an assistant, or come with a collaborator. And we didn’t have to go begging galleries for financial support.
Haupt & Binder: When you agreed to do the Biennial, we’re sure you had a number of artists in mind who you would like to work with here…
Eungie Joo: Absolutely, and you know that it’s not that I’ve had so much time to put this together.
Haupt & Binder: But did you also look for specific approaches in artists’ work, did you research for specific artists to invite them to Sharjah?
Eungie Joo: I did not have time to do much original research for SB12, but luckily in the period of time that I have been working in the field, from the beginning of my first job at the Walker Arts Center, even as an intern, I had a travel budget, and I always knew that you have to go out to research contemporary art, so luckily I have accumulated a lot of information over time. And I am always looking for what’s happening, feeling what the temperature is out there, and many of the artists in the exhibition are artists whom I have worked with in the past. Gary Simmons, for example, I first worked with in 1997, and I wrote about his work in my dissertation. We haven’t worked together again since then, but at that time, we had an idea to make a public basketball court. So I thought Gary would be a great artist to invite to think about play and sports and to do something for the public. When he came here and saw the kids playing cricket, he knew that was it. Gary is named after a famous cricket player, and his father was part of the national team of the West Indies back in the 1950s. His work, Across the Chalk Line (2015) is a youth-size cricket field where neighborhood children can play has a text that goes around it in four languages: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” It is a quote from CLR James’s book Beyond a Boundary – so the work includes both poetry and a kind of socio-political critique. And imagine, when Gary went to Dubai to buy the wicket and the balls, gloves, helmets and bats for the kids, the man at the store asked him where he was coming from and why he was interested in cricket. He told him that his father used to play for the West Indies national team, and the man knew who his father was. Gary was so moved by this. This is the possible that Sharjah and the Foundation allow. Many other artists, like Taro Shinoda, I worked with last in 2005, and Abraham Cruzvillegas, I met during a studio visit in 2004, and it was eleven years before we worked together in an exhibition...
But I also wanted to take the opportunity of being here to do some research. One of my most fruitful research trips was in Amman, to finally see Darat al Funun. I went during the time of the 25th anniversary exhibition, curated by Adriano Pedrosa. That’s where I saw the portraits by Fahrelnissa Zeid. I had seen her work at Istanbul Modern, but I didn’t know the portraiture, so when I saw the portraits of Suha Shoman and her family I was very moved, and when I realized that it is the same artist I was even more surprised. Suha brought me to Fahrelnissa’s family house. I was able to sit down with them and they understood that my intentions were to have a significant representation of her work here, and they were very cooperative and helpful on every level.
It was a similar case with Saloua Raouda Choucair. I was actually very familiar and fond of her work, so the Biennial was a good excuse to go to her studio, see the work and meet her daughter, Hala. She was incredibly helpful and lent a significant body of work.
Haupt & Binder: As far as we remember, this is the very first time that artists are referring to archaeology. Today, in the morning, we interviewed Leonor Antunes, who explained to us these links in her piece, and Michael Joo yesterday as well. How did this topic emerge as a reference?
Eungie Joo: When I was here in November 2013, driving with Sheikha Hoor, she pointed out an archaeological site we were passing, and I immediately asked if it was possible to visit it. Somebody from the Directorate of Archaeology took us there and to other sites as well. I decided to bring artists to those sites during the group site visits before and after the last March Meeting, which they had not done in the past, so maybe that’s why it hasn’t been dealt with before. It seems that most people don’t know what is here and how active the discussions around the findings are. If you go to the Archaeology Museum today, you will see artifacts from 80,000 years ago, but they have actually found tools 125,000 years old. The information isn’t updated in the museum, because the research hasn’t been incorporated into the display yet. When we went to that site, the head of the excavation was actually there, and he told us in person how they found those objects.
Haupt & Binder: Which site was it?
Eungie Joo: The cave close to Mhleiha.
Haupt & Binder: Yes, the rock shelter of Jebel Faya, we have been there when researching for our Art Destination Sharjah project. Then he was from the group of archaeologists from the University of Tübingen.
Eungie Joo: Yes, he said that while digging, they decided to cook near the natural shelter, and because of the properties of the site, they decided to dig right there, and that’s how they found the artifacts and tools. So actually, they found them by reusing the site in the same way as it was used more than one hundred thousand years ago.
Of course, I knew that artists like Michael Joo have been doing research on fossils for a long time, and I imagined that Adrian
Villar Rojas and probably five or six artists would be interested as well. Who wouldn’t be interested in thinking about a new city, using research from a science that deals with history in another way?
Haupt & Binder: It’s also great to see how the Biennial can increase awareness about these sites. Because a lot of people in Sharjah go to the desert, especially to “Big Red”, for dune-bashing on quad bikes or 4x4s, without knowing that right around the corner there are these archaeological sites. Through the work of the artists, the Biennial can contribute drawing attention to these excavations, new findings, and environmentally sensitive areas.
Eungie Joo: That’s an interesting point that I didn’t even think of. Certainly, the way outsiders look at your place can help you understand what is at front of your door. Or when we go abroad and come back, often we can see our own place better as well.
Haupt & Binder: That’s why it is also so important that this Biennial goes outside of the city of Sharjah for the first time and uses a venue on the East Coast.
Eungie Joo: I think they did a performance before in Kalba…
Haupt & Binder: And they used the old cinema in Khorfakkan for a work during the last Biennial; Shahzia Sikander took photos there.
Eungie Joo: But it was thanks to the Foundation acquiring the site of the Ice Factory in Kalba that we were able to use. And immediately and obviously for me, Adrian Villar Rojas was the artist to work there.
Haupt & Binder: Your curatorial approach is very associative, how did you go about conceiving the constellations for this Biennial?
Eungie Joo: Many times my thinking begins with the artists. When I’m listening to an artist, and we are talking about works or ideas, often it reminds me of another artist, and I then want to bring these artists together either in person or through their work. We were joking yesterday that perhaps because we are all middle-aged, the artists are doing these meditative, existential, self-reflexive works. But some other people suggested that it is because of this place, because of the meditative, ancient nature of Sharjah. But I also invited artists whom I knew would be very considerate. Maybe the most significant way that they have responded to Sharjah was to slow down and to look carefully. So, that’s why the works are calm, profound, and take more time; this is a reflection on Sharjah that is very strong to me.
When I visited Abdullah Al Saadi and listened to him and looked at this work, I thought of Taro Shinoda. I didn’t know whether they would be interested in each other, but I knew that the work would correspond well. What ended up happening was that Beom Kim came at the same time as Taro Shinoda and we went on a walk in the farm, and then I realized that Beom’s way of thinking is closer to Abdullah’s, and that the experience visiting his studio was very meaningful to Beom. It is a great fortune for me to be in contact with these artists for so many years, and this is what I wanted to share in Sharjah – to bring all these characters together in Sharjah for Sharjah.
See the Extensive Visual Tour of SB12:
UiU Special: Sharjah Biennial 12, 2015 ►
Almost all the artists at all the venues
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt
Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art. Based in Berlin, Germany.
Sharjah Biennial 12
5 March - 5 June 2015
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation: Hoor Al Qasimi
Curator: Eungie Joo
Associate Curator: Ryan Inouye
The Biennial includes works by more than fifty artists and cultural practitioners from twenty-five countries, with over two thirds of the participants presenting new work and commissions.
SB12 takes place in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, crossing the emirate to sites in and around the city, as well as in the city of Kalba on the Gulf of Oman.