2 May 2013
In sifting through the commentary, the general discourse surrounding Sharjah 11 circulates around notions of “west vs. the rest.” The use of the Islamic courtyard is frequently cited as Hasegawa’s conceptual lynchpin. The architecture of the Islamic courtyard in its unique way of navigating the personal and political becomes a metaphor for theoretically re-defining a discursive space that has been dominated by the West. Antonia Alampi in her review of Sharjah 11 in Art Agenda summarizes the function of the courtyard as, “the element that has been identified as the possible link among different cultures, traditions, religions: the courtyard, that is, as the new cartography of experience.”
Hasegawa defines the discursive space she is attempting to de-territorialize in an interview with Lucy Rees published in Flash Art International as:
A Western perspective once dominated the debate about globalization, but things have changed…I am not trying to simply criticize a Eurocentric viewpoint but hoping we can re-orient ourselves and shift our point of view. This is the new contemporary that I am talking about.
The “new contemporary” as translated in Sharjah 11 is a field where notions of authorship, history, and geography become central agents in complicating the narrative of Westerncentrisim. While all the works in Sharjah 11 individually and collectively address the curatorial proposition, some works appear to rely heavily on the language “the west vs. the rest” while others evoke the discussion by creating a new relational language.
The two works chosen from Sarah Rahbar’s Flag Series address the theoretical issues by appropriating Western tropes, namely the American flag, and re-contextualizing them with “traditional materials.” The tradition from which the “traditional materials” are derived is unspecified, but perhaps it is enough that they are clearly aesthetically not Western.
Rahbar’s work individually is provocative in that it complicates notions of identity politics by juxtaposing an archetype of nationalism, an imposed identity, with the intimacy of fabric, a personal choice (clothing, carpets, etc.…). It suggests that one could equivocate nationalism with decoration in the way that it uses the flag but evokes ideas of tapestries and adornment.
However, Rahbar’s work in the collective vision of the biennial indicates a potential pitfall in the curatorial concept. It could reveal how centering a discussion around complicating Western narratives only re-affirms the ubiquity of the West in narratives in general. By using the American flag, Rahbar takes the West as her artistic a-priori suggesting that the very existence of her artistic production is the fact that the West exists.
Similarly by grounding the curatorial concept in reassessing “the Western-centrism of knowledge in modern times,” Hasegawa is wielding a double-edged sword. Having the West as the point of critique may have limited the scope of Sharjah 11’s capacity to “re-orient” to mean, “re-orienting” around the West. Instead of seeing something new Sharjah 11 may only fracture the lens we are already using to understand the world, the Western-centric one.
That being said, Shilpa Gupta’s work Someone Else, operates very differently with respects to the curatorial proposition. The work is a library of steel books whose authors wrote under pseudonyms or anonymously. Each book retains its original publication format in monochrome. On the cover of each book the pseudonym and the reason for its use is engraved. The books chosen span geographic regions, languages, and genres. What is revealed is the universality of the reasons that different authors take for writing under a different name.
The language of authorship, freedom, fear of being identified create a new relational language that evokes notions of humanity rather than identity. Gupta’s work illustrates the potential of Sharjah 11 to create a new language through which we can orient ourselves. Hasegawa’s recognition of the Islamic courtyard as a space that can be used to understand global issues becomes even more poignant in light of a work like Gupta.
Like a library curated around a concept of pseudonyms, Hasegawa’s understanding of the features of the Islamic courtyard maps a new framework to understand the social, political, and economic superstructures that we exist in. The format of the courtyard carves out a relational space that exists between the personal and the public, individual vs. human, particular vs. universal. This space postulates a way to navigate out the impasse of a Westerncentric worldview. Hasegawa’s curatorial concept is tightly woven and explored through the works at Sharjah 11 making for an interesting relationship between looking, looking back, and looking forward as one traverses in and out of new ways of understanding. “A cartography of experience” is what Hasegawa evokes in the organization of Sharjah 11.