Falter January 2009
Article by Matthias Dusini


The art caravan makes a break in Cairo
Biennals and Documentas create their own art. But who wants it? And who needs it?

The sky above is dimmed by smog, the air still warm in dusk. In few days there will be Christmas; you are only reminded by a few fairy lights in the grand hotels. The Egyptian artist Lara Baladi is sitting her "Tower of Hope" on the area of the 11th Cairo Biennale, a cultural area on the Nile island in the centre of the metropolis. She is smiling, accepts best wishes; she just won the first price.From the outside, her work looks like one of the countless unplastered concrete brick buildings in which millions of Cairene; they are not much more than vertical favelas. The clay is taken from the fertile areas flooded by the Nile, where nowadays, satellite towns destroy the pasture land. You can here a composition, which imitates the tweeting of birds and the sound of moved plants.
The artist has built a model of failed urbanism and at the same time given it a poetic twist. Concrete and balsam. A spark of hope grows in the mega city. What art, what kitsch!

The caravan of contemporary art moved in two different directions in the last decades. One moved as art fair to the centres of neoliberal system: to Miami, where the private jets of investors of real estate and those who exploit natural resources land, to the financial centre London and the Moscow of the Oligarchs. With unlimited credit range the bonus boys of the investment banks boosted the prices on the art market.
The other caravan followed the routes of historic imperialism. Starting at the old trade centre Venice a new genre was created - "Biennale art". In old warehouses and industrial constructions, cathedrals of a gone economy, the curators preached like mendicants (poor monks) against the monetisation of art. Real was supposed to mean something different than cash here, values not assets.
Set pieces of post colonial, post national and post sexual theory form the big topics of the Biennales, Documentas and Manifestas. To name only a few of the as vague as nearly "divine sounding" titles and subtitles like "Thinking with the senses - Feel with the mind"; "Plateau of mankind" or "Prinzip Hoffnung". The localisation in local context is supposed to stop the homelessness of the flowing capital, show idenitity not from its ugly, chauvinistic side, but as a sign for global hybrid subjects. Pieces of art were not valued for it's formal complexity, but for its opportunist content.
At the periphery of Western art, in Instanbul, Sao Paulo and Shanghai the sterile interior of museums opened to the exterior world. Reality was always put in quotation marks, nobody wanted to imagine the now and here different than constructed and medialized. The accompanying "Sound of Criticality" went along like filtered ambient music from heavy weight catalogs in the zones of a better life.

Now the cruise of the Biennalists has reached Cairo. A small palace revolution happened shortly before: the former Commasaire who had this position seemingly since forever was replaced by Ehab El-Laban, a young sculpture and manager of Egyptians art and public spaces. The selection committee is filled only with foreign curators. Now young artists like Lara Baladi, that were completely excluded from the official art environment before, get their first chance. "You can greet this event with smiles", says William Wells from the Townhouse Gallery, one of the few spaces for contemporary art in the 16 million inhabitants city. "But you cannot value high enough what this Biennale means for the local scene.
The "wessi" [means a western German] has many reason to laugh. The topic of the Biennale "The Other" already sounds like a parody of those distillates of postmodern philosophy that become names of exhibitions more and more frequently. "Di Oda", the catchphrase versus the regime of perspective by the rich, white people, names the crossing gaze from west and south. "The other is no other but myself" writes Commasaire Ehab El-Laban in the babbling style of curators. The catalog weights enough to fit a documenta, but the images are pixeled.
The exhibition hall Art's Palace on the Nile island, originally planned for agricultural trade fairs, also seems like a parody of postmodern architecture with its labyrinth of stairways and blind hallways. Right next to the entrance the exhibition of "Italian ruins" paintings reminds us, that the Other did not completely take over.
The majority of the selected artists can be counted to the genres pizzeria painting and fountain sculpture. When entering the building you see an installation by the Spanish artist Pamen Pereira, a kind of flying bed room. She worked for days to pull old furniture on ropes up to the ceiling. Like a menace the bedside table, vase and chairs hover - dream or reality - above the visitors.

Austrian culture politics sponsors art for the Biennale. The annual report of the Federal Ministry announces that the contemporary art shown abroad is supposed to "strenghten the image of the traditional nation of culture Austrian abroad also in terms of internationality and innovation. 2007 the Ministry spent 472.500 on participation at Biennales and the documenta 12 in Kassel. 380.000 were spent on the pavillon in Venice. For Kairo the budget was 43.000. The Austria contribution, curated by Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein, questions the conservative image of the country of Waltz.
A young women in a short dress steps on a low stage, where some magazines are lying. A camera is fixed to the dress. It transmits the hand movements of the performer Roberta Lima to monitors at the side of the stage. She cuts photos of female icons of terrorism like Ulrike Meinhof out of magazines and starts - ouch - to sew them on her tighs. Yes, she pierces with needle and thread her skin and sews the newspaper on her body. Blood drips from the wounds. "The flies are already here.", whispers a spectator.
Sie has read a lot about female terrorists in the Middle East, but does not want to reference directly a situation she does not know any better, explains Lima later. The lap, where mother nature and household chores are situated, seemed to be the right region of the body, to bridge the gap between virtuality controlled by others and selfcontrolled reality. "I don't think about pain at all", tells the 34-years-old Brazilian about her work "Please help yourself". The jury moves on with shocked silence. They still have to judge other works.
Dorit Margreiter, who will also take part on the Venice Biennale in June, has built up her contribution "Aporia" right next to Limas. On a monitor you can see a movie: actors recite - in English - a literature text about an urbanistic topic: copies of cities. The movie shows examples of copied Venices and Cairos, for example the piazza di San Marco in Las Vegas. Margreiter picks up the subject of doubled cultural patterns that you can also use for the import of the concept Biennale: Adria-Giardini next to the Nile.

Newest media technology and flawless theory superstructure: the Biennale art lands like a space ship between clay huts; it is the window to a painless world of mirror images.
It got dark outside, through a window light falls on the tower of hope. Lara Baladi put the congratulation flowers on a piece of wall. The white roses shimmer, the birds tweet, the plants make noises like moving. A stab to the heart.