Marrakech Biennale: Higher Atlas

Photographer Philip Sinden Visits the Fourth Edition of the International Art Festival

From a high-speed car wreck to an upside down helicopter with anchors attached to it’s propeller blades, the installations spread throughout the incomplete, abandoned and crumbling Théâtre Royal at this year's Marrakech Biennale are captured by photographer Philip Sinden. Spread across five sites in and beyond the city limits, including the cisterns of the Koutoubian mosque and the old Bank of Morocco building in the main Djemaa el-Fna square, the biennale’s projects ranged across installations, films, sound pieces, screenings and talks, and even a BiennaleTV platform produced by local students. Brought in by founder and patron Vanessa Branson, young curators Carson Chan and Dr Nadim Samman sought to produce a context-specific exhibition engaging in an expansive dialogue with the city. “It was an opportunity for creative and intercultural dialogue between international artists and the local students, artisans and residents of the city,” explains Samman. “Rather than importing foreign objects or ideas, we aimed to avoid top-down globalization by building things from the ground up.” One of the exhibition highlights was husband and wife art duo Alex Schweder La and Khadija Carroll La's stunning "The Rise and Fall", a cantilevered see-sawing bridge balancing precariously above a 9m dead drop in the void where the Théâtre’s stage should be. Here Berlin-based PROGRAM founder and O32c Editor-at-Large Chan discusses the biennale’s ethos.

What were your first impressions of Marrakech?
I had very little knowledge of Morocco or Marrakech before coming here and everything I knew was from the media and pop culture, mediated by news sources. It became clear to me that to do a large-scale exhibition or biennale we had to get people around the world to see the huge cultural life here that is being ignored by media.

What does context-specific art mean?
Inviting the artists out to Marrakech to live here, sometimes for up to a month, to study and spend time getting a sense of the culture, was crucial to the whole process. The work on show is generated from an honest sensitivity to the history and wider cultural context of the location. Actually engaging with the different layers involves understanding the audience. If the audience is multilingual you probably shouldn’t do a lot of text-based projects. We wanted to make an exhibition that would be experiential, so that when you walk up to a work you understand and get a sense of it. That it is apprehensible, receivable by anyone, without an art background.

Why did you pick Higher Atlas as the title of the exhibition?
Higher Atlas refers to the High Atlas mountains that are visible from almost every rooftop in Marrakech, as something beyond the physical. All the different artistic and architectural interventions in the show are intended to intensify one’s physical experience and take us somewhere beyond the everyday. One of the first ideas that I had was to make an exhibit that you simply can’t photograph, that you had to experience to get it. The experience of being on "The Rise and Fall," no photograph could communicate it.

Was there a favorite experience of producing the biennale?
I wouldn’t say favorite but one intense artistic experience for me was Elín Hansdóttir’s "Mud Brick Spiral," made in collaboration with people in the village of Tassoultante next to Dal Al-Ma’mûn, where her residency was at the luxury Fella Hotel. She made them a public art piece and the people absolutely love it. The children are playing on it and she’s given something so valuable to a community where many of them have never been to downtown Marrakech. What I think is incredible is that people with wealth visiting the biennale have to leave Marrakech and walk through this luxury resort to view the work in a semi-rural village. That journey will make them reflect on themselves, the nature of culture and how it’s structured within something like a biennale. It sums up the whole biennale’s ethos and problematics.

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