By Sylvia Smith for CNN
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SHARJAH, UAE (CNN) -- The latest and eighth art biennial to be held in the Gulf state of Sharjah takes the environment as its theme.
But while Still Life: Art Ecology and the Politics of Change may not persuade the area to turn "green" or to take the notion of sustainability to heart, it will help counterbalance the regional trend to interpret culture as something that you pay a high price for at an auction house.
Although it has no modern art museum, Sharjah displayed the works of the 79 invited artists with flamboyance.
Three primary exhibition spaces showed pieces ranging from Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum's glowing, electrical globe, "Hot Spot", to Michael Rakowitz's "The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist," a papier-mache reconstruction of artifacts stolen from Iraq's national museum in the aftermath of the US-led invasion.
During the opening, Nigerian performance artist Bright Ugochukwu Eke chopped a comfortable foam mattress into a coffin and Saudi Arabian Abdulnasser Gharem wrapped himself and a tree in see-through plastic outside the main museum.
Inside the museum Kimberley Lund, a lecturer at Sharjah's College of Fine Arts (the only art institute in the region) shows a room with blue plastic rubbish bags, and a huge neon Code Blue sign.
Lund says the piece will have little resonance with the local audience, however. "People who come here employ maids to put out their rubbish," she explains. "They won't know what happens to their trash."
But the theme of rubbish, this time unwanted digital images, is carried forward into the electronic age by Egyptian Lara Baladi.
Her computer-driven images reflected endlessly in a huge, mirrored kaleidoscope in the shape of a pyramid is named after the Italian immigrants who were Cairo's rag and bone men in the 1930s. Lara feels that eco-art can put artists under pressure to come up with solutions.
"Artists themselves are marginalized and it is not their role to help the world sort its mess out," she believes.
The paradox of holding an eco event in the heartland of the world's biggest suppliers of fossil fuels was met head-on with a series of posters declaring Less Oil More Courage.
And although flying scores of gallery owners, museum directors and art critics from around the world can hardly be deemed carbon neutral, the event brought together a large number of artists from African and Arab countries already working with the environment and ecology in mind.
"Family ties and the structure of society limits the approach of young Arab artists ," says Palestinian artistic Director, Jack Persekian. "We don't have the same freedom to tackle the big questions. So it is important for them to meet and share ideas with Western artists."
It was up to Zambian Anawana Halobi to turn her attention to the conflict in the Middle East by giving instruction to draw a road map to peace with the tongue on cut-outs of Middle Eastern countries covered in salt.
"It gets people from here thinking about what the region would look like if there is to be peace," she explains. "And salt links to the history of Africa as it was traded throughout the continent as a commodity."
SB8 avoids many of the clichés inherent in such a politically-charge theme keeping recycled objects to a minimum (although Nigerian El Anatsui's hanging carpet of liquor bottle tops struck an ironic note in a country which prohibits alcohol).
It is also giving female Arab artists an indirect boost.
Sophie El Baz, an Algerian artist, who allows time and humidity to gradually deteriorate the surfaces of her photographs, says that the impact of environmental art will be to encourage female artists.
"We are more concerned with nature than men and if this eco-art trend continues, we will see more women's work getting recognition," she says.
The Sharjah biennial may be accused of using the current trend for all things environmental to get publicity, but curator local curator Mohammed Kazem says the theme was decided long before eco art grabbed media headlines.
"There is no better place to show this sort of art," he declares. "We are in the middle of a huge building boom and there are no environmental laws in place to save plants , animals -- or mankind."
Images courtesy Richard Duebel
Artworks on display outside the Sharjah Art Museum, one of the biennial sites.
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