A peculiar kind of biennial

The Whitstable Biennale

There is much good art to see in Whitstable, but it is unlike any biennial I have ever visited. Yes, it takes place every two years, is multi-sited and has developed new artist commissions specifically for presentation - something that is becoming a UK-specific biennial feature - but the similarities end there. It has none of the urgency and frantic busyness that are common features of many biennials, and in this edition, no real emphasis on visual art practice. There are no monumental sculptures sited in the public realm, few internationally famous art names, no circus coming to town.

Instead there is a quiet and persistent emphasis on how artworks are made and the process each practitioner goes through in defining their performance and project. There is almost a sense of “slow-art”, a foregrounding of thoughtfulness about what it means to be an artist, what it is to make art. This is explored through a range of text-based practices, from film through live-art performance to straight theatre, in a distinctly meta-textual programme. This theme is made explicit in Acting, the performance by Internet, which after a tedious start takes off into deconstructed and surreal realms, with an “overacting” dog and muppet puppets (both adorable). It continues in Jesse Jones’ dramatisation of an encounter group therapy session chaired by psychologist Carl Rogers. In The Selfish Act of Community, the role of psychological masks is explored at the very same time their removal is being intensely portrayed. With opposing symmetry, in This Alley Used to be Enormous on Me, artist Tim Bromage literally constructs his mask by sticking torn strips of masking tape to his face, transforming himself into a strikingly grotesque figure through which he performs his writing. There are two other performative surprises that lift this work onto a different level and suggest significant ammunition for his artistic future: no spoilers here though.

Other works sit more comfortably within fine art practice. A simple idea with high impact is Wars During my Lifetime by Martin John Callanan, which lists on newsprint all the wars that have taken place during his lifetime. There are 189 of them and he is only 30 years old. Emma Hart uses a sculptural installation to frame her narrative Monument to the Unsaved, which viscerally evokes an 80 mph car crash on the M20 motorway. In an innovative staging, her film is reflected in seven wing mirrors, effectively portraying the fragmentation of the experience while enabling visual interest and unusual depth of field for the viewer. The overwhelming noise and repetition of the soundtrack insists on the audience reliving the trauma as the victim must also do as part of the emotional recovery from the event. It’s a piece that has stayed with me.

Also ambitious and technically challenging is Tanya Axford’s The Path Made by a Boat in Sound (3 down), which combines a video projection of two spotlight dancers swinging in elusive interactions on the floor, vying for the attention of two musicians improvising a response to the pendulum’s movement. A mesmerising work, the music of cello and piano is beautiful and immersive. Less effective is Tom Gidley’s film and narrative Hollow Moon, which suffers from two competing themes that combine not to enhance, but to reduce each other.

There is a different programme of live events over the three weekends of the festival, including evening performances at the Royal Native Oyster Stores and late-night outdoor screenings at The Factory Cinema, a makeshift cinema on Long Beach. On the Saturday night I was there, the highlight from the evening was the clever, edgy, funny wordsmith and musician Jenny Moore. Her stage set included text projected onto an enormous white balloon, and songs with titles like “The Wilderness is so Over” and “Sometimes Money Matters”. Following that I caught the rather hard-core Jonas Mekas film, The Brig, from 1964, in the dark on the beach. How often can you do that?

This biennial concentrates on supporting emerging artists to develop new works for a specific style of presentation. As an event, it’s slightly scuffed around the edges and constrained by the available venues, spaces and resources of the town. Some works would benefit from editing and polishing, projection screens have seen better days, sound systems are not always state of the art.  But Whitstable Biennial’s character and strengths are not in the big budget spectacle, or highly-resolved monumental works, but in off-beat, small-scale nuanced pieces that explore the tributaries of the unexpected. It’s very much worth a visit.

The Whitstable Bienniale runs until 16 September, various venues, Whitstable

The seafront at Whitstable (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser