Marrakech Biennale 2014
Review by Rob La Frenais
One of the most (but not the only) bizarre aspects of the opening week of the 5th Marrakech Biennale was the shipping of busloads of the smartly-dressed VIP crowd to a small mountain in the middle of the Afgay Desert, where, in the style of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, the Russian artist and former submariner Alexander Ponomarev had constructed a vast bamboo model of the wreck of the Costa Concordia, entitled ‘Voice in the Wilderness’.
We were only given the GPS co-ordinates N31 26’ W 08 10’ to find it. This included the local bus drivers hired to ferry us out there, so after a lot of smartphone action from the mostly German press contingent, a final cheer went up as we spied the ship in the distance: the buses could take the rough road no longer and a lot of expensive designer shoes hit the desert floor for the final lap.
We arrived along the dirt road at an extraordinarily decadent desert Kasbah, with uniformed waiters and all the refreshments you might want in this unlikely location. Two helicopters stood parked outside provided by sponsors Heliconia Aero Solutions. These had whisked the Branson family (Richard Branson’s sister Vanessa is the founder and president of the Biennale) to the spot, but these helicopters were also the stars of Ponomarev’s performance. He led the audience to the foot of the mountain, then climbed up to the ship, as one of the helicopters took off and literally attacked the sculpture.
This piece was a symbolic project about the lack of responsibility of the ‘captains of the world’. It attacked the bankers marching off with their bonuses leaving the financial institutions floundering in 2008, as well as commenting on the hapless Captain Schettino leaving his ship. Ponomarev: ‘our situation is hopeless, we are wandering in the wilderness, our captain Moses is having fun with his mistress in the cabin, we are already lost in boundless space’the captain is first to leave with his suitcase between his legs. From the desert of Morocco I am calling on every captain of the world to get back on board’’ The helicopter buzzed the crowd then attacked the hillside with a powerful jet of compressed air, revealing the famous words of the coastguard ‘Vada a Bordo’’ then finally the Italian demotic ‘Cazzo’ which can only be translated loosely as ‘asshole’.
Discussing the performance later at the Riad El Fenn ,which served as the biennale bar, many people felt the irony of the sumptuous display and the elite nature of the event, which kind of contradicted the message of the performance. But this will always seem to be a conflict when putting on socially-engaged work in a developing country with all the trappings of the international biennale set. That said, there was a good variety of interesting work, mainly from the Middle East, Africa and India as well as Europe. Walid Raad’s fake shadow (pictured) was particularly nice touch in the context of a well-known palace of antiquities. I enjoyed the ambitious onsite 3D printing by the African Fabbers group, as well as the daily geometry lessons in the Jamma Al Fn’aa square among the buskers and firedancers.
This biennale is a chaotic but essentially friendly new event, with all the hiccups that could be expected in a laid-back place like Morocco. I was there to help present the work by Berlin artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis, another ambitious but ephemeral work in the desert where she was literally trying to ‘trap’ meteors. Amazingly, with the help of an entire Moroccan village, she pulled it off.