Works of more than 70 artists from 36 countries, including the UAE, are on display

The Sharjah Biennial is the most important art event in the UAE, perhaps even the region, with good reason. It engages, provokes and surprises at every level, reaching out to viewers of all ages, income groups, nationalities and levels of art education through clear, cutting-edge ideas presented in radically different forms by the world's leading contemporary artists.

This is not your father's idea of art. This is street art at its most vibrant — no velvet ropes to distance you, no one-dimensional rendering that requires a historical understanding of form, subject, and colour, and no rarefied atmosphere.

It is intimidating because it's not what we're used to — not the kind of art that hangs placidly on a wall for us to look at and wander past. This is immersive art that you need to walk into and around, listen to, read from and touch to fully understand; multi-media art that requires your participation. It can be a daunting experience, which is why we've created a layman's guide to understanding the Biennial.

What is the Biennial?

Simply put, it is an exhibition of modern art, taking place at two primary sites in Sharjah — the new Expo Centre and the Sharjah Art Museum — until June 6, 2005. Sharjah has hosted the Biennial since 1993, with the aim of encouraging interaction and sharing between artists, art institutes and audiences in the Arab world and with art communities around the world. Earlier editions focused on local and classical art forms, particularly painting, but in 2003 the Biennial took a huge step forward into the contemporary arts scene.

The 6th Biennial was remembered for its focus on new art practices, including installation art, video and photographic art, performance art and digital and web art.

This year's Biennial 7 builds on the masterplan to introduce contemporary art to the Gulf, and is centred on the theme of "Belonging".

What's on display?

More than 70 artists from 36 countries, including the UAE, have works on display. Most are existing works culled from galleries and artists around the world, but several have been created on-site in Sharjah, lending a very local feel to an international event. In most cases, the pieces are three-dimensional, where the viewer is part of the creative experience and is being directly addressed by the artist.

There is no limit to the diversity of mediums in use: photographs, video, audio, sculpture, comic-book style prints, rope, laundry bags, even a piece made exclusively of painted toilet paper plastered to the ceiling in a tribute of sort to Monet's Waterlilies. Similarly, there is no limit to the range of subjects addressed: international and regional politics, social change, the migrant experience, the evolution of society, children, fantasy, life experiences, even local practices.

Is it difficult to understand?

No. Some of the pieces are esoteric, and undoubtedly a few have an "Emperor's New Clothes" feel about them, but in the main the work is much easier to connect with than you would expect. Perhaps the subject matter that strikes a chord, or the user-friendly mediums used to express it, or the combination of the two.

The artists are addressing contemporary concerns, issues that we face in our own lifetime, events that require only a mind and heart, not a degree in art appreciation, to understand. In many cases, the message is quite stark and you're left only to marvel at the execution and imagination used to convey it.

It almost seems like this is one big dinner party, with visitors invited to participate in the social conversations that vary from one table to the next.

War around the world, the Palestinian situation, the Iraq conflict, the role of the media, the struggle of migration, social inequality, the unfettered development of the UAE, the decimation of the environment — everything is up for grabs.

Having said that, this is no walk in the park. The multimedia pieces in particular are dynamic, not static, and require time and effort to make their point. You cannot breeze through these exhibition sites.

Is it political?

Yes and no. Belonging and identity are very human, personal concepts — where do we belong? What do we belong to? What is our place in our family, society, peer group, nation or world? But are simultaneously concepts defined by politics. In the same measure, the Biennial is at once intensely personal and highly political, because politics defines our identity and the age we live in.

The theme of belonging/identity is particularly relevant in a country with such a large expatriate population; and in a region that still bears the footprints of the many who have passed through its portals.

People and governments alike identify with ideologies that drive their actions, and the Biennial in many ways is a tour de force of many of these identities. It is both subtly evolutionary and radically revolutionary in its thinking.

Why should I go?

One reason: because it is mind food, and good mind food is hard to come by in this part of the world. This once-in-two-years event provides not only a very different take on art, but a very different understanding of the world we live in. It is a public event with a noble purpose — to advance ideas and an appreciation of art.

Another reason: it's free, and it's a good way to spend a few hours with your children, family members and friends.

A third reason: to see something you will never see again. Unlike permanent collections at museums around the world, the Biennial is a temporary event — some of its pieces will be returned to their creators or owners, others will be dismantled, and still others will cease to exist in any form.

For a fourth, the trip could be the first step of a new discovery: Sharjah has long been the arts and culture centre of the UAE, but receives far more attention from tourists than residents for its efforts. This is your chance to make up for your absence, and to get an idea of the local art scene, particularly if you visit the Sharjah Art Museum.

The Heritage Area is walking distance from here, as is the Emirates Fine Arts society.

And lastly, even if you loathe driving to Sharjah, this is one experience that will make even an hour of crawling in traffic worthwhile.

Has it been successful so far?

Although it is early days yet for the Biennial — it began only weeks ago, on April 6 — the organisers are to be commended for a job well done. The exhibition courageously asks questions, shakes us