Emulating the architecture of survival, the tower is nevertheless majestic in its appearance, its proportions and open ceiling inspiring a sense of awe upon entering. Inside, one can sit on cast-concrete benches around the perimeter and stare upward into the sky, an experience that becomes almost spiritual at night. Yet, the transcendental qualities of the work are tempered by its mimetic qualities. Because Borg El Amal is so reminiscent of the urban landscape, it also reminds viewers who take pleasure in it of the privileged position of art, and art’s ability to distance poverty.

Lara Baladi, <em>Borg El Amal (Tower of Hope)</em>, 2008 (detail).

Lara Baladi, Borg El Amal (Tower of Hope), 2008 (detail). Customized brick for the project, ready to be cooked. Cairo Biennial of Contemporary Art, 2008-09. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Lara Baladi.

This contrast is underscored by the work’s soundtrack of soprano voice, cello, flute, and violin, composed by Nathaniel Robin Mann and Angel Lopez de la Llave, as inspired by Henryk Górecki’s composition Symphony of Sorrowful Songs #3, Opus 36 (1976). The music disrupts contemplation, as its striking tones are punctuated by the recorded braying of donkeys. Banned by officials from the city’s center, the beast of burden also returns as an image pressed into some of the tower’s bricks. Despite its contradictory aesthetic, the mix of braying donkeys and poignant modern music is seamless, underscoring the aesthetic contradictions at the heart of the project. Winner of the Biennale’s Nile Grand Award, Borg El Amal achieves a delicate synthesis by allowing for a physical experience of pleasure and transcendence while serving as a socially engaged, non-reductive artwork.

Perhaps more so than any other biennale host, Cairo cradles the art in its immensity and history, demanding multiple interpretations and providing endless instances of questioning. Many of the artworks on view encourage a critical approach to the process of visiting and looking. The representation of social issues central to this Biennale orients the visitor as she steps out into the city to soak in its thousands of years of history, her awareness of her position as an observer finely tuned.

Dr. Nizan Shaked is an Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History, Museum and Curatorial Studies at California State University Long Beach. In 2008, Shaked (along with three others) received an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award for How Many Billboards on the Boulevard?, a large outdoor exhibition of commissioned billboards slated to launch in 2010.