Text: Aasim Akhtar
photography: Courtesy Art Dubai
With a population of running into millions, an architectural boom that embraces vertical fantasies straight out of
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and roving bands of young artists ready to mount ad hoc shows of a few days’ duration in the old
port’s countless disused warehouses and excess office-tower spaces, Dubai now seems too diverse, too energetic and too
commercial to be held in check by social strictures.
These alternative displays, focused exclusively on cutting-edge art work, were mounted in various booths, drawing foreign visitors (along with artists from all across the globe) into a dynamic dialogue with the local artistic community. Sited in Madinat Jumeirah, the recent Art Dubai 2011 brought together 82 international art galleries from across the world. (A bit of legerdemain was employed to beef up the foreign contingent!). Art Dubai’s 5th venue is both daunting and picturesque, is an imposing baked-clay fortress. The Fair was part of a much larger arts festival that also included a collaboration with the Global Arts Forum_5. Established alongside the first Art Dubai, it began as the grandest of talk shops. For the first time, however, it took up partnership with four cities in the Gulf: Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai and Doha. At Art Dubai, it focused on two narratives this year: Fascination: How Art Met Fashion and Disappointment Managenent: Artists and Audiences. But the real visual- arts action took place, guerrilla fashion, in group shows with no official link to the 10th International Sharjah Biennial, next door. These alternative displays, focused exclusively on cutting-edge art work, were mounted in various booths, drawing foreign visitors (along with artists from all across the globe) into a dynamic dialogue with the local artistic community.
Works seemed instead to be situated according to their formal rapport with the space and each other – a radical curatorial concept that some Western museums might do well to readopt. Painting was the most contested category,for it was here that the organizers most diligently sought to accommodate, without utterly capitulating to, conservative hometown taste. There is power behind old-school local preference. This was probably the first fair in which modes other than painting made up at least quarter of the works. Indeed, installation art – viewed by most government authorities as alien and potentially disruptive – was shown …where ancient forms of calligraphy and ink painting remain basic requirements in the art academies and where old-guard traditionalists hold many positions of bureaucratic influence. In addition, an extensive online venue made at least part of the show available to a wide audience, while abundant lectures, symposia and artists’ talks provided the educational component. It was lovely to find a richly idiosyncratic, brilliantly organized exhibition, chock-full of layers and surprises having much to do with the multiple connotations of being ‘corporate’ and ‘metrosexual’.
Yet perhaps the most striking feature of all the activities was the seamlessness with which ‘advanced’ Middle Eastern work – and, by implication, progressive Middle Eastern thinking – merged into the standard categories of Western art practice. Such openness to cultural fusion is, so to speak, no small matter. A renowned Director, Antonia Carver, provided the now requisite vision for the fair that aimed to counter ‘Western-centricism’ with a healthy mix of self- realising ‘Orientality’ and eclectic globalism. After years of isolation, Dubai has reemerged as the prime site of Emirates’ new push toward modernization, offering the entire Middle East world a model of cultural hybridity that, retaining the best of indigenous traditions assimilates Western goods and concepts without being utterly captive to foreign ways. Yet perhaps the most striking feature of all the activities was the seamlessness with which ‘advanced’ Middle Eastern work – and, by implication, progressive Middle Eastern thinking – merged into the standard categories of Western art practice. Such openness to cultural fusion is, so to speak, no small matter. Mercifully, the official fair was not gerrymandered into national sections or pretentiously titled thematic subdivisions.
For more than four years, it has offered visual art as a means to promote liberal cultural exchange in the Middle East. With this 5th edition, the fair apparently pursued exchange opportunities valuable above all for its local host, a politically conservative, separatist, Islamic region that dedicated a large sum to rehabilitate its image. The highly coveted Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2011 which comes with $ 1 million in disbursements recognizes the utmost excellence in curator- led artistic proposals. This year introduced a new format, whereby five artists and one international curator were
honoured rather than three artists with three curators. Working under the guidance of curator Sharmini Pereira from Sri Lanka, the winners this year were Shezad Dawood and Hamra Abbas from Pakistan, Timo Nasseri from Iran, Janine Al Ani from Iraqand Nadia Kaabi-Linke from Tunisia.
Ever since its inception, Art Dubai Fair has been an event committed to creating opportunities. Launched in 2008 as an independent, not for profit Emirati initiative, the fair sought to support a broad range of contemporary artists, curators and communities, taking advantage of – and reflecting – the political and economic changes brought about by the end of the Cold War. The Fair aspired to foster artistic production and to develop new audiences throughout Asia, where there were fewer resources and cultural institutions than in the West. Though the latest fair does include a record number of curators and artists from far-flung regions, there seems to have been a shift in aims, as well. For more than four years, it has offered visual art as a means to promote liberal cultural exchange in the Middle East. With this 5th edition, the fair apparently pursued exchange opportunities valuable above all for its local host, a politically conservative, separatist, Islamic region that dedicated a large sum to rehabilitate its image. The decision to make such a generous investment is not likely motivated by an interest in or support of art per se; rather, according to rumour, it involves an elaborate tax scheme designed to increase property values and further separatist policies.
The highly coveted Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2011 which comes with $ 1 million in disbursements recognizes the utmost excellence in curator-led artistic proposals. This year introduced a new format, whereby five artists and one international curator were honoured rather than three artists with three curators. Working under the guidance of curator Sharmini Pereira from Sri Lanka, the winners this year were Shezad Dawood and Hamra Abbas from Pakistan, Timo Nasseri from Iran, Janine Al Ani from Iraq and Nadia Kaabi-Linke from Tunisia. The inspiration behind Dawood’s New Dream Machine Project began with the painter Brion Gysin’s prototype Dream Machine. The kinetic light sculpture was designed to emit kaleidoscopic light pulses similar in effect to alpha waves produced by the brain to induce states of unconsciousness. Abbas’s Woman in Black depicted the image of a
fictional super-heroine in stained glass window, installed in a make-shift chapel wall. In Kaab- Linke’s Flying Carpet,
geometric metal forms, derived from stencil outlines of the hawker’s carpets, are suspended by cascades of hanging thread. Taking the form of a bridge, the work hovered in space like a floating cage. Timo Nasseri’s Gon takes its name from the Greek and German words for a unit of measurement used to calculate angles within a circle; the stainless steel sculpture a symmetrical arrangement to disappear and reappear in new spatial configurations. While Al Ani’s film that took on the form of an aerial journey was made up of images of a landscape bearing traces of man- made and natural activity.
Van Cleef and Arpels brought to life the exotic worlds and creatures in the works of iconic 19th-century French novelist, Jules Verne. From a team of 10 designers and three years in the making, four jewellery series covered the four elements of earth, fire, wind and water: From the Earth to the Moon, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Five Weeks in a Balloon, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, all embodied in unique 100 pieces. Showcased in an exhibition designed by theatre director Alfredo Arias and painter Ruben Alterio, four gigantic statues, Les Cariatides, represented the four journeys. Parallel to that, Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain came with Cartier Column by Italian artist and designer Alessandro Mendini alongside a series of drawings by comic artist and cartoonist Moebius alias Jean Giraud. The 2.3 metre high column in which semi- precious stones were arranged into categories and were then enclosed in crystal cylinders.
The opening night of Art Dubai played host to START that champion’s excellence in art education by working with practicing artists, art professionals, art students as volunteers and ambassadors, by showcasing Sacha Jafri’s huge psychedelic canvases. Following his residency at Jordan, Jafri led us through the eyes of a child into a dream world of fantasy and make-believe. Interspersed with these works, which determinedly engage the exhibition venue, were a few that focused on the region’s complicated political history and multiethnic, polyglot identity. Mona Hatoum and Susan Hefuna at Rose Issa Gallery, Faiza Butt at Vadehra Grosvenor, Rana Rashid at Chemould Prescott Road/Chatterjee and Lal, and Saira Ansari and Mehreen Murtaza of Grey Noise rocked a few boats. One of Art Dubai 2011’s highlights was Korean-born Ran Hwang’s colourful red bead tree at Zurich-based Galerie Kashya Hildebrand. Hwang’s dramatic Empty Me, of two birds comprising buttons and pins on wood panel, was typical of his oeuvre – a style that often belies more serious themes beneath its quirky exterior. Pakistani artists’ presence at the Fair was noteworthy with Saad Qureshi at Aicon Gallery, Shahzia Sikander at Pilar Corrias, Huma Bhabha at Galerie Nathale Obadia and Waqas Khan at Lakeeren Gallery. Other artists chose not to address any specific site or scene, but rather to delve into problems inherent to the region that are also prevalent elsewhere, including political antagonisms arising from ideologies of autonomy; ….crafts the voice of each character with an accomplished balance of fidelity and mockery as she spouts various brands of radical rhetoric. Raqs Media Collective – its members, Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, are artists whose media-based work engages urban spaces and global circuits – do not amount to a show of much significance. The videos, sculptures, sound installations, Internet stations and drawing sequences seem tendentious and inelegant. Many works are motivated by a desire to make political change, but few would be compelling without their topical subject matter, which is often heartbreaking. One does not wish to deny that art can and should reflect political commitments, for artists often will be the best witnesses, critics and leaders in an active society. Yet among art’s great freedoms and most radical potentials is its ability to render appeals for change in nuanced terms, proposing solutions that are difficult and complex, whereas conventional politics tend toward reduction and stereotype. When agency is replaced by agenda, the intelligence and poetry of art often get sacrificed. Still, Art Dubai 2011 somehow suffered the very same pitfalls that we decry of any nation-building art, reinforcing clichés such as: Nordic artists work with fire and ice, Palestinian artists work with checkpoints, and Caribbean artists work with boats. One cannot help think of the ‘biennial effect’, whereby artists package and serve up their cultural identity to satisfy world-stage consumption.