by JILL SPALDING
The desert may bury the roads at the will of the wind but the instant skylines of glass and steel supertalls drilled into its surface are there for the duration of petro-economies with big plans. More interesting are the plans, made manifest with mission statements that target the arts, education and a cultural commitment to public outreach.
Though Qatar leads the pack (in 1972, flush with oil and first to flex muscle, it bowed out of the United Arab Emirates, built early and acquired fast) there are regional similarities. All three countries are ruled by a royal family whose authority is absolute – indeed “Authority” is the designate of each governing branch; citizenship is generally denied to foreigners, even long-term residents; there is no private ownership of territory or title, and censorship prevails. Sectarian to the point of lending support to Sunni Syria, Qatar nonetheless understands the implications of turmoil and, fearing contagion, has promised a constitutional monarchy and says steps have been taken to bring in parliamentary law. However, the established date has been continually postponed and, as throughout the UAE, there is a widespread reluctance to say, do or show anything that might offend for fear of being fired or deported.
To the discerning visitor, however, likeness blurs as the term “region” grows less defined. Religiously, it connotes Islam. Politically, it might embrace all Arabia, as traditionally understood, or more narrowly, the Middle East and North Africa. Culturally, it has come to designate the shared affinities of Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharja. Most intriguing, and indicative of a real possibility of cultural breakthrough, is the current connotation of “region” as concept. One narrative, woven from a dying pearl economy rescued by fossil fuels, addresses deracination and alienation caused by religious wars, globalization and the technology revolution; Bedouin yanked from their tents, clans and generations divided, and the isolation of the “bedoon”, a social hybrid born of casual encounter – “my father went to America and sowed his royal oats”, said one artist, whose ruling family learned of her identity only years after her birth.
A second narrative weaves around outsiders whose new lives walk on eggshells; expatriates, tolerated but not embraced, who are seeking safe haven from the turbulence of their native Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq. A third struggles to link a historic past with an uncertain future; how can a nomad culture (both rulers and subjects remind you again and again that their fathers were traders and pearl divers traversing the desert on camels) transform to a capitalist society in one generation? How does the mall replace the courtyard without a wrenching sense of loss?
Wandering through these four cultures with the acutely tuned not-for-profit public installation group Creative Time, I came to believe that each ruling family’s aggressive push for a vigorous art scene comes as much from a need to assuage native longing as to make a huge splash on the global stage. Yes, local populations don’t get it as yet – many Qataris would vote for a Formula One track over museums, and boosting attendance in the existing exhibition spaces is an on-going challenge. And no question that in Qatar, as in the Emirates, the push to star architects, to celebrity artist exhibitions and to masterwork acquisition has been self-enhancing and calculated: “Art is business” said its powerful cultural maven Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, channelling Warhol without irony.
Nor is the stated intention of nurturing the Arab narrative entirely genuine. With some prodding, and on the condition of anonymity, lest “I be deported”, one artist I encountered spoke of the “false glitter” of artful presentation that skews commissioned works to the Authority’s definition of “free expression”. Another attributed his inclusion in the recent fair to work that he kept deliberately politically neutral. And the one-person show of the only Qatari artist we encountered, internationally acclaimed Amal Al Aathem, linked female identity to an ancient moon-centric universe to illustrate that “the idea of power of women is not accepted here”.
Still, one can only marvel at Qatar’s initiative. Quick to acknowledge that its oil and gas will run out, the Al Thani ruling family is developing a knowledge economy with a 30 year plan for a vast state-of-the-art medical centre (SIDRA) and a miles-long commune of teaching facilities (Education City), supported by top-paid intellectual talent from all over the world, that are already serving as much more than a coating for capitalist ambition.
In 2008, looking to museums for the “Bilbao effect”, they accommodated I.M Pei with an instant island that he might erect as his last monument a destination museum to exhibit the shimmering collection of Islamic art assembled by the Emir’s nephew, Sheik Saud. His brother Hassan was given a separate museum, Mathaf, for the over 6,000 works of modern Arabic art he’d collected. And promised for 2016 is a massive National Museum, designed by Jean Nouvel around twelve galleries modelled on the desert rose, whose intent is to trace the Quatari narrative back to prehistory.
With a rumoured $1 billion more, daughter Sheikha Mayassa bought the country’s crown jewels (the sheikha herself wears only a string bracelet that retails in the museum store for $83) an instant collection of modernist masterworks bannered by Albert Giacometti, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Paul Cezanne’s $250 million Card Players, and cushioned by such contemporary requisites as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. To lock in visibility, the Qatar Museum Authority, which she founded and runs, funds bold commissions like Richard Serra’s riff on a minaret positioned to dialogue across the water with a sixties Sheraton Hotel shaped like a mastaba, and launched a public arts programme that enables projects of a scale the artists’ recession-prone economies can’t support, like the recent sprawling “Ego-Murakami” and Louise Bourgeois retrospectives held in a specially built exhibition space.
Though it is unclear whether her blue-chip acquisitions are to benefit the family or the state, Sheikha Massaya well understands from her student days in Manhattan that an art scene can feed on global recognition only to a point before it will begin to feed on itself. In step with its commitment to educate and broaden the local community, the QMA underwrites outreach programmes at the interactive Katara Cultural Center, a winding, reconditioned school which functions as an exhibition-cum teaching-cum artists' residency space extending to children’s classes, outdoor installations and nearby restaurants that the director hopes will feed local appetites on to culture. Tellingly, however, the dialogue doesn’t end there. Looking up from the water’s edge we saw a massive mixed-use development rising on a manmade hill of pharaonic proportions. To us it spoke to the pervasiveness of the region’s mall culture, but the Center’s curator saw only more future visitors to his museum. The narrative is still being written.
The short plane flight to the Emirates is like that from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, though Miami is a closer analogy. Billing itself the hub of the Middle East, Dubai has been faulted for vanity projects and in effect there is a lot of biggest-this and biggest-that; (the Burj Khalifa is billed as the world’s tallest building; its new airport as the world's largest paved with marble; Jebel Ali as the world’s largest man-made harbour, Abraaj Capital’s annual $1 million award as the world’s heftiest art prize; begging the tag “To Buy” is the world’s largest mall, on and on). In a desert without water, brand-chef restaurants, umpteen-star hotels and lavish villas now host a concatenation of chic designer-wear, Italian furniture, Ferraris and at-home entertaining lit by rows of candles on fine linen tablecloths.
But more interesting than the surface miracle is the nagging undertow. And I don't mean the currents that are pulling the most artificial islands back into the sea. Rippling the waters behind what presents as the new world magic of an instant city designed by computer (who needs starchitects when glass can be digitally programmed to curve, fold, torque and climb to impossible heights?) is the inescapable dilemma of how to stage a modern scenario without rocking the boat. Parsing the language of dream versus reality is intricate. Does “first of its kind” mean pioneering (elevators climbing 2,600 feet in a nanosecond) or just novelty (world’s first indoor ski slope)?
Does “Coming soon” mean next year – Katara Cultural Center’s new wing; or 2020 – the World Cup; or never, like the remainder of Dubai’s hailed artificial islands, which are on indefinite hold? The ruling families might sanction short skirts and liquor in the interest of attracting global investment, but remain sensitive to the perils of transition, knowing from recent experience that without oil, an economy dependent on tourism and foreign business can dry up like an Arab winter, succumb to a hanta virus or catch fire from a spark of local dissatisfaction. “We are a minority”, our hosts kept reminding us, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan corrected us for titling him a ruler – “I prefer ‘leader’”, and Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum hedged his mission statement for SIKKA, the contemporary design fair he launched three years ago “to preserve Dubai’s values, traditions and heritage while supporting a grassroots cultural movement”.
Treading the coals of Art Week – an impressive roster of exhibitions, performances and installations staged by Dubai to rival those of the top international art fairs – presents a particular challenge. As in Qatar, the art on display, together with the curators, gallerists and artists themselves, is beholden to the strictures of the ruling Authority. At the same time, the young royals, all schooled in the West, well understand that serious art’s defining vernacular is unfettered expression. The Authority’s compromise is nuance, and the line is indeed fine.
Dr Lamees Hamdam, who in 2009 launched the first UAE presence at the Venice Bienniale and is considered forward in her collecting, told us at a luncheon she hosted at her husband’s poignantly traditional mijlas, “I will exhibit bums – on the second floor only – but no frontal nudes. We are an embracing people, we do not offend”. It is significant that the region’s most venerated artist, Hassan Sharif, a cultural ambassador of sorts judging from the roster of programmed visits to his studio, comments on the human condition with eye-catching installations (mounds of Tupperware, flipflops, bent spoons) that identify instantly as contemporary but remain politically neutral. So, too, did our exhilarating visit to the house/studio of two brother-artists, Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh, both exiled from Iran, encounter an exuberance that was openly sexual but closely edited to skirt religion and politics: objects, canvasses and fixtures, painted, glued, plastered and assembled from the flotsam of their gritty neighbourhood, crowded against random furniture, clustered plantings and a cage of ornamental hens, to form a universe of new memories that pushes the envelope of imagination without ruffling Emirati sensibilities.
Pushing in a different direction, Traffic, a showspace sprouted by curator and artist Rami Farook from the dust of what seems nowhere, offered a video that commented on the vanity of supertalls, and a wall installation made with local brick that lacked any identity.
Identity was a dominant theme of Art Dubai itself, staged in a wing of the Mina A’ Salam Hotel, it hosted artwork that was strong but not offending; a series of photographs depicting a gas pump that morphs into a gun held to the head comes to mind. Conceptual pieces abounded; my favourite involved a concrete tower, vandalized opening night for the 500 dirham it contained, whose shattered pieces were left where they had fallen by the artist’s direction, to manifest his idea actualized.
Attendance was high and high profile – MoMA’s Glenn Lowry filed by, and the Guggenheim's Richard Armstrong, the Serpentine’s Hans Ulrich Obrist, and the Tate’s Chris Dercon, as well as residents in white robes trailing art consultants – or an entire retinue if royalty.
The art we encountered at the Barjeel Foundation might have proved more unsettling, but that its founder, and our guide, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, is also royalty. It still startled to hear him speak in the forbidden idiom that drives his remarkable collection of paintings that depict religions and communities since exiled from Arabia; “Jews!” “Christians!” “Women!” and risk further disapproval with frontal Nudes! The Sultan calls the Gulfs’ new museums “tools to propagate the ‘approved’ narrative”, noting their sudden jump from the advent of Islam to the current ruling families. “None tackle the role or even existence of minorities or other ethnic and religious groups”. The early 20th century work currently on show (a fraction of the 500 pieces the Sultan has assembled) though of high quality, appears at first glance derivative. Titled Re-Orient, the show reverses the allegation by questioning the West’s romanticised view of the East and meeting our expectation of appropriation with dated evidence that the majority of the work was made at the same time as that of the European artists it seems to imitate.
The fair’s boldest contemporary work made its way to the scrappy warehouse area of Al Quoz, for this week at least a happening scene that stitched together over 40 seasoned and young galleries with work that, if uneven, was for the most part arresting. A stunning show built around a floated bird, a video of tethered doves and boy corpses in a morgue mourned a past atrocity; a mini-retrospective of large mirrored works commented on the flash and vanity of new money; candles burning in worn leather shoes spoke to the vulnerability or survivability of mankind – I never figured out which. Interest and energy were palpable. Buses bringing the well-heeled from the business centre’s DIFA galleries fed the conviviality until commitments to lavish rooftop parties intervened.
The question, of course, is what happens when the flock moves on. DIFA’s commercial spaces as well as securely funded venues like the Barjeel stay open all year, and there are intermittent cultural programmes, like the annual Global Art Forum (co-sponsored with the QMA) which at the moment is scrutinizing the effect on art-making of the terms being used to describe it: ”definitionism” was the first; next will be Freezone, then Neologism. Though sales are brisk, with no museums to jumpstart private collections, excepting a few players like Arif Nacqvi, who heads Private Equity Giant Abraaj Capital, the big buyers are still the royals, not reassuring for dealers seeking to build a base clientele.
More stable by definition, in that it has positioned itself to be the region’s museum capital, is Abu Dhabi. Already, its promised museums have driven strong private collections and, as Larry Gagosian – supplier extraordinaire of celebrity artists to the Emirates – observed of the Abu Dhabi Art fair, relocating it to a purpose-built building was a “huge improvement”. True, power struggles have slowed even this oil-and-gas-rich economy so that, for the moment, its art scene too, remains seasonal and on hold, revolving around its art week and galleries.
The promise of Saadiyat Island, a Disney-world art enclave fringed with lavish villas and private beaches (a conceit explained as concern for the protection of breeding turtles) remains just that. Jean Nouvel’s Louvre, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim and Norman Foster’s 66,000 square-metre Zayed National Museum, are still flashed on videos and poster-boards as “Coming Soon” and Tadao Ando’s lilting Maritime Museum has been cancelled. The price paid for such exalted branding has come at a price (up to 4.8 billion dirham just to use the Louvre and Guggenheim names) that is not only financial but psychological; both names are rented – in 30 years, their time’s up.
One has to wonder too, given the challenge that Qatar is facing to lure local traffic to accessible museums, how Abu Dhabi will pull people to an island positioning itself as exclusive after the swirl around Art Week ebbs. The question nags as to how a small population will remain a big player should its global allure diminish; if China should discover its own oil, for example, will high culture be able to sustain the Gulf States, or will they too, become rentals, hired out to the vagaries of tourism and venture capital?
Short of total conflagration (I heard it said in Qatar that if the US pulls the sixth fleet, boats holding bombs are poised to take out all the Gulf States and the skyscrapers with them) my bet is on resilience. Location, location, plus ambition backed by money can establish enduring societies. After all, Florence under the Medici was in a sense built in a day, but its position on the trade route of the Mediterranean, together with a commissioned culture that deepened with religious support (in its case the Vatican’s) has survived centuries of plague, war and, yes, recession.