Castles in the Sand


Left: Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s culture minister. Right: Artist Lawrence Weiner. (Except where noted, all photos: Kyle Bentley)

Last Tuesday morning, during the Art Dubai press conference, I was thinking about the night before, when the New York air would have been cool and heavy, the US dollar worth a record fraction of the euro, and I had been in a cab doing 100 on Sheikh Zayed Road, where it was 77 degrees at 9 PM and money seemed to grow on hydroponic trees. Virgin, Canon, Crown Plaza, and the Metroplex streaked by. The Mall of the Emirates (“the world’s first shopping resort”) and the rising Burj Dubai (“the world’s tallest tower”) did the same amid light-box billboards of sheikhs and perfume and floodlit buildings with South Asian construction workers inside. We drove into Dubai Internet City, then Dubai Media City, two of the city’s industry-organized neighborhoods. So now sitting outside the fair halls in the Jumeirah Madinat, a resort “styled to resemble an ancient Arabian citadel” (with a souk, two “boutique” hotels, and courtyard summerhouses), I couldn’t help but think that all this added up to nothing but a franchise, something like Dubai Art City.

Just another Pfizer or IBM stationed in this magical city in the desert, I thought, as teacups clinked and cameras flashed while fair codirector John Martin (a London-based dealer) and education director Savita Apte (an art historian and Sotheby’s consultant) seated themselves with fellow speaker Frederic Sicre, executive director of Abraaj Capital, the private equity firm partnered with the fair. What followed was a hard sell. Artists are entrepreneurs. The fair is a gateway between “the East and the West.” Sicre spoke of Abraaj’s deepening interests in a region spanning the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia that the company has labeled, he shared proudly, MENASA. (The original acronym, SAMENA, was scrapped when it was revealed to translate in Arabic as “fat lady.”) Sicre noted: “Where the Western economies seem to be going through a few difficulties, emerging markets,” like those of MENASA, “are really the call of the day.”

Left: British Museum curator Venetia Porter. Right: Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, with dealer Kamel Mennour.

The subsequent question-and-answer session had just begun when an excited press agent interrupted: His Highness Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s culture minister, had arrived. Audience members clamored for a photo op, and then a beaming Martin led the sheikh through the maze of booths—the former pointing to this or that object, the latter occasionally exchanging words with dealers and artists—as photographers and journalists maintained a tight ring around them, some shuffling backward to snap pictures and bumping into sculptures that dealers scrambled to guard.

“It’s called Flying Carpets,” artist Alex Flemming said to the sheikh about his airplane-shaped Oriental rugs hanging in the Bolsa de Arte booth: “What do you think?” The sheikh: “I think I could fly away on it.” The crowd chuckled nervously. A journalist noted that Contrasts Gallery was organizing a fair in Hong Kong to open this spring and passed him her business card. He accepted it without looking down. Having made its way through the Credit Suisse exhibition—titled, predictably, “Art and Entrepreneurship”—and out the main entrance, the crowd took more photos at Wim Delvoye’s outdoor installation of a rusty rickshaw. Then it ended as quickly as it had begun: The sheikh and his companions stepped into a taupe Hummer and disappeared around the bend.

The fair had three significant projects apart from the main halls: the Pakistani-pavilion exhibition, “Desperately Seeking Paradise”; the Art Park, a video lounge (organized by the editors of Bidoun and curators Tirdad Zolghadr and Nav Haq) housed in the parking garage below the main fair; and the Global Art Forum, a series of lectures in a tent on the Arabian Gulf beach. Of the works in “Desperately Seeking Paradise,” Huma Mulji’s Arabian Delight, a taxidermic camel from Pakistan stuffed into a black suitcase with a palm-tree pattern on its interior, stood out most (which is perhaps why the government ordered its removal). Mohammed Ali Talpur’s drawing-in-space, a cube of various Plexiglas planes painted with black lines, looked good but not as strong as his fine ink-on-paper works exhibited in the Green Cardamom booth. Soon after I had begun to explore the Art Park, my phone vibrated with an incoming message: COME TO THE FRONT NOW.

Left: Artist Ai Weiwei with dealer Christine Koenig. Right: Artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine codirector of exhibitions and programs.

The mass had again congealed on the red carpet at the entrance, their obscene lenses focused on two parked Hummers and any man wearing a kandura. A group of robed gentlemen dispersed as a third car pulled up and Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, stepped out to be greeted by Martin. Another chaotic tour ensued. “Beautiful,” the sheikh said of Reena Kallat’s picture of a young girl composed of rubber stamps; “I like the movement,” he said of Sung-Tae Park’s wire wall sculptures of horses (a predictable choice, perhaps, given his much-publicized equestrian hobbies). He ran his hand along Valay Shende’s Gun of Counter-Revolution, a nickel-plated sculpture of a firearm whose two barrels point in opposite directions, and along the artist’s nearby gold-plated motorcycle. A pretty journalist stopped the sheikh at the top of the escalator to the Art Park and asked: “Do you like contemporary art?” He laughed and stepped onto the descending stairway. On entering the video lounge, he looked back: “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

The next morning, bleary-eyed from the lively patron’s preview and the rooftop afterparty sponsored by London gallery Albion, the press-junket participants were driven to the building of fair shareholder Dubai International Finance Center for two talks: one by Anders Petterson, of ArtTactic, a market-research company, the other by Louise T. Blouin MacBain, founder of the eponymous media empire. “It’s not actually the work itself, it’s who’s supporting it,” Petterson said and passed around a spreadsheet on the Indian art market, a “heatmap” meant to provide a “snap-shot of the current psychology in the market,” with the summative headline “Optimists Outweigh Pessimists.” For her part, MacBain took the microphone in hand and stepped away from the podium: “I must say that it’s so wonderful to go and experience start-ups, especially in these regions, we need it so much. Dubai needs it. The Middle East needs it. We need to discover the art.” She conceded, about her new website, MyArtinfo (“a Facebook with artists”), created to help ease the discrepancy between “local governments” and “global issues,” that “poor people, they have to have a computer to get onto the Internet, and that’s a big challenge,” and, of people in refugee camps, “feeding them” takes priority.

Left: Artist Huma Mulji with Arabian Delight. Right: The Museum of Modern Arab Art's Wassan al-Khudhairi with the Third Line's Claudia Cellini.

This convoluted scenario—in which art is likened at once to entrepreneurship, to luxury, to the great social solvent—was cut through by Lawrence Weiner during his Global Art Forum talk with British Museum curator Venetia Porter, whose exhibition “Word into Art,” which features two word sculptures by Weiner, was being hosted by the DIFC. Porter’s show follows the use of calligraphy in Middle Eastern art (hewing to no country’s specific history) from its religious beginnings through “abstraction.” Porter saw “calligraphy,” whereas Weiner saw “typefonts.” Porter saw her exhibition as an objective “presentation,” whereas Weiner saw it as a “framed environment” fostering exoticism. Porter saw the art as a window onto a Middle Eastern sensibility, one deeply rooted in Islam, whereas Weiner posited art as a “material fact” about “passing on relationships of human beings to objects.” The language is beside the point.

Porter: “I’m trying to tell a story.”

Weiner: “They’re not characters in a story.”

It went like this until it ended with no common ground charted.

That night was a party at the house of Claudia Cellini, one of the three founders of Dubai gallery Third Line. The popping corks sounded particularly loud, perhaps because they signaled the violation of the daylong dry period mandated for the Prophet’s birthday. I spoke with Bidoun’s Lisa Farjam and art historian Murtaza Vali about the South Asian labor system in Dubai and with Tehran-based artists Shirin Aliabadi and Farhad Moshiri (the first Middle Eastern artist to sell at auction for more than one million dollars) about the Internet firewalls in their city. Charlie Koolhaas and Art Asia Pacific editor H. G. Masters chatted in the driveway. Weiner stopped by, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist headed to the bar. We stayed up late and ate curry in the back and all seemed well in this new Gulf town as English words floated out on shisha smoke into the night.

Left: Artists Shirin Aliabadi and Farhad Moshiri. (Photo: Kyle Bentley) Right: Bidoun's Negar Azimi with critic Shumon Basar.

Left: Artist Tony Cragg. Right: Galerie Chantal Crousel director Niklas Svennung with Chantal Crousel.

Left: Artist Wijdan. Right: Credit Suisse's Bruno Daher and “Art and Entrepeneurship” curator Michelle Nicol.

Left: Contrast Gallery's Pearl Lam. Right: LTB Media owner Louise T. Blouin MacBain.

Left: B21 Gallery's Tessa de Caters and Rana al-Naser. Right: Portsmouth Group Shawn Stephen Vessaokar with Omair.

Left: Artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh. Right: Art adviser Paolo Colombo and Galleria Continua's Lorenzo Fiaschi.

Left: ArtTactic founder Anders Petterson. Right: Dealer Kashya Hildebrand with a friend.

Left: Art Asia Pacific's H. G. Masters and artist Mamiko Otsubo. Right: Outside the fair.

Left: Art Dubai fair codirector John Martin, Sheikh Majid, and Art Dubai education director Savita Apte. Right: Bidoun editor in chief Lisa Farjam with critic Shumon Basar.