THE END OF BLING. Damien Hirst’s glittering death’s-head flashed on the screen. DUBAI EXPATS GIVE NEW MEANING TO LONG-STAY CAR PARK came a headline. Then, a quote from Anna Wintour: I DON’T THINK ANYONE IS GOING TO WANT TO LOOK OVERLY FLASHY, OVERLY GLITZY, TOO DUBAI. “The media is all too eager to document ‘the end of Dubai,’” Rem Koolhaas said to the audience. “It’s as if we need the reassurance of Dubai’s demise to restore our own confidence.”
It was late Monday afternoon in the Emirate of Sharjah, and about a hundred of us were sitting in a darkened room at Dar Al Nadwa trying to catch the tail end of the first day of the March Meetings. Koolhaas had followed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi overseer Thomas Krens, capping off a tag team of Gulf cultural attachés/apologists who were no less convincing for being on the local payroll. As Koolhaas continued, a curator leaned over. “All he does is critique the critics. Look, he’s bashing Mike Davis again.”
It was the day before the preview of the third Art Dubai fair and two days before the official opening of the ninth Sharjah Biennial—though “official” timelines shifted depending on the person; each tier of participants seemed to have its own itinerary, institutionalizing a certain status anxiety. At the same time that this particular crowd of journalists, locals, and art tourists sat straining to hear Krens and Koolhaas, another group of art caravanners had pitched their tents at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, where a series of Global Art Forum panels had also commenced that day. (The series continued later that week in Dubai.) The wide view was impossible: One simply had to choose. “March Meeting” had a more revolutionary ring (not surprising, given the occasionally aimless bombast of the biennial’s artistic director, Jack Persekian); “Global Art Forum” sounded positively nerdy by comparison. But Hans Ulrich Obrist was over there, and Krens and Koolhaas were here. I’d have preferred the former, but extenuating circumstances intervened. What’s your poison?
Sharjah’s heritage district was picturesque, to be sure. “There’s an actual street culture. I prefer it to Dubai,” noted artist Jane Wilson. “Too bad you can’t have an art gala here—no alcohol, no hashish.” One could almost forgive the biennial its T.G.I. Friday’s–style signage. “You can do Sharjah in four hours,” one gallery director advised. “You could do it in less, but then you probably wouldn’t like it very much.” Many I spoke with apparently did it in less. Sometimes-meandering videos and installations in dishabille made for a hard trek.
There was much worth considering, though. Many praised Lamia Joreige’s ambitious nine-room video installation inspired by Francis Bacon triptychs and Jalal Toufic’s concept of the “overturn.” Obrist and Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer fell for Haris Epaminonda’s terse, deceptively simple Polaroids of found images. Other standout works included pieces by Sharif Waked (a play on the genre of “living martyr” videos), Lamya Gargash (representing this year’s new UAE pavilion in Venice), a rediscovered Robert MacPherson, Basma al-Sharif, and Lara Favaretto (her white cube made from confetti, not her insipid car-wash installations outside). Much of the rest, though, was either pretentious or too literal, either decontextualized or straining to project a context. “When was the last time you saw a biennial in which you really loved more than a few pieces?” Obrist asked innocently.
That night, I took the forty-five-minute taxi ride south to Dubai; it was the first of many trips between the two emirates. (At roughly seventy-five dirhams, or twenty US dollars, one didn’t think much of traveling between the two.) If the media had visions of a failed Dubai, the art world dreamed of a sybaritic (and well-funded) social laboratory in the sands. It found as much in the Jumeirah Beach hotel complex hosting the fair—a gilded echo chamber on the shores of the Gulf. We’d all read about Dubai in the papers and witnessed the ebullient Sheikh Zayed road from our cars on the way in; for many of us, Art Dubai offered little more than cultural window-shopping. We strained to locate metaphors to give some sense of our surroundings. “It’s the third in a trinity—Venice, Las Vegas, Dubai,” asserted dealer Max Protetch. “Dubai is Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi is Beverly Hills, and Sharjah is . . . Santa Monica,” espoused writer Bob Colacello. “It’s like a city designed by children!” argued an enthusiastic Jake Chapman. (It’s perhaps worth noting that Chapman was the only to claim he’d want to live there.)
The fair was familiar enough territory. I’m sure that the Flying Wallendas could recognize the inside of the big top no matter which city they were in. Impeccable installation, a decent mix of international galleries, superior graphic design—it all had a certain glean and promise. But what of the work? Much Écriture Orientale, textiles, florid arabesques, shiny, gaudy things: items you would imagine a European or American dealer would think a Dubai collector would want. “Is this ‘knowing your audience’ or mere condescension?” one expert pointedly asked. Anish Kapoor’s mirrored, geometric platter was there at Lisson (always a big draw, the piece made the cover of Gulf News); Protetch brought a $2.5 million Matisse. Sfeir-Semler gallery (of Beirut and Hamburg) showed smart photographs by Akram Zaatari and some revelatory works on paper by inimitable Cairo-based artist Anna Boghiguian. L&M Arts classed it up with Yves Klein tables and David Hammons Kool-Aid paintings. Cairo nonprofit Townhouse, whose stand was sponsored by the fair but which had no money for shipping, showed attractive drawings by Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy borrowed from one of her commercial galleries. The Third Line and Emmanuel Perrotin each put paintings by Iranian art star Farhad Moshiri front and center, while both Salon 94 and Galerie Krinzinger brought agreeable works by another Iranian-born (though New York–based) artist, Laleh Khorramian.
Some of the work even found buyers. The Sheikha of Dubai apparently thought Ma Jun’s garishly painted Buick at Michael Schultz worth the $114,000 price tag. Two women in hijabs inquired about Kate Eric’s ornate painting at Frey Norris; they were disappointed to hear that it had sold early. “We flew all the way to Dubai to meet a very nice collector from Miami,” gallery proprietor Raman Frey joked. Saudi gallery Athr, showing in a fair for the first time, by Thursday had reported nearly selling out its rather crowded stand. Others were less satisfied. “Marc Spiegler’s come by my booth more times than John Martin,” one prominent New York dealer reported, comparing the respective directors of Art Basel and Art Dubai. “John had better bring me some Emiratis, or I won’t be coming back next year.”
“All the right faces in all the right places,” noted one curator, and indeed Jumeirah hosted a dizzy mix. Museum directors Glenn Lowry, Joseph Thompson, and Lisa Phillips (en route from Oman—don’t ask) had made the pilgrimage, as had curators Catherine David, Richard Flood, Frances Morris, and Jessica Morgan and collector Maja Hoffmann. Mari Spirito of 303 Gallery had come from Istanbul, where days earlier she had dodged tear gas while protesting the fifth World Water Forum. Yto Barrada was spreading word of Cinémathèque de Tanger, an art-house movie theater she is spearheading in Morocco.
It struck me that the bulk of the cultural advocates I met were women: Barrada was one; David, artistic director for the ADACH platform in Venice, another. And then there were Bidoun magazine’s Lisa Farjam and Negar Azimi, dealers Sunny Rahbar and Claudia Cellini (of the Third Line), Isabelle van den Eynde (of B21), Sylvia Kouvali (of Rodeo), Andrée Sfeir-Semler, Lamia Joreige of the Beirut Art Center, Bayan al-Barak Kanoo and Mayssa Fattouh of Al Riwaq in Bahrain, and Christine Tohmé of the Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, to name but a few.
Much of the social action took place on a large patio on the beach adjacent to the Global Art Forum’s massive, air-conditioned tent. Dotting the asphalted deck were ramadas furnished with rugs and cushions, on which guests smoked and lounged in the day’s heat.
“Who is that?” asked Boghiguian, wagging her finger at Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum. Someone explained.
“He looks very virile,” she announced.
On Wednesday, another round of panels (Birnbaum and Obrist on curating; a discussion on collecting where Sharjah’s Sultan al-Qassemi noted, “The difference between the Middle East and Europe is that art collecting is not yet institutionalized or acceptable. You should see the looks my mother gives me when I bring even abstract paintings back home”). In the evening, I set off for the Bidoun Lounge to catch Rabih Mroué’s lecture-performance The Inhabitants of Images, an intriguing if overlong piece in three acts. I decided to skip the promisingly solipsistic evening discussion “The Art of the Party,” a conversation between soiree wallahs Jérôme Sans, Colacello, and Simon de Pury. “There’s no foil on that panel,” a friend noted. “It’s all effervescence.”
I did, however, make it to Sans’s postpanel event “The Party as Performance,” an overhyped meet-and-greet at 360 Degrees, a bilevel plein air deck resting above the Gulf waters. Tied to the railings, some sad-looking balloons blew about in the breeze. Le Baron DJs Benjamin Moreau and Samuel Boutruche played a modishly eclectic set (not their first of the week). People drank and got drunk. A pair of balloons came undone and wrapped themselves around a pylon, looking, to our sordid eyes, a bit like male naughty bits. Belligerent guests pointed and guffawed. It could have been a winter night in Dubai or a spring night in Cancun or a summer night on a rooftop in Manhattan. Puffed up like a sail a stone's-throw away sat the infamous seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel (where Klaus Biesenbach and Alanna Heiss attended a more decadent afterparty later in the night; they’re made of hardier stuff than you or I). We settled in and found ways to pass the time until 2 AM, when Le Baron piped up over the loudspeakers.
“Bye-bye,” their voices carried above the din. “Dubai-bai.”