Happy Medium

Kate Sutton at the 6th Art Dubai and Global Art Forum

Left: Bidoun editor Michael Vazquez and Art Dubai's Antonia Carver at Art Dubai. Right: Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Serpentine Gallery codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)

THESE DAYS conversation programs are all the rage, tacked on to art fairs as penance for the messy commercialism of, well, commerce, and also as a convenient way to comp flights and hotels for the panel curator’s past and future flings. As for the relationship between Art Dubai and the Global Art Forum? It’s Complicated. While they may have been conceived together six years ago and are still financially intertwined, the latter has been steadily growing into its titular claim.

This year, the GAF kicked off its six-day program on Sunday, March 18, at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, before moving to Art Dubai on March 20. Curated by Shumon Basar (author of the recently published artist’s book Do You Often Confuse Love with Success and with Fame?), “The Medium of Media” assayed art, activism, and social media, with a focus on the keyword’s double meaning. Panel discussions ranged from the rise of the citizen journalist to experimental PowerPoints to the “Accelerated History” of Net art (a “genre” whose speed of acceleration was made evident when one of its specialists proved bafflingly incapable of scrolling without a mouse.)

Doha may be a city of the future, but it has yet to master the elements. All that starchitecture was barely visible through Sunday’s colossal sandstorm. “This place is O.T.T.—over the top,” CCA Lagos curator Bisi Silva assured me on the bus out to Mathaf, but all I could make out in the sepia haze were the roadside suburbs, which looked vaguely like strip malls in the Panhandle, all one sand-colored Tetris block. By the time we reached the museum, the multi-plasma-screened GAF tent had proved no match for the winds, so while GAF volunteers scurried to relocate the espresso bar into the library, visitors took awed spins around Cai Guo-Qiang’s exhibition “Saraab,” with its indoor boats, flying camels, and gunpowdered ceramic tiles. When the last pamphlet was in place, I snagged a seat by MACBA’s Bartomeu Marí i Ribas and the Met’s Sheena Wagstaff while Basar ticked off the new additions to this year’s program. Among them was “Forum Forum,” a series of commissions from artists like Hala Ali and the Dubai-based collective Brusselssprout, as well as the Gulf Colloquy Compendium, Sophia Al Maria’s interactive glossary featuring entries like “VEIL: A lazy, high-impact word”; “MACAROONS: Sweet little hamburgers from France”; and “RUSSIAN: A compliment; an insult; an innuendo.”

Left: CCA Lagos curator Bisi Silva. Right: Doha in a sandstorm.

The emphasis on social media and the news was brought home by the opening panel, during which Demotix founder Turi Munthe squared off with journalists Mishaal Al Gergawi, Yasmine El Rashidi, and Al Jazeera’s Ghida Fakhry Khane. As the second act, Barjeel Art Foundation’s Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi rattled off social media statistics at a speed so daunting, it was easy to understand how he has emerged as the region’s preeminent retweeter. Filling the spaces between was “PowerPointing™Your Creative Medium Potential,” a selection of slide shows from the likes of Lucky PDF, Alexander Provan, and Ayshay+Kari Altmann. “Please excuse any hiccups in technology,” curator Victoria Camblin sweetly disclaimed. “We’re working with the world’s most annoying software.”

Following the forum, guests were bussed to the Islamic Arts Museum for the opening of “Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving,” an exhibition that premiered at LACMA and was here expanded to include works from Iran and Russia. The Sheikha Al Mayassa presided over a brief reception in the museum’s monumental I. M. Pei–designed foyer, but it was clear some visitors were hankering for something a little stronger than fresh kiwi juice. Topping other suggestions was the local Sheraton, which was built in the late 1970s after the completion of a deep-water port spurred the city economy’s transition from pearl diving to oil. “This is my favorite building in all of Doha,” Basar sighed. “The whole thing looks like a spaceship landing.” Which it does, although it also resembles something like one pyramid wearing another, smaller pyramid as a hat. “It’s truly amazing, the extraterrestrial energy in this place. I want to do an exhibition here,” Hans Ulrich Obrist hummed, momentarily returning to his ongoing cell phone conversation, before turning back to us, his hand over the receiver: “It’s Francesca. She says she doesn’t go to a Sheraton.”

Left: The Sheraton Doha. Right: Mathaf director Wassan Al-Khudhairi.

Francesca’s loss. No sooner had we sat down at La Veranda, a fine dining establishment with a Pasta Night Buffet, than the electricity cut out. (Something about a fire?) Waiters went through various stages of grief before resolving to illuminate the buffet with their smartphones. When the lights flickered on for a fleeting instant, Mathaf director Wassan Al-Khudhairi didn’t hesitate: “Quick! Everyone to the salad bar while you can still see!” Obrist remained at the table, beaming: “And this is why I love the Sheraton. It’s always either a fire or an inundation.”

The next day, the Global Art Forum began to pack up for Dubai, where the airport-weary had just enough time to change into something more revealing for the opening of Art Dubai. This iteration saw remarkably steady sales of midrange works, mostly to local collectors. From Green Art Gallery to the Third Line to Pilar Corrias to Bischoff/Weiss, it seemed that women were holding court (and not just the resplendent director, Antonia Carver). The vernissage was a barrage of champagne and dim sum, culminating in rumored Rick Owens sightings and a rooftop dance party at the nearby Trilogy, a multilevel nightclub that begins on the ground floor, with its Day-Glo-meets-dark-corner-of-hell vibe, and ascends to a rooftop terrace with a view that would have been staggering, if only that sandstorm hadn’t also flown in from Doha.

Left: Hamid Amini and dealer Sunny Rahbar at Art Dubai. Right: Dealer Pilar Corrias at Art Dubai.

Wednesday, the Global Art Forum didn’t flag for a moment, inaugurating its Art Dubai iteration with “Marshall, Media, and Me,” featuring Basar and Obrist in conversation with Douglas Coupland about his new book, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! Appropriately, the discussion began with the clip from Annie Hall in which McLuhan defends his reputation from an irksome moviegoing intellectual (and spouts the phrase that would become Coupland’s title). As time cut short, Basar threw it to the audience for questions, with the caveat that they meet Twitter criteria: 140 characters or less. “Are you optimistic about the novel in the future?” one audience member tested. Before Coupland could respond, Obrist cut in with a congratulatory “Forty-nine!”

The camaraderie borne in the conversation continued over dinner, when a group of twenty or so GAF participants descended on Karachi Darbar. (“Trust me. Your cab driver will know it.”) In the backyard, picnic tables were pushed together and set with Styrofoam cups, plastic forks, and platefuls of naan, saag paneer, and big, hot dishes of burnt, brown meat. Afterward, the resolute pushed on to the Ibex, an Eritrean nightclub in the lobby of the Sun & Sands Hotel in nearby Deira. Bombastically coiffed dancers in snug cotton tube-dresses shimmied as bartenders, patrons, and what looked to be one of our cab drivers took turns at the mic, belting everything from Arab power ballads to Bob Marley, London Beat, and, the crowd favorite, “that names of the major towns in East Africa song.” Around 1 AM, the girls disappeared, only to reemerge in full-length “national costume.” Shisha for all, but drinks only for those capable of shouting loudly enough to the waitresses over the thump of the electronic drum kit.

Left: Artist Michael Rakowitz at Art Dubai. Right: Dealer Sylvia Kouvali.

If UAE labor issues were an unspoken anxiety, over the next four days there would be cautious references to what Bidoun senior editor Negar Azimi called the “Industries of Interest,” rising up in the wake of the Arab Spring. (“I hate admitting I’m from Cairo at these things,” writer Heba Elkayal confessed. “You get so mobbed during the breaks, you never get any coffee.”) One crowd-pleasing alternative approach was presented Thursday, when Jack Persekian spoke with artist Michael Rakowitz about the latter’s film The Breakup—“a project on Palestine where I never had to say the word Palestine.” In the film, picking up on the fact that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band dropped four days before the Six-Day War, Rakowitz applies archived Beatles’ recording sessions to the broader geopolitical situation. Basar couldn’t resist: “So who’s Yoko?” “Israel,” Rakowitz fired back, then shot a look at his audience. “Can everyone just please tweet that? Right. Now.”

That night, we adjourned to another place all the taxi drivers seemed to know: Emirate Hills, a luxury subdivision outside Dubai with some very staggering villas, but nary a hill in sight. “It must be just part of the Hollywood franchise,” Munthe observed, trying to get a better look through the cab window as we approached the home of Fayeeza and Arif Naqvi, art patrons and sponsors of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, who were hosting a dinner in honor of the award. With the pink-lit palm trees and “It’s a Small World”–style ethnic buffet snaking around the pool, the fireworks in the distance could just as easily have been more decorations. There was a dance floor (and the inimitable Chantal Crousel was rumored to be owning it), but there was also abundant champagne and cabana-style couches, already cozy with the enchanting likes of Yto Barrada, Sylvia Kouvali, and what looked to be the entire editorial staff of Bidoun.

Ahead there were still side trips to Sharjah and Saadiyat Island, tough calls between an Iraqi nightclub and the Tip-Top English Disco, and a free-for-all feast at a fish shack on the beach. But for the moment, the world was small, and it was ours.

Left: Writer Heba Elkayal and dealer Chantal Crousel at Art Dubai. Right: LACMA director Michael Govan with artist Shezad Dawood at the Global Art Forum, Mathaf.

Left: Art Basel director Marc Spiegler with dealer Emmanuel Perrotin at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. Right: Dealer Claudia Cellini with collector Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi.

Left: Townhouse Gallery founder William Wells. Right: Dealer Nicolò Cardi at Art Dubai.

Left: Delfina Art Foundation's Aaron Cezar with Wael Shawky. Right: Dealer Andrée Sfeir-Semler at Art Dubai.

Left: Dealer Mohammed Hafiz. Right: Collector Amir Shariat and dealer Ali Afshar of Etemad Gallery.

Left: Carleen Hammon, director of Dar Al-Ma’mûn, and Dar Al-Ma’mûn founder Redha Moali. Right: Silvia Sgualdini and Ellie Harrison-Read of Lisson Gallery.

Left: The Ibex. (Photo: Tiffany Malakooti) Right: Designer Hatem Alakeel and stylist Derek Khan.

Left: Dealers Raman Norris and Wendi Frey of Frey Norris Gallery. Right: Artist Ziad Antar.