People of Means

Kate Sutton at the 7th Art Dubai

Left: Writer and artist Douglas Coupland with Shumon Basar. Right: Artist Hassan Sharif and Art Dubai director Antonia Carver.

“THIS IS STRAIGHT out of Inception, right?” Mari Spirito mused last Monday on the staircase of the Salsali Private Museum. She meant the city as a whole; Dubai, having exhausted our capacity to imagine, had left us fumbling for cinematic comparisons. “Don’t you feel like we’re in some B-grade spy thriller?” Phil Tinari asked me later that evening, as we took in the schizophrenic skyline from the penthouse of the Index Tower, where we’d all gathered for a house party thrown by Ayyam Gallery’s Khaled and Hisham Samawi. I considered correcting Tinari—does it get any more “blockbuster” than sipping champagne on a Norman Foster–designed balcony, seventy-two floors up?—but there was something B-movie about this “almost-like, but-not-quite” apparition of a city. “Everything looks like a set piece for one of those beautiful people dramas,” I overheard. One part suspension of disbelief, one part suspension of gravity.

We may have worked through the starchitecturespeak and Koolhaas-isms, but it’s still a challenge to pin down a language for talking about Dubai, a place where Urdu (literally) gets you farther than Arabic or English, where you can see “The World” in a single water-taxi ride, and where outdoor terraces all mysteriously seem to be air-conditioned. Amid all this you have the genuinely cosmopolitan Art Dubai, which, though installed in the Madinat Jumeirah (very Real Housewives), has achieved a social and economic sophistication that belies its kitschy setting. The fair’s seventh edition opened its doors last Tuesday, bringing with it a week of receptions and roundtables, all-night beachfront parties, and penitent morning trips to the Sharjah Biennial.

Left: The Third Line's Sunny Rahbar and Claudia Cellini. Right: Artist Monir Farmanfarmaian in front of a work by El Anatsui.

So on the eve of the big fair, before that tippling house party in the sky, festivities commenced with Gallery Night in the Al Quoz warehouse district. Our first stop was the Third Line, where we were treated to more of the mirror mosaics that had won the eighty-nine-year-old Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian special commendation in Sharjah. From there we dashed over to Alserkal Avenue, home to local power players like the Salsali Private Museum, Grey Noise, and Green Art Gallery. Ayyam had drawn a lively crowd with a solo show of Shurooq Amin. Pimped as “popcornographic,” her randy paintings conflated commodity culture, women’s sexuality, and Surrealism through images of pink, pouty lips, “Pretty Polly, The Poseable Dolly,” and blindfolded men with tiny black elephants perched in their palms. (According to the press release, this all has something to do with divorce.)

Next, we decamped to the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), a luxury shopping mall, where we were met with a confusion of mocktails and bite-size mousses, whipped up by the Ritz. Muddling through the iBanker masses, we were able to catch Manal Al Dowayan at Cuadro before dropping in on the Moving Museum’s pop-up group show “TECTONIC.” The itinerant organization left its exhibition space deliberately raw, its electrical innards dangling in the cold concrete hulls. “We thought it was more effective in contrast to these super slick surroundings,” curator Simon Sakhai explained, as we puzzled over Soheila Sokhanvari’s melding of horse and giant inflatable beach ball.

Tuesday was the official opening of Art Dubai, as well as a reception for Abraaj Group Art Prize recipients Vartan Avakian, Iman Issa, Huma Mulji, Hrair Sarkissian and Rayyane Tabet. “There’s a different pace to this fair,” a dealer confided, as she guided me around her booth. “No one is rushing the gates, but sales are definitely happening.” I recognized a few collectors (Maja Hoffmann, Richard Chang, Amy Phelan), but also spotted a number of international, institutional curators. In the span of two minutes, I saw Tinari (Ullens Center), Lauren Cornell (New Museum), Frances Morris (Tate Modern), Dirk Snaeuwaert (Wiels), and Chus Martínez (El Museo del Barrio), as well as Jérôme Sans and Murtaza Vali (curator of this year’s Abraaj Prize).

Left: Collector Richard Chang with dealer Andreé Sfeir-Semler. Right: Ayyam owner Khaled Samawi.

So what were they looking at? Arndt eschewed a traditional booth design in favor of a reconstituted, antique Syrian salon, where they displayed Wim Delvoye’s sculptures of construction vehicles and hand-carved tires. (“We thought it would be the good kind of disorienting,” a director assured me.) Victoria Miro pulled together a striking sampler of Yayoi Kusama’s career, while Rodeo highlighted a lyrical, reassembled mosaic by Christodoulos Panayiotou and Banu Cennetoglu’s collection of newspapers from across the Arabic-speaking world.

“Now, this is a great piece,” Andreé Sfeir-Semler said as she steered Chang toward a gorgeous Etel Adnan painting and away from what I thought was a rather comely Gabriel Kuri installation: two concrete slabs, one affixed to the wall, and one shattered elegantly across the carpet. As I would soon learn, both slabs had been attached to the wall the night before, with a Lebanese 5,000-pound note (roughly three US dollars) wedged between them. In the morning, the money was gone, and the second slab lay strewn in pieces on the floor. The staff seemed upbeat. “I actually think the work proves itself this way,” one pretty assistant ventured. “Gabriel set up the idea that you couldn’t get at the money without destroying the work, and, well, see for yourself.”

Over at Istanbul-based Galeri Non, dealer Derya Demir was also putting a sunny spin on a tricky situation; as of the press opening, she still hadn’t determined if her wares had even left Turkey. She navigated visitors through a series of A4 printouts depicting the work (by Erdem Ergaz and Extrastruggle). “I appreciate this format,” Demir laughed. “People stop to hear you explain each piece, rather than just dashing by.”

Left: Green Art Gallery's Yasmine Atassi. Right: Nubuke Foundation directors Odile Tevie and Kofi Setordji with CCA Lagos founder/director Bisi Silva.

As Art Dubai evolves, so does its program of commissions, which this year included a “Intern VIP lounge” (courtesy of Ahmet Ögüt) and an official fair sound track that riffed on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (Fatima Al-Qadiri). Martínez oversaw the newly expanded sculpture park (with works by Mounir Fatmi, Chris Burden, and Slavs and Tatars) while CCA Lagos founder-director Bisi Silva took over the Marker program, selecting five galleries and nonprofit spaces representative of West African “Cities in Transition”: Lagos, Douala, Ségou, Accra, and Dakar. Nubuke Foundation directors Odile Tevie and Kofi Setordji seemed thrilled to be reaching a wider audience. “Our main issue is always exposure,” Tevie admitted.

One’s visibility is always at stake. After dining souk-side with Douglas Coupland, Michael Stipe, and artist Kamrooz Aram, we opted to take a gondola through the canals of Jumeirah’s Mina A’Salam hotel. On our way we passed the promenade of restaurants and al fresco diners like curator Stuart Comer, writer Negar Azimi, and dealers Chantal Crousel and Sylvia Kouvali. “Is this what Venice is like?” Coupland asked as we glided over the crystal clear, Glade-scented water. “Almost,” I replied, feebly.

Wednesday saw the return of the fair’s cerebral sister, the Global Art Forum. Instigated by writers HG Masters and Shumon Basar, this year’s program—cryptically titled “It Means This”—sought to tackle “definitionism,” i.e., the meaning of making more meanings. Under this elastic framework, the forum provoked discussions on neologisms; the debut of Hassan Khan’s sound piece Purity; a teaser for Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Tristan Bera’s forthcoming ode to Bavaria; a group therapy session on “Middle East Nervous Anxiety” (MENA); and a panel on “careering” featuring Coupland and Stipe and (of course) Hans Ulrich Obrist. Between the segments, visitors were treated to commissioned “commercials” by Abdullah Al Mutairi and Lantian Xie, who filmed a group of local Chinese schoolgirls singing. “A foggy day / in London Town / had me low / had me down,” they chant, pigtails swinging. It means . . . wait, what?

Left: Haro Cümbüşyan and Stuart Comer. Right: Sheika Hoor Al Qasimi with Dana Farouki.

Meanwhile, over at the VIP Lounge, a separate “Terrace Talks” program played host to distinguished guests like Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, Prince Yemisi Shyllon, and Haro Cümbüşyan, who was there to talk video art with Comer. “It’s easier to live with these kinds of works when you aren’t actually living with them,” Cümbüşyan confessed, citing how his family’s New York apartment makes the perfect viewing space because they still haven’t managed to move in. “Right now, we have Ed Atkins in what will be my son’s room. That may be a bit intense for a six-year-old.”

I would have liked to hear more, but I had to cut out to the beachfront digs of Dana Farouki, who was celebrating Anne Pasternak with a whole Creative Time posse. From there I forged on to a backyard barbecue hosted by the Third Line’s Claudia Cellini, and then back to the beach, where Absolut was hosting a late-night dance party under the lights of the Burj Al Arab. When we arrived at our last stop, artist Fayçal Baghriche was ruling the dance floor, as attending muses shimmied around him, breaking out in occasional belly dancing. (“Bedouin music,” a girl at the bar dismissed it.) Apparently we had just missed the main event: a collaboration between Tarek Atoui and André Vida, who would also be performing together for the Global Art Forum. (Vida would condense Atoui’s entire score for his recent Sharjah commission into three exuberant minutes). “There are people who just understand each other, without all the complicated explanations,” Obrist would note later. “André and Tarek understand each other.”

So that’s what this all means.

View of Dubai from the penthouse of the Index Tower.

Left: UCCA director Philip Tinari with dealer Pilar Corrias. Right: Slavs and Tatars.

Left: CardiBlackBox's Nicolo Cardi. Right: Curator Simon Sakhai.

Left: Rampa's Özkan Cangüven, Mehtap Öztürk, and Leyla Tara Suyabatmaz. Right: Stephane Ackermann, artistic director of Istanbul Art International and the India Art Fair.

Left: Artist Wim Delvoye with Phillips's Svetlana Marich. Right: Galeri Non's Derya Demir.

Left: Dealer Chantal Crousel (left). Right: Curator Wassan Al-Khudhairi.

Left: Dana Farouki and dealer Sylvia Kouvali. Right: Artist Jumana Manna.