PRINT May 2017


Lantian Xie, Woodland Fern No. 4, 2014, paint, fluorescent tube light, ashtray, lighter, cigarette butts. Installation view, Grey Noise, Dubai, 2014–15. Photo: Musthafa Aboobacker.

DUBAI LOOMS LARGE in the world’s cultural imaginary: To many, it is the ultimate no-place, a site of extreme inauthenticity and soulless globalization, pure capital solidified into glass and steel. Swatting away those clichés is a favorite pastime of those who actually live here, who know that the city’s polyglot character—a staggering 83 percent of residents in Dubai are foreign—often forms the basis of new identities.

For the artist Lantian Xie, who was raised in Dubai by parents of Chinese heritage, the city’s heterogeneity is a rich source of material. In his installations, scripts, and drawings, he interrogates the fluid interplay between memory, citizenship, and sociality. Dubai has proven an ideal subject: “Growing up,” Xie says, “I was surrounded by images of either Arabs or Western expats. There were no other ways of picturing who lives here.” This is a problem both notional and political. Xie is one of a generation of inhabitants who have grown up in the UAE but do not have a permanent right to live here, as citizenship and its attendant benefits are limited almost entirely to the children of Emirati parents and rarely granted to immigrants, even those who live here from birth. This strict control of national identity entrenches the profound inequalities within the UAE, even if the resulting social fabric is far more complex than many Western observers allow.

Xie uses past histories from Dubai to show the ways in which origins and authenticity prove circumstantial. For Ceiling fans, stray dog barking, burj Ali, 2016, his installation at the most recent Kochi-Muziris Biennale, he included a drawing that appears to be of Dubai’s famous Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel, though it in fact depicts a farmhouse in Punjab that has been outfitted to look like the shiny sail-shaped building, which is now a symbol of riches and success in North India, a region that supplies much of the labor force for the Gulf. The Burj Al Arab Jumeirah also appears in ghostlike form in two drawings from Xie’s earlier series, “Chicago Beach Hotel,” 2014–15, which trace the building’s history back through time. They show the eponymous luxury hotel (now demolished), built to accommodate visitors to the Windy City’s World’s Fair in 1893. The Chicago Beach Hotel was also the name of the hotel that preceded the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah; the beach it stood on gained its moniker because the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, which supplied infrastructure for the oil boom, used it as a site for launching rig matériel into the Gulf. That building too has since been demolished, and Chicago Beach is now known as Jumeirah Beach, except to those few who remember it from earlier days.

There is whiff of sentimentality among these venerations of oral memory, but the works also speak to the acute divide in the UAE between the official narrative of events—laid out through city branding and heritage organizations, which often focus solely on Arab culture—and the cultural realities experienced by its residents. Xie gives center stage to the invisible qualities of a place: its lighting or climate, for example. When he showed “Chicago Beach Hotel” at the Dubai gallery Grey Noise in his 2014–15 solo show “Hassan Matar,” the exhibition was illuminated by the cheap, harsh fluorescent lights that are ubiquitous in the shared rooms of South and Southeast Asian migrants here. In Ceiling fans, stray dog barking, burj Ali, the air in the gallery was pushed around by old-fashioned ceiling fans, of the kind typical in Kochi. There’s a politics of temperature as well as of lighting: The comfort of cool central air or soft incandescent bulbs remain unavailable to many.

Xie’s focus on hotels derives, too, from the fact that hotel lobbies become public arenas in a city lacking streets and squares due to both climate and habit. As one of the few places where you can drink alcohol in the UAE, they also reveal the contradictions in Dubai’s attempt to straddle both Arab identity and global norms, suggesting that Dubai’s famed cosmopolitanism is partially superficial. Dubai went long on World Expos and trade shows; its Global Village, an Epcot Center–like collection of miniaturized monuments from all corners of the earth, remains a popular local attraction. But internationalism, Xie reminds us, is always locally mediated. The suite Metropolitan Hotel, 2016, comprises fifteen drawings of various establishments by that name, located everywhere from New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Cairo and Dubai; despite the title’s complete lack of site specificity, each hotel exhibits the architectural style of its home city.

It is fitting that Xie will represent the Emirates in the show “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play” at the UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale this month. His proposed work, A rumble interrupted our chat, will take the form of a script choreographing the day-to-day activities of a diverse group of characters, selected by the artist: a morning gathering in a café, for example, or an evening party in an intern’s apartment. The work probes the relationships between individuals and the urban fabric that houses them, testing the norms and expectations of inhabitation and interaction.

Xie’s work operates not just to validate local knowledge but also to suggest the idea that knowledge should be inextricable from the people who hold it, like a secret code that shouldn’t be exposed, or that can’t be.A recurring artifact in his narrative practice is the Hassan Matar, a ubiquitous sandwich in his hometown that perfectly captures the manifold paradoxes of identity here: “It’s made differently in every café,” he tells me. “No one even knows who Hassan Matar is!”

Melissa Gronlund is a writer based in Abu Dhabi and the author of Contemporary Art and Digital Culture (Routledge, 2016).