Cristiana de Marchi, Future, 2016, ice, dimensions variable.

Cristiana de Marchi, Future, 2016, ice, dimensions variable.

Cristiana de Marchi and Monira Al Qadiri

Cristiana de Marchi, Future, 2016, ice, dimensions variable.

To say that Dubai is obsessed with its future is an understatement. Its ethos of unbridled development makes it, arguably, the test case for the type of visionary urbanism sometimes dubbed “Gulf futurism.” A Museum of the Future is in the works, and, as the city gears up for Expo 2020, the United Arab Emirates’ cabinet recently announced a comprehensive strategic plan for incorporating future planning into all aspects of governance. Cristiana de Marchi’s Future, 2016—an ice sculpture spelling out the word—could easily have been the centerpiece for a reception accompanying this announcement, or the launch of one of countless real estate projects that continue to transform the city. Left to slowly liquefy through the opening of “Melting the Sky”—which paired the Dubai-based artist with Monira Al Qadiri, from nearby Kuwait—the piece’s quiet, stubborn deliquescence begged a question as profound as it was cheeky: “How long will the future last?” Glinting under the gallery lights, it appeared fragile and temporary.

Deconstructing and re-presenting maps, some of de Marchi’s other works interrogated the continuing relevance of territorial definitions of the nation. For “Constellations,” 2014–, the artist traced people’s migration paths in golden thread on black fabric, transforming them into delicate celestial arrangements. Other series showed Arab capitals, oceans, the world, as monochrome embroideries; distinct stitches, each reflecting light a little differently, introduced subtle surface variations that only just allowed the images to be seen. Al Qadiri’s Father of Pearl, 2016—a monumental grid of identical prints executed in pearlescent white paint—was similarly elusive. Based on the sole surviving photograph of her paternal grandfather, a singer on a pearling boat, his repeated likeness remained a ghostly trace, visible only obliquely when the paint caught and reflected light. In recent years, Al Qadiri has experimented with a type of nacreous spectral radiance across different media, a visual and material effect that links pearls to oil, the region’s two major sources of wealth in the twentieth century. Through this metaphor the discovery of oil becomes a historical pivot, not the radical rupture heralding modernity as it is often portrayed.

Al Qadiri’s video Behind the Sun, 2013, is inspired by her earliest memories of oil: the apocalyptic landscapes of Kuwait’s fields set ablaze by retreating Iraqi troops in 1991, made famous by Werner Herzog’s bombastic Lessons of Darkness (1992). Her riposte to Herzog’s sweeping helicopter shots, Wagnerian sound track, and creepy Teutonic voice-over is anchored in found VHS footage of the burning fields shot from the ground. Frames choked with plumes of thick black smoke and flickering orange flames are overlaid with baritone recitations of florid Arabic Sufi poetry, locating the divine in the sublime wonders of nature. Originally broadcast on Kuwaiti television, these recordings were accompanied by generic but sumptuous images of natural beauty; their earthy mysticism is a relic, as religious media in the region has become more dogmatically scriptural. Al Qadiri’s dystopian vision takes sculptural form in Flower Drill, 2016, a trio of large, wall-mounted fiberglass sculptures that re-create a drill head used in oil extraction. Coated in a dark but iridescent automotive paint that cleverly mimics oil’s luster, these monstrous flowers herald the inevitable destruction of the planet due to our reliance on fossil fuels.

Al Qadiri’s multifaceted practice seems to suggest that hyperaccelerated development, driven by oil, has produced a uniquely visual crisis, spectral in two ways. The recent past, remembered through images that are increasingly fugitive, can only haunt the present, which, enchanted by oil’s prismatic polychromatic twinkle, remains blind to its deleterious effects. And the future, despite the most conscientious and exhaustive of plans, may not last long enough.

Murtaza Vali