Modernism, Voyeurism, and a Sentient Parrot: Highlights from Dubai Art Week 2017

From Sharjah Biennial to Art Dubai, a week of exploring the Gulf’s art capital.

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Apr 10 2017, 8:09pm

Dubai Art Week, like everything in the Emirati capital, is decentralized. One could argue that this year the first days actually took place in a different city, Sharjah. A twenty-to-forty minute drive to the Northeast, depending on traffic, Sharjah sits up the coast closer to the peninsula of Oman. If Dubai's character is defined by individuals like Burj Khalifa and the sail of the Burj Al Arab, then Sharjah plays the modern city the sea. The buildings are lower, more residential.

The Sharjah Art Foundation is tucked away not far from the water in a small neighborhood dominated by tailors and fabric. The 13th edition of Sharjah Biennial doesn't venture much into its immediate surrounding but does meander—weaving together different sites from the fortress-like exhibition spaces of the foundation to the local planetarium and sunny public squares. This format mimics the biennial's multi-pronged architecture. Under the guidance of Christine Tohme, the exhibition is taking place over the course of the year with events in Dakar, Ramallah, Istanbul and Beirut. These are just the physical outposts of a show that at times feels needlessly overwhelming and convoluted. Of course on the ground level, one finds treasures like Abbas Akhavan's Envelope, 2017, which fills one of the foundation's courtyard with a river of deflated hot air balloon. The piece is best viewed from the roof. The Great Silence, an entrancing video by Allora & Calzadilla, submerges the viewer in the mindset of a sentient parrot pondering humanity.

Abbas Akhavan's Envelope, 2017. Hot air balloon envelope, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

The work at the biennial foreshadowed the mixed of media on view in the local gallery scene. Many of the most prominent galleries are headquartered at Alserkal Avenue, a development conceived of by Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal and his director Vilma Jurkute.

Outdoor lounge in Alserkal Avenue. Courtesy of Alserkal Avenue.

Alserkal Avenue is Dubai's answer to Chelsea—a campus of warehouse-style buildings housing studios, cafes, galleries, non profit arts institutions, and crossover retail. Like the city, the space is still relatively new. In its short lifespan, the Avenue has quickly become an important meetinghouse for the city's creative class.

Sophia Al Maria "EVERYTHING MUST GO" at The Third Line, Dubai, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

During Dubai Art Week, the gallerists on the Avenue pulled out their best. Highlights included Sophia Al-Maria's installation, EVERYTHING MUST GO, 2017, at The Third Line gallery. The young artist had transformed the gallery with a pile of overflowing shopping carts piled high with junk food. At first glance, the sculpture felt like a candy-coated homage to Cady Noland, but upon closer inspection, one noticed the flashing screens of what seemed like dozens of cell phones. Each one flashing another series of words. Al Maria's work is about stimulation rather than representation. 

Rem Koolhaas lecture, Current Preoccupations, outside Concrete. Photo courtesy Alserkal Avenue

For gallery week, Alserkal had an unveiling of its own, Concrete, a new multi-purpose building by OMA Architects. Architect Rem Koolhaas was in attendance for the opening festivities. He led a lecture in the Avenue's public courtyard on architecture and how his own philosophies were shaped by the hyper-developed city. OMA's first contribution to Dubai, Concrete, discreetly fits into the industrial landscape. The building's primary role will be to host exhibitions, concerts, and programs—perhaps one day it will be the site for Art Dubai, the art fair, which capped off a week in the Emirates.

A fair that prioritizes international diversity, Art Dubai puts together art dealers from around the Gulf as well as Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Gallerists from Ramallah are placed in conversation with spaces in Antwerp. Discovery is the joy of Art Dubai.

Outside the air-conditioned halls of the hotel-meets-convention-center, artist Meriem Bennani had been tapped to create a lounge. She created Ghariba, a series of benches, chairs and loungers all outfitted with what looked like space-age helmets. Inside these pink caps, viewers encountered videos directed and animated by Bennani. The videos dealt with love and romance, told through the stories of several Moroccan women. Engrossingly voyeuristic, the loungers made the onlookers participate in the absurdity, as half their figure disappears into the player.

At night, Bennani's installation became the epicenter of large nighttime parties by the fair's various sponsors. Walking through the throngs of young creatives, one could be almost anywhere—Berlin, New York, LA—that is, until you look up and see the tunnel of light that is the Burj Al Arab's discotheque. It's a strange but beautiful moon.

To learn more about Dubai Art week, click here.

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