Sunday, 22 March 2009

Review - Art Dubai and Al Bastakiya Art Fair

I spent most of the current UAE art and culture frenzy in Sharjah at the Biennial (about which I’ll write later) but spent a couple of days at Art Dubai and the Al Bastakiya Art Fair (formerly Creek Art Fair – there’s a lot of re-branding about at the moment!).

The first thing I saw in Art Dubai was an old friend, visually speaking, which was Nelson Leirner. His wacky assortment of Mona Lisa memorabilia mounted in small separate frames covering a whole wall was immediately recognisable as his. Last year he covered a whole wall with manipulated Sotheby's catalogues and on talking to the Bolsa de Arte people I discovered that this work had actually been bought by Christies which is pretty funny in itself. However, the idea to feature him alone this year didn't really work. It needed some variety to balance his singularity and without that the work seemed to become like caricature.

Wandering around this year I didn't see much that truly grabbed me but I really liked the Trojan horse style building by Gigi Scaria at Sun and Sun Contemporary Gallery and the big painting at Michael Schultz by Huang Min which placed modern tourists in front of a traditional painted Chinese scene. The Mario Mauroner Gallery had some interesting works on paper by Barthelemy Togno and an epic installation by Fabrizio Plesso called Armada Rosso. This was a big bank of thick coppery metal shelves containing skeins of red wool. The base shelf was composed of a line of TV screens showing a looped video of waste water from the dyeing process running like a river of blood.

I saw a few things from Dubai galleries this year that I hadn't seen before and which were great. From the Third Line, Ala Ebteker's Ahmadinejad jacket made me laugh out loud and if it were mine I would definitely wear it although I may have to insert a caption that reads ‘I now kill bloggers too’. Ahmedinejad (a.k.a Imadinnerjacket) really should have been a comedian rather than the ruler of a country that truly deserves much better leaders. We would all have been so much better off but it’s never too late for a career change. Farhad Moshiri's latest work was there too but that is probably covered by some of the comments below.

Art Space’s installation by Ahmed Matar of a magnet and iron filings representing Mecca was brilliant in its simplicity and consequently made an impact on a number of different levels. It was also a very fresh image relating to the region as the key marketing trends are starting to wear very thin. Zena Al Khalil's furry and confettied kitsch Kalashnikovs at Tanit are a shining example of how rapidly an easily overplayed idea can become novelty art. In fact a lot of what I saw this year from all over seemed to fit into that category.

There seems to be a general disinclination to think too much and then claim subversion or irony while hoping the global attention span of a goldfish means you get away with it. This is starting to result in some pretty trashy product. It really does seem to have become more product than art and in relation to regional product if I see one more woman in an abaya/scarf variation image I'll scream. Particularly if it's juxtaposed with something western and especially if that happens to be Coca Cola as in the work of one artist in Al Bastakiya. Get over it... as a friend of mine remarked.

The honourable exception to this was Waheeda Malullah's short video piece Colours which was showing in the Bidoun Art Park and as usual there was a lot of good video work down there which I didn’t have time to see. Why oh why can’t you buy DVDs of work showing in the Art Park? It’s a captive market so you can inflate the price and proceeds can then be distributed accordingly! I thought this at the Dubai Film Festival as well. There were several films I would have bought including some that I actually saw and really wanted to show other people.

Talking of video it was the video installation pieces at Art Dubai that I found most memorable this year. Having had a lot of experience in the field, I loved the idea of Kutlug Ataman's multi-video English as a Foreign Language at Francesco Minini, but completley failed to understand why the Abraaj Prize piece was rated so highly.

Ferideh Lashai's three-part video at Al Bareh Gallery was a development and extension of her piece last year in the Art Fair formerly known as Creek. The work has been extended in terms of both medium and scope now re-telling a whole story rather than being a straightforward but innovative projection piece. In the Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery 'Oil Paintings' were apocalyptic projections of burning oil fires onto painted canvas. They were fascinating to watch and provoked a lot of questions and interest. I actually quite liked them but did wonder about their gimmicky nature. Fantastic for atmospheric exhibitions in darkened rooms and likely to attract the curious hordes but would I buy one? Probably not.

Arguably a work in the Agial Gallery (I didn't get the artist's name unfortunately) encapsulates everything I’ve moaned about above - stereotypes, gimmicks, kitsch, novelty etc. but I loved it. Several heads with faces obscured to various degrees in a now definitive militant visual were painted on an up-ended mobile vegetable stand of the type you see all over the Middle East. The stand was painted with gold and flowers and even had small light bulbs across the top depicting the constellation of the plough. Maybe it was this material authenticity that made it so different and the fact that it was also reminiscent of European iconography. It seemed to have a bit of everything - politics, religion, several kinds of history, low-end economics and astronomy used in a way that even managed to reference celebrity.

Others that stick in my head are Haunch of Venison, the Kalfayan Galleries, the October Gallery and Kashya Hildebrand for Anja Jensen and particularly Gohar Dashti. I also liked the minimalist plasticity of Lee Bae's reworking of old themes at Hakgojae. Maitha Huraiz’s work Behind Closed Doors at Elementa stood out and this was confirmed on seeing that the same piece had sold several copies down at the Bastakiya. There was actually a lot of photographic work relating to the region especially Iraq and Palestine including some great Gazan interiors by Taysir Bataniji at LA Bank and Rula Halawani's oddly angled images of checkpoints and the wall at Selma Feriani. This all tied in nicely with the Mapping Palestine exhibition curated by Art School Palestine which included a series of seminal Palestinian video shorts in the Bidoun Art Park.

A lot of work this year seemed to touch on environments in the widest sense– interiors and exteriors, urban and organic. In many cases these elements were mixed up particularly in Bastakiya where one of the highlights was the Guy Flichy Gallery exhibiting Monica Zeitline and Bryan Nash Gill. Juxtaposing Gill’s nature based, muted print and sculpture works with Zeitlines busy urban collages worked really well.

Another highlight of Bastakiya was Bo Tasle d’Heliand whose images of the Turkana people in Kenya had a Google earth perspective and used earth and other materials from the locations depicted. Unfortunately, it was hard to appreciate their scale and detail in the small and rather dark room they were crowded into.

I didn’t go to many of the talks in Dubai this year. In fact the only one was about Online Art Journals in which I obviously have a vested interest. Sadly the chance of being paid to write about these events this year fell through after a dispute about money with ..… an online art journal! It was widely agreed that Flash Art International really should consider being more generous with its contributors.....

Monday, 9 March 2009

The (Dis) United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

The UAE is the first Gulf country to be offered its own national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Taking place from June to November 2009 this is a fantastic opportunity for the UAE to showcase its most talented artists and promote itself as a creative leader in the region. Assembling the best from each emirate (and we all know who they are really ... ) will be an invaluable exercise in cultural presentation to an international audience largely unfamiliar with the artistic output of the UAE. As such it is essential that a strong, positive and cohesive national pavilion is created......

Er........ apparently not!

There will now be two pavilions: the official 'UAE Pavilion' organised from Dubai and an additional 'Abu Dhabi Pavilion' otherwise known as the 'Adach Platform for Venice'. According to the usual maelstrom of rumours, this parting of the ways seems to be a product of hissy fits on both personal and federal levels and has also affected which artists will feature.

The UAE Pavilion will remain in the national pavilion category while Abu Dhabi has inserted itself (presumably at great cost) into the 'collateral' category which focuses on a particular theme.

What an embarrassing waste of an opportunity. Unless of course the underlying conceptual intention is to convey the deep cultural significance of petty inter-emirate feuding to a global audience.

It will certainly be confusing for the geographically challenged who will judge the UAE's cultural output on the officially named pavilion curated by Dubai while wondering where the country of Adach is. Those who do realise they are witnessing the UAE divided will be confused and most certainly amused at the absurdity while several will never take the UAE seriously again. Not a great entrance to the most prestigious art event in the world is it??

Thursday, 5 March 2009

I don’t usually do this but…

I’ve just come back from a trip to Jerusalem. It’s my first trip there in four years. Going back to Jerusalem and catching up with the situation is never a surprise but always a shock. The dramatic increase in checkpoints, new sections of the wall and the expansion of settlements means that Jerusalem is more or less encircled. This physical reality renders the idea of it being the future capital of a Palestinian state absurd. In fact what I saw and heard on this trip left me with the uneasy conclusion of the complete and utter impossibility of a Palestinian state on ANY level.

The disconnection and complications of movement of either people or goods between Palestinian cities, let alone internationally, make it economically unviable. In several cases the wall now separates villages from their agricultural land and water resources ensuring their destitution. The absurdly time consuming and circuitous routes that Palestinians with West Bank or Gaza ID now have to make to get in and out means also that each city becomes a kind of prison for the terminally exhausted.

An eye specialist friend told me that many with eye injuries from Gaza had to travel from Gaza to Egypt then to Jordan and then by land from Jordan to Jerusalem. The time this took meant that it was impossible in many cases to save sight. Meanwhile Gaza to Jerusalem direct by road is a mere 78km.

Increased ambiguities in terms of both support and effectiveness of the PA plus the added complications of Gaza make it politically unviable. Interestingly some still believe that the release of Marwan Barghouti may be the political unifier. However, no one knows when that will be, there is less and less to unify around and an increasing perception that all leaders except Hamas are merely Palestinian administrators of Israel’s occupation. This perception does not result in a corresponding increase of political support for Hamas.

Perhaps what is most disturbing is that a Palestinian state no longer seems to be viable in the national psyche. Lives are conducted within cities largely cut off from one another and public focus has shifted to survival in these immediate and experienced urban environments. Combined with the oppressive reality of the wall, making Palestinians invisible not only to the Israelis but also to each other, even the idea of a state seems to have atrophied.

It’s so strange to see something that now requires a short introductory seminar to be comprehensible to anyone with a life. It is actually so complex that the effort required to understand it is way beyond reasonable but without that effort there is only a very simplistic way of interpreting it. I guess it was always a bit like that but now there is nothing in between. It's like some kind of bizarre mathematical equation that only works in extremis. Maybe it's an example of complexity theory.

Whatever it is hearing Hilary Clinton talk about the inescapability of a Palestinian state was like listening to someone who hadn’t attended the introductory seminar....