"I think this is partly what the prize is about," said the German-Iranian artist Timo Nasseri when the five winners of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, of whom he was one, were announced in October last year, "to allow you to do something you couldn't usually afford."
It brought with it a certain level of expectation when the works were unveiled at Art Dubai on Tuesday; particularly given that it is the world's most generous art award, with each artist being given $120,000 (Dh440,000) and the best part of five months to produce their work. Anything less than a diamond-encrusted skull was going to leave us underwhelmed.
Talk to the artists, though, all of whom come from the Menasa region (a condition of the prize) and the impressive scale of their projects becomes clear. One, by the Pakistani-Indian artist Shezad Dawood, involved building a "dream machine" and staging a concert in Tangiers by a band who have been in existence, in one form or another, for 4,000 years. Another, by the Iraqi artist Jananne Al-Ani, required the use of a reconnaissance plane to photograph hundred of miles of Jordanian landscape from the air. And a third, by the Tunisian-Russian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke, saw her living alongside Venice's illegal immigrants for a week while she painstakingly measured the scores of carpets on which they sold their wares to tourists.
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Thankfully, a book by the curator of the prize this year, Sharmini Pereira, records the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing their uniformly ambitious works. Footnote to a Project will be launched at Art Dubai on Saturday.
Three of the five works are housed in darkened booths. Al-Ani's film, Shadow Sites II shows a series of monochrome images of aerial landscapes in which crop circles and ancient archaeological sites and settlements only become clear when the sun is at its lowest.
"Shadow sites is a branch of archaeology that emerged after the First and Second World Wars," Al-Ani explains, "when much of the war was fought in the air. For me, it was about the metaphor of the relationship between photographic images and memory; about how the landscape itself can act as a photo image in which the image itself is latent."
Accompanied by the low drone of an aircraft engine and ominous creaking sounds, the landscapes seem almost lunar in their simplicity. The beauty is in the detail: the perfectly-groomed rows of crops, the hinted forms of earlier civilisations.
The mixed-media Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas's Woman in Black, is, in contrast, a dazzling wall of colour. The stained-glass window depicting a fictitious heroine to whom men are merely workers in hard hats is a clever use of traditional technique to portray a modern image. "The interplay of light and dark serve as metaphors for good and evil," reads the blurb (Abbas was absent, apparently due to give birth any day).
Shezad Dawood, perhaps the best established of the group (he has a whole section of the London gallery Paradise Row's stand to himself at the fair), has presented one of the most complex pieces. In two parts, New Dream Machine Project consists of a light sculpture and an accompanying film that pays tribute to the British-Canadian painter, Brian Gysin.
"I was always really interested in Gysin," says Dawood, "who invented the Dream Machine. It came a lot out of his interest in Sufism and Islamic calligraphy."
The Dream Machine itself, a spinning cylinder of coloured light encased in a latticed metal shell, is designed to stimulate the alpha waves in the brain, which in turn can induce a state of unconsciousness. Seen on its own, it's all rather Doctor Who. Step inside the nearby booth, though, and a film of the concert he staged at the Cinematèque in Tangiers provides an intriguing context.
"The audience sat all around the Dream Machine," says Dawood, "so the performers were performing with the machine." The Bedouin Master Musicians of Jajouka used to be the house band at Gysin's 1,001 Nights Café in Tangiers in the 1960s. Dawood flew in the British guitarist Duke Garwood to play the part of Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, who performed with them in the 1960s having been introduced by Gysin.
"There are all these interconnections that I was trying to play to," says Dawood. "I wanted to break down this idea of linear time and play with the circularity of it and that of the machine."
More immediately gratifying are Nasseri and Kaabi-Linke's works. A gleaming lattice made up of scores of steel rods, Nasseri's Gon was inspired by geometrical diagrams as well as shapes common in Islamic ornaments and architecture. The overall effect is an elegant illusion of curves. "But all the lines are straight," he says.
Finally, there is Kaabi-Linke's majestic aluminium sculpture, Flying Carpets, which presides over the entrance hall. A nest of rectangular frames hang at varying levels from hundreds of shivering metal wires. It is easily the show-stopper and one that is perhaps not shown to its best advantage in the ornate interior of the Madinat.
"It's an exact replica of il Ponte del Sepolcro in Venice," she explains, "and a homage to illegal immigration in Europe."
She refers to the largely south Asian and east African immigrants who sell their wares to tourists in the Italian city. Each has a carpet, "so that they can pack up and run away easily from the police".
Kaabi-Linke spent a week in their company, measuring the exact dimensions of the bridge and their carpets, which are replicated precisely in the sculpture's metal frames. "The idea of borders is a modern phenomenon, and not natural," she says. "We exist today only because humans adapted and moved from one place to another. Maybe I see it this way because I am an immigrant."
Savita Apte, the prize's chairwoman, feels the award's expansion to five winners instead of the three of previous years has increased the opportunities for regional artists. The reduced prize money (when split five ways) is also an improvement. "They all felt slightly intimidated by $200,000" she says.
It must have done the trick. This year's winners appear to be anything but.
The Abraaj Capital Art Prize works will be exhibited at Art Dubai until Saturday.