It is a journalistic vice to see every trend as an economic indicator, but a giant shop window like Art Dubai invites it. The consensus among exhibitors at the Madinat Jumeirah this year seemed to be for geometrical arrangement, painstaking detail and a sense of craft bordering on quasi-pathological repetitive behaviour. A sculpture by the Ghanaian artist El Natsui epitomised this tendency, and for this fair at least, represented its pinnacle.
In the World But Don't Know the World, shown by London's October Gallery, is a great rippling wall-hanging made of crimped and flattened pieces of scrap metal - bottle-tops, something like cigar tins and so forth - each of which might have been cut into a disc or twisted into a flower or folded into a one-inch square by Natsui and his assistants. The pieces are linked together like a sheet of chain mail, stretching across the wall for what feels like hundreds of square feet. The overall effect is of some tremendous embroidered tapestry, and as with a fine tapestry, the first thing that occurs to you is the hours it must have taken.
That feeling, that every inch of a given piece of art has been crammed with diligent, industrious work, recurs throughout Art Dubai. It's there in Abraham Patatnik's (Galeria Murilo Castro) rather beautiful compositions: stained wood cut into thin strips and then glued back together out of line so that the grain creates unnaturally regular patterns. It's there in Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian's geometrical sculptures tiled in mirror mosaic at Third Line's booth, and in a different way in Tea Makipaa's (Galeria JM) World of Plenty, a giant photomontage of wholesome Nordic types partaking in a crowded idyll, communing with animals and eating picnics and covering a lot of space with a lot of detail.
At times you can hardly move for huge abstract pointillist paintings and ornate calligraphy, bits of marquetry using chipped rubber and topological forms embroidered in metallic wire. It's as though the artists presented at this year's fair were afraid someone would ask them what they do all day. One wouldn't be surprised to see a knitted skyscraper-cosy or a matchstick effigy of each UN leader. Amid all this anxious make-work, pieces with a sense of cheerful truancy hold heightened appeal. Larissa Sansour's artefacts from an imagined Palestinian space programme, exhibited at La B.A.N.K., fall into this category. The floor is filled with astronaut dolls emblazoned with the Palestinian flag. A video mock-up of the moon landing depicts the same flag planted on our common neighbour - a nice dig at the Apollo mission's martial subtext. The soundtrack crackles with adapted Nasa quotes: "One small step... Jerusalem, we have a problem." This material has a pointed exuberance; the idea bounces free of the intricacies of its execution.
There's engaging slackness from Antonio Ballester Moreno, showing at LA's Peres Projects. His ballpoint doodles, though elaborately cross-hatched, make a virtue of their own desultoriness. Wonky figures and animals arrange themselves into folkish designs. One piece (Couple) shows a man and a woman, lifelike as Toby mugs, in a sort of dimly remembered approximation of Restoration dress. It's the sort of thing you imagine stumbling on in the exercise book of one of Isaac Newton's dimmer classmates, and obscurely funny for it.
At the impressive show from Jeddah's Athr Gallery, there are several simple ideas done well, but Ayman Yossri Daydaban's Subtitles leaves the deepest impression. A series of C-type monochrome photo-prints on aluminium, they appear to be grainy film or television stills from Middle Eastern dramas, captioned with a line of dialogue in Arabic and sometimes English and otherwise unidentified. In one, a young girl holds an electric drill to her head. In the next image, a veiled woman says: "You're a coward!" "I can't," weeps the woman in the next image. The horror and unhappiness of these unexplained scenes is complicated by the sense that they're being exoticised in several directions at once. They're addressed to multiple audiences through the multiple captions and distanced from all of them by deliberately bad reproductions.
The point is presumably something to do with the nature of translation, but it's made more forcibly by the way it genuinely tantalises the viewer with what he doesn't understand. Today sees the announcement of Dubai's first Patrons of the Arts Awards, which recognises the indispensible work investors and art-lovers do to stimulate creativity. There can be few companies that show so much largesse to the arts as Abraaj Capital, bestower of the world's most generous art prize. The idea of the prize is to let three artists from the Middle East and neighbouring regions produce works of a scale and ambition that would be impossible without substantial funding.
The winners of the competition were each given roughly Dh750,000 and six months to execute their grant proposals in time for a grand unveiling at Art Dubai. Abraaj may now be asking where the money went. The flamboyant Lebanese painter Marwan Sahmarani's The Feast of the Damned is a collection of reddish paintings and watercolours all murkily evocative of hell, exhibited on the walls and ceiling of an enclosed chamber. Sahmarani's talent for spectral and distorted figures would seem to have found a suitable theme - he called the work "a dialogue with Rubens and Michaelangelo" - but the pieces on display look like preparations for a more finished article. The paper studies are sketchy.
The grand inferno scene that makes up the ceiling is powerful in its feverish way, but doesn't look like it taxed either the artist's imagination or his wallet overmuch. Sahmarani suggested that he still had work to do on the piece. One wondered how much. Hala Elkoussy delivered the most spectacular piece of the three prize-winners. The Myths and Legends Room: The Mural is a giant photomontage assembled from Egyptian propaganda and archive material. It represents a bestiary of Cairene rumour, an unofficial history of life in a rather shadowy city.
The best-exposed of the three artists was Algeria's (and Saatchi's) Kader Attia. He produced a work that, despite looking as if it was made on a student budget, packs a strange charge. History of a Myth: The Small Dome of the Rock is a video of what appears to be a nut and bolt, viewed from the side so that it resembles the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Nothing changes except minute fluctuations in a sinister rumbling noise. It's a video, of course, so you keep waiting for something to happen. That's one version of Jerusalem's history in itself.
Up the coast from Jumeirah at Art Dubai's student and fringe event, the Bastakiyah Art Fair, a few works merit a passing note. Halim al Karim's various sculptures at XVA gallery, including a 12ft (3.7m) white doll and a sort of suspended ceramic antler whose spines are tipped with the teats from baby beakers, suggest an artist who is pursuing his weird impulses on a satisfyingly grand scale. The Lebanese painter Laudi Abilama makes screenprints of lurid wallpaper designs overlaid with icons of global commerce, Middle Eastern political leaders and bouquets of firearms. One's initial sense that there's something tritely moralising about them gives way if all three sets of emblems are viewed as aestheticised expressions of the same violent impulse. There's still a moral, but it's a complicated one.
The student work is impressive throughout. Yet work by Maitha DeMaithan, whose To the Moon, a full-colour scan of two spreadeagled children who seem to be floating in space, would more than hold its own over at the Art Dubai itself. DeMaithan won first prize in Sheikha Manal's 2009 Young Artist Award. We should be seeing more of her.