From a distance, the location for the Abu Dhabi International Sculpture Symposium looks like just another construction site. The air is filled with a fine white dust. Men in hard hats and yellow vests operate alarming-looking machinery. And a crane is grumbling on the sidelines. Buildings, though, are not the order of the day here. Instead, huge chunks of stone, housed in a series of open-sided tents, are being chipped, shaved and ground in preparation for the works of art they will become.
Just over five weeks remain of the emirate's first sculpture symposium, an event in which public works of art will be created by 17 internationally renowned artists, to be permanently displayed in locations around the city. Around 10 of the artists are based at the Armed Forces Officers Club, where they have been given a breezy seafront location as their studio, and where the public can come and observe them at work.
It is 10am and already several of the artists are in situ. Each has been given a white canvas tent in which to work. Some tents are buzzing with activity while others contain only huge blocks of pearly white marble, sprayed with the initials of artists who are yet to arrive. Husam Chaya, a Lebanese sculptor who was chosen by the panel as this year's emerging artist (every year there will be one from the region), waits as a 100-tonne crane grapples with his piece of marble. "They only need to turn it once more," he tells me, "and then it is on its base." So heavy are these materials that the crane is required whenever a piece needs moving or turning.
One of the biggest tents belongs to the Austrian artist Caroline Ramersdorfer, whose eight pieces of Turkish marble are being worked on by four helpers. Once the material is cut from the mountain using a diamond wire, they have the task of cutting it down to size so that the artist can work with it. "I need very precise angles," says Ramersdorfer, who has been participating in sculpture symposiums all over the world for 30 years. "It's wonderful, this marble, with huge quartz-like crystals. It's much harder than Italian marble, which is perfect for my piece."
The helpers are skilled workmen who have come from Aswan in Egypt (home to the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium). "They are incredibly hard-working men," says Ramersdorfer. "Aswan is famous for its granite. But marble has completely different characteristics, so it takes some time to get used to." Plans for where the finished works will eventually reside are being decided by Abu Dhabi Municipality. "It would be nice to have a push towards knowing their final destination," says Ramersdorfer. "It's important for artists to see where their work will go. Direction is very important for my piece. It's a big job, not just installing the works, but also integrating them into the existing space and architecture."
Jon Barlow Hudson, a sculptor from the US who has also participated in scores of symposiums, has come down to the site to lend a hand. His piece, made from steel, is currently being housed elsewhere. "This a great site," he says. "There's lots of space, and the breeze blows the dust away. It has a beautiful vista. We make a lot of noise so it's good not to be too close to anybody." For him, the sculpture symposium offers the chance to learn about a new culture, "and because it's an open event", he says, "in turn, the public can learn what goes into creating sculptures of this size". The artists' bond with the spectators is, says Ramersdorfer, an important one. "Some of them come every day to see what we're up to. It's like having a fan club."
The Abu Dhabi International Sculpture Symposium runs until April 7. Members of the public can observe the artists at work daily between 4 and 5pm at the Armed Forces Officers Club. For more information go to www.adiss-ae.com.