This week, the UAE will unveil its first ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, heralding the arrival of the country's artistic community on the world stage and the start of an exciting new era in its development. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie goes behind the scenes.
In his 1972 novel Invisible Cities, the Italian writer Italo Calvino imagines a long conversation between Marco Polo and Kubla Khan. Seated together in a garden at dusk, the young traveller speaks to the old emperor of the cities he has seen (or possibly envisioned in his mind). But each of the 55 different cities that Marco Polo describes is, in the end, always the same city. "Every time I describe a city," he says, "I am saying something about Venice." With every account of an invisible, concealed or secret city, Calvino conjures the world in Venice and at the same time grafts Venice on to the world. Though it would be too obvious, and probably too much of a gimmick, for any respectable curator to use Invisible Cities as a source of inspiration for the Venice Biennale, there is nonetheless something slightly Calvino-esque about the title for this year's event: Making Worlds. In his curatorial statement, the exhibition's artistic director, Daniel Birnbaum, says that this international exhibition of works by more than 90 artists and artists' collectives from across the globe is based on the idea that "a work of art represents a vision of the world and, if taken seriously, can be seen as a way of making a world".
As with Calvino's cities, which are stacked like Russian dolls so that each place twists opens to reveal another inside, the Venice Biennale consists of layers and parts. In addition to this year's main exhibition, there are 77 national pavilions, 44 official collateral events and a slew of fringe functions and attendant activities, all staged in the hope, however remote, of attracting some of the biennale's audience. However troublesome the notion may be, the biennale imagines itself to be a representation of the world, and so visibility in Venice is quite often taken as a measure of international impact.
Biennials have become so prevalent in the past decade that it now seems as though every city worth its salt has one. In 2005, there were 50, and the number has increased considerably since then. This year and in this region alone, there was the Cairo Biennial in January, the Sharjah Biennial in March and the Istanbul Biennial which starts in September. But the Venice Biennale remains the mother of them all, and the model against which they are all inevitably held.
It was born in 1895 with just one hastily constructed pavilion, though the idea at first was to show Italian and foreign artists together - and to transform a nightly tradition of artists meeting at a local cafe into both a world-class exhibition and a major international event. Belgium built a national pavilion in 1907, and soon after, Hungary, Great Britain, Germany, France, Sweden and Russia followed.
One of the enduring criticisms of the Venice Biennale is that, outside the main exhibition, it still structures the presentation of artworks along nation-state lines, and that in doing so, reasserts a power dynamic that is either outdated or in need of reassessment. It has become sport for art critics to trash the biennale every two years on these grounds. But just as the nation-state persists, so too do the similes, most of them fairly accurate, that cast the Venice Biennale as the Olympics, or the Oscars, or the United Nations of the art world.
After three days of sneak peeks, press previews and VIP vernissages, the 53rd edition of the Venice Biennale opens officially to the public tomorrow and runs until November 22. The global financial crisis has rattled the art world as much as any other sector tied to politics and economics, and so the event is unfolding in times of great uncertainty and concern. But Birnbaum has characterised this biennale as "a search for new beginnings", which dovetails nicely with the fact that this biennial also marks the auspicious debut of the UAE's first national pavilion. It may not be the same as snagging a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but in terms of stepping on to the world stage of contemporary art and extending the global reach of a young country's cultural ambitions, it certainly comes quite close.
The opening of the UAE pavilion comes after 18 months of toilsome, thankless, behind-the-scenes work, little of it glamorous and much of it mired in meddlesome logistical details that couldn't be further from the critical or emotional capacities of art. But what is perhaps most striking about peeling back the process of putting the pavilion together is that everyone involved - from the commissioner, Dr Lamees Hamdan, who set things in motion back in November 2007, to the nearly 50 volunteers who are on hand in Venice now, minding the space in return for three weeks of exposure to the best creative laboratory an aspiring artist or curator could hope for - speaks of the project in foundational terms.
The UAE pavilion has clearly been conceived not as a one-off event or a singular showcase but as the start of a long-term, sustainable effort. The commissioner, the curator, the artist and the designer: they are each putting in place the pieces of an infrastructure to support local cultural production and facilitate artistic exchanges between the Emirates and the world. In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells Kubla Khan: "You take delight not in a city's seven or 70 wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question." Does the UAE have a role to play in the international art world? Calvino would be pleased: Venice may yet again offer an answer to the question.
The Venice Biennale sets strict standards for national participation, and the first step towards the creation of any new pavilion is submitting an official request from a recognised federal authority in the country at stake. "It has to be governmental," explains Dr Lamees Hamdan. "You can't apply as a citizen." Hamdan, a collector and curator with a background in medicine, initiated the UAE's national pavilion by approaching the Ministry of Culture. "The ministry was a yes from the start," she says. "It's the nature of their work. They understand what biennials are, and they are keen to export."
The ministry sent the request to Venice, and when the UAE's participation was approved, Hamdan was appointed commissioner. From there, she says, "You have to treat a national pavilion like any other business. It takes a lot of groundwork and a lot of detective work. And a lot of the time it has little to do with art. Ninety per cent of my job has nothing to do with art. "But this is not something I entered into as a job. This is something I am doing for the UAE, which has done so much for me. I'm honoured that I've been given this tremendous trust. But it's not important who is involved. It's important that the UAE is involved, because the UAE has the talent. We are taking the proper channels and laying the proper foundations because this will be the first of many biennales for the UAE in Venice."
Hamdan chose the pavilion's curator, Tirdad Zolghadr, who in turn chose the featured artist, Lamya Gargash, and carved out the conceptual framework for the exhibition, which playfully questions the practise of exhibition-making and critically revisits the phenomenon of world fairs, which popularised national pavilions in the 19th century. Hamdan also secured the pavilion's enormous L-shaped space in the Arsenale. Property is precious in Venice, even more so on the grounds of the biennale. The two main areas are the Arsenale and the Giardini; the latter hosts 29 national pavilions, but there are no more permanent spaces left. Those countries that do have pavilions in the Arsenale or the Giardini move off site in search of alternatives. The UAE pavilion was able to rent the long room in the Arsenale, which two years ago housed the work of more than 30 artists for the Africa Pavilion, only for the five-month duration of the biennale. In the future, the hope is to secure a longer-term lease for this or another space close by.
Once the curator is named and the shape of the exhibition is known, says Hamdan, "you put the budget in place". And then you begin fund-raising, and staffing, and lining up all of the disparate details, from the production of the catalogue to the enlisting of volunteers. "We thought it would be good to allocate some of the budget to helping the young art scene in the UAE," she adds. "Not everyone has the ability to travel. There are no museums in the UAE yet. And avant-garde art isn't coming to the UAE yet either. In Venice you have the national pavilions and the collateral events and all of the museums around. For students, we thought this would be great. So we said to them, 'Come and man the pavilion, we'll cover your ticket and accommodation,' and for three weeks they'll have the opportunity to increase their cultural scope and their exposure to contemporary art." On the eve of the opening, Hamdan admits that the process hasn't always been smooth. "A lot of times people don't understand the significance, how big Venice is on the international stage, how important it is for us to be our best. But the more biennales we do in Venice, the easier it will be."
The first thing that can be said of Tirdad Zolghadr is that he would not be likely to top the list of anyone looking for a curator who plays it safe. In addition to curating, he also works as a filmmaker and critic, and two years ago he penned a rather racy novel about art and espionage, called Softcore. One of his most high-profile exhibitions, Ethnic Marketing, turned political correctness on its head and offered a blistering critique of the ways in which non-western contemporary art is packaged as an authentic cultural product.
According to Claudia Cellini, the co-ordinating director of the UAE pavilion, when Zolghadr was asked to curate the Venice project, he was "very black and white in saying, 'As long as there's curatorial independence'." "The real headache for me was the fact that I've always been suspicious of national formats, while acknowledging their importance," Zolghadr confirms. "You can spend your whole life thinking about that contradiction, like an ugly sofa in your living room, or you can give it material form, rather than ignoring it, like most national pavilions do."
Zolghadr knows the art scene in the UAE well, having co-curated the 2005 Sharjah Biennial, and his decision to shape the pavilion around one featured artist came quickly. "I knew I didn't want to do a group show," he says. He initially responded to "the weird sense of trust" in Lamya Gargash's work. Of her series Presence, he says, "You look at the photographs, and you can see that she knows what she's doing. She tells you these spaces are abandoned or about to be abandoned, and you believe her. You have to believe they actually are abandoned. At first, I doubted it. But I never asked her, because I don't want to know."
For the UAE pavilion, Gargash produced a new series, Familial, for which she photographed the interiors of one-star hotels in the UAE, the land of seven-star extravaganzas. "The rooms are actually amazing," says Zolghadr. "They're rooms any of us would want to stay in, and they're so different that it makes you wonder what these ratings mean, how these hotels are rated. You assume it's institutionalised, but clearly it's not. And that reflects beautifully on the art world."
The subtle but clever trick of the UAE pavilion is that Zolghadr took the notion of the biggest and the boldest and turned it inside out. By emphasising Gargash's work, which opens up the hidden seams of the UAE, he brought the exhibition down to human scale. And he named it after an excruciatingly awkward moment of human intimacy: It's Not You, It's Me, after all, is the classic break-up line. (Apparently, the runner-up for the exhibition's title was I Knew This Would Happen.)
"Usually, if you're using this expression, you don't really mean it," says Zolghadr. "It has a lot to do with guilt and clumsy apologies. So the UAE comes to Venice with this huge pavilion, and it's about guilt, apology and shame. But it's also confident. It's saying, 'It's me, it's my turn now.'" Around Gargash's work, Zolghadr conceived the pavilion as a constellation of elements that lend the exhibition self-awareness, self-reflection and self-critique - an archive of artistic production from the UAE, a kiosk by Hannah Hurtzig featuring conversations that consider the relationship between nation-building and the implementation of a state-sponsored arts infrastructure, a world fair-style showcase of the UAE's rapidly developing cultural strategy. They also transform the pavilion into a dynamic, multidisciplinary sphere, where all of the different visual, audio, architectural, performative and discursive materials contribute to the experience of the space.
"I remember the first shopping mall in Dubai," says 27-year-old Lamya Gargash. "I remember when Sheikh Zayed Road was empty. I remember when I applied for my Masters of Fine Arts, I was the first to do so in art. People asked me a lot of questions. They didn't understand."
Her photographs are intimately tied to memory and change. The fact that she is still using film, and taking her photographs with an old, medium-format Hasselblad camera that is cumbersome and time-consuming to use, only add to the fleeting, fragile nature of her work. Both the medium and the subject matter appear on the brink of extinction. It was only after a conversation with Zolghadr that Gargash discovered she had been selected for the UAE's first outing at Venice. "I found out quite late," she says. "I met with him not knowing about the pavilion. When I heard the news, it was surreal and I'm still sort of living in denial. It's a huge honour and it's definitely nerve-wracking as well. I'm representing my country, but my work is about honesty and observation, and I hope people will share that with me."
Gargash's large-scale images document the interiors of one-star hotels in the UAE. "These hotels are another world," she says. "They are mostly between Deira and Bur Dubai, and they are literally back-to-back. When you're there, you feel totally dissociated from everything else. They are very different from one another, and they each have totally different interpretations of glamour." The series was at times difficult to produce. "As a local, you're out of your comfort zone," she explains. Sometimes she called the hotels in advance, other times she simply walked in with her camera equipment. "Some of the places were quite dodgy and you couldn't even enter."
Gargash always brought friends with her, and she always used natural light. Sometimes, her presence angered the guests. Other times, the owners introduced her to clients and staff members as if welcoming her into a family home. "Some of the hotels really had a story," she says. "They felt special." Prior to arriving in Venice for the final installation, Gargash spent three weeks in London overseeing the printing of her work. Now she is steeling herself for the public and for the press. "I know that a lot of journalists like to provoke," she says. "And I know that it will come down to this: young, female, Emirati. But Venice is an opportunity for us to express ourselves and to present the world with a different image of the UAE, as a place with a pool of artists and a lot of creativity."
Fusing together all of the elements in the UAE pavilion required substantial work on the space. The Antwerp-based architectural firm D'haeseleer & Kimpe & Poelaert collaborated with the Dubai-based interior design team Traffic to put the pieces together and turn them into a kind of scenography.
Rami Farook, the owner and director of Traffic, says his role was "to take care of more or less everything that was loose, from visual communication and branding to industrial design." Traffic created the UAE pavilion's iris-shaped logo and manufactured the furniture that is now arranged around the space. With six people from the office working on the project, Traffic modified a sofa that had been made for the Bidoun Lounge at Art Dubai in March and designed from scratch the furniture for Hannah Hurtzig's kiosk and a special chair for the Jackson Pollock Bar, which is performing daily in the pavilion.
"We wanted to make sure that the design was there to facilitate the art," says Farook. "We didn't want to distract from it. Our role was basically to design, manufacture and ship. So everything we designed, we made in the UAE, giving local designers and industries the opportunity to be involved. Now, you're going to come and see the space and find a new design language from the UAE. "When people think of design in the UAE, they usually think it's all gold and glass. But this is very minimal, very clean. It's a very big responsibility, very big. For me, as a local, it's my national pavilion, and it's the first time. When you're a local, it all becomes a bit personal."