The Goethe Institute's Berlin-Dubai Festival this weekend will explore common ground between two cities with very different cultural agendas.
A cultural dialogue with Berlin
Last year, I asked the renowned German art dealer and gallery owner Rafael Jablonka why he was closing his Berlin showroom and returning to his Cologne base. "Because Berlin is an economically retarded place. The collector's market is nonexistent," he replied.
None, none at all? I asked. "There are some collectors in Berlin, but I don't think they are buying in Berlin. Why do artists go to Berlin? Because the rents are low. But there is no other business there, there is no reason to be in Berlin."
Jablonka was right in a business sense, but perhaps missing a wider point. Berlin has become a haven for artists across the world, drawn by the low cost of living, the pleasantly ramshackle ambience and plenty of studio and exhibition spaces.
As the disgruntled head of Galerie Jablonka pointed out, there is very little money in the city's art market to sustain any serious collecting culture, but under the radar thrives an underground music, art and literature scene that has evolved over decades of decadence, war, repression and finally a sustained, not prosperity exactly, but economic calm that fuels a booming cultural life for thousands of young artists, writers, directors, dancers and others "resting".
Three thousand miles away in Dubai, things are, predictably, rather different. Here, there are significantly fewer full-time practising artists, facilities are far less available and the complex nature of the city's society presents a contrasting set of circumstances for contemporary artists. Yet the city thrives as a collectors' hub, attracting hundreds of eager art-lovers of all stripes from around the world, with events such as Art Dubai, regular auctions by Bonhams and Christie's, as well as a profusion of galleries showing work by artists from across the Middle East and beyond.
Attempting to draw contrasts and find common ground between these two distinct cityscapes is a new event taking place this weekend at The Jam Jar gallery in Al Quoz, Dubai. The Goethe Institute's Berlin-Dubai Festival sees a group of Berlin-based cultural mavens - including filmmakers, writers and critics - in town to debate and discuss with their UAE counterparts how their city supports and nurtures its fertile grassroots art and literature scenes.
The festival kicks off at 8pm tonight with a screening of Frank Kuenster's underground documentary Let It Rock, which is a fascinating insight into Berlin's creatives.
After the screening Kuenster will speak about his film and join a panel discussion, which is intended to be the intellectual core of the programme. The panel includes the German-Croatian journalist and author Jasna Zajcek, Alexander Smoltczyk, who is the regional correspondent for the German news magazine Der Speigel, and the Berlin author Norman Ohler. Representing Dubai will be The Jam Jar's founder Hetal Pawani, the Emirati artist Ebtisam Abdulaziz and the Emirati cultural commentator Mishaal al Gergawi.
Ohler and Zajcek will also be holding a reading on Saturday at 2pm, followed by a further discussion with the object of trying to make sense of the very different directions the two cities take in pursuing an arts agenda.
The director of the Goethe Institute in the UAE, Friederike Möschel, describes the aim as showing Berlin's cultural scene and diversity. "Rightly, Berlin is one of the most attractive metropolitan centres in the western world and it is about time to present it here in the UAE," she says. "Personally, I think it is always very fascinating and also rewarding to see similarities among all the differences. As the latest discussions in Europe have shown, there are still a lot of prejudices concerning the Arab and Muslim world. I guess a lot of people there have no clue that in this part of the world there are people who are really interested not just in finance and business, but also in arts and culture. Dubai is such a melting pot with so many influences from different countries that it might be an interesting place for Berlin artists to become inspired."
The idea for the festival grew out of a meeting between Zajcek and Möschel in Dubai earlier this year. "My first impression of Dubai was that it was so much of a shopping-and-dining-out culture," says Zajcek. "But I wondered, how do the souls of these people get fed, how are their ideas inspired?
The UAE event will seek to address this and other questions on creativity as well as highlighting a number of key issues, not least the contrast between Dubai's high-velocity, high-spending growth and Berlin's more cash-strapped situation.
"What could we learn from Dubai?" says Zajcek. "How to accept new architecture! And how to sell what you have to offer, this is a thing we could learn from Dubai."
Möschel believes ultimately that in their disparities and unrecognised connections there is much synergy between the two cities, which she hopes the weekend's events will help elucidate.
For those in the vanguard of art and culture in the Middle East, discovering the inner world of the German capital will be a fascinating insight into how art is made in an environment that has supported creativity for decades. Similarly, Dubai has much to offer its German guests in terms of learning how best to capitalise on and promote their cultural assets.
"On one hand," she points out, "in Berlin, artists are more independent and don't have to care so much about sensitivities connected to traditions, culture and religion. On the other hand, in Dubai, it is much more challenging for artists' creativity, to express changes in their life and their society.
"In this respect, they need sometimes a certain subtlety in their art, which is really interesting. It is also a big challenge to create a unique style for this region and not just copy western art. It is always fascinating, when a region is in the process of bearing something new."
The Berlin-Dubai Festival is on from tonight until Saturday. For more information, visit www.goethe.de/dubai.