An Indian-born, Dubai-based artist does his best to eschew his origins but in doing so he may just be reaffirming them.
A splash of street style hits Dubai's gallery walls: Ubik
"Let's face it, a lot of Dubai art shows are dominated by a lot of Middle Eastern artists exploring their identity," Ubik smirks. "I really don't want to explore my identity. I know I'm Indian, I know I'm expat, but geography has never affected my art." Looking around at the junkyard murals and hallucinatory graffiti that he has spent the last week producing at Dubai's TheJamJar gallery, it is hard to agree. Ubik - he took the name from the title of a Philip K Dick novel because he liked its association with ubiquitousness: "I take things from everywhere," he explains - actually comes across as a man caught between half a dozen worlds at once. Raised by turns in Dubai and Kerala, he makes a point of distancing himself from both cultures. "Right now," he says of India's contemporary art scene, "if I was doing something, I'd probably have to give it an Indian touch, which I'd probably have no idea how to do."
An elfin fashion-school drop-out of 24, Ubik presents himself as a hedonist, an ironist and a dark humorist: the complete cosmopolitan, in other words. At the same time he sports a tattoo of Shiva on the back of his hand, confesses to a strong belief in karma and suspects that the tribal influences in his work derive less from African sources than from the temples he saw as a child in South India. "But then," he says with a shrug, "tribal art is tribal art at the end of the day."
Ubik is cautious when positioning himself within the most obvious visual tradition that feeds into his work: the globalised offshoot of skate and hip-hop culture known as street art. "I don't see myself as a street artist, or a graffiti artist, and especially not a graffiti artist," he says. "That is a culture that you're either born with or born into. You can't just ape it. And regardless of how good you use spray paint... If anyone in Dubai calls themselves a graffiti artist, I think it's just an advertising gimmick."
Call it what you like, the work Ubik has been making at TheJamJar is soaked in graffiti style. He works with spray paint and marker pens, producing luridly embellished texts. "Welcome to the machine" jeers one; "Visual absurdity is a faux," another admonishes, a little gnomically. Peculiar faces like tribal masks peer mutely out of dense Magic Marker cross-hatching. Bits of salvaged wood are bolted to the wall, but Ubik's spidery designs run off the edges and creep up towards the ceiling. He has spent the past few days receiving the public in the gallery while he works towards its opening. The idea was to replicate something of the graffiti experience while respecting UAE laws.
"I'm a huge fan of urban decay," he says. "And in Dubai you don't get to see that. I'd have loved to have done this on the street. It's simpler: if I was doing a mural on the street you'd have people walking by, obviously curious to know what the hell am I doing. So if you can't do that in Dubai, you think, let's just bring the street inside the gallery." Still, as the May 68ers used to say: under the paving stones, the beach. And beneath Ubik's urban façade - he namechecks the impeccably street Word to Mother, Blu and Anthony Lister as influences - there's a wide hippyish streak. "I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan," he says, and later: "I'm quite a fan of existentialism. I'm, in a way, also quite a Freudian fan." One of his paintings bears the title Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun: the name of a Floyd jam, he explains. Inspired by William Burroughs, I tell him. His face lights up. He's a big Beats man, too.
When I ask Ubik where he expects his work would be best received he says, without hesitation: "San Francisco," before hurriedly adding: "Anywhere. New York, the US." But perhaps a good reception isn't what he's looking for. "I really want to try and taunt people," he says. I was talking to my gallerist and she asked me, 'What do you want people to feel when they enter this whole space and they see your work?' I told her I want them to feel uncomfortable. Really, really spooked out and out of their comfort zone."
Ubik's completed show, iamwhatiam, is at TheJamJar gallery from today to Aug 22.