Returning to Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi Art found a more confident stride this year and delivered some interesting news about Louvre Abu Dhabi, writes Tahira Yaqoob.
Abu Dhabi Art builds a foundation for the future
In Ryan Gander's Out of Sight, Degas' ballerina steps down from her plinth and kneels before an invisible mirror to gaze at her reflection cast in bronze. The look of curiosity, wonder and trepidation on one face is reflected in the other, though no matter how much you crane to look, the expressions on both faces are never entirely visible at the same time. That sculpture, in pride of place in the Lisson Gallery at this year's Abu Dhabi Art, could be a metaphor for the art fair itself.
Now in its fourth year, the past 12 months have not been entirely plain sailing for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, the fair's organisers. It has been a time for reflection and self-examination, of contemplating its place in the art world. There have been the detractors and the naysayers, those who rubbed their hands together with glee when plans to build the $27 billion (Dh88bn) museums district were postponed this time last year.
But if Abu Dhabi Art 2012 proves anything, it is that its founders have come back with a renewed willingness to show what they have achieved - and are about to.
The museums are back on track with plans imminent to name the contractors who will break ground early next year on the Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi.
A portion of the museum's collection will go on display for three months from April to give a taster of what the end result will look like when doors open in 2015, with plans to then showcase the Birth of the Museum exhibition in Paris.
The message is a clear rebuff to the cynics who sneered that the museums district might be permanently shelved.
There was even a seemingly tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of those critics in billboards posted on Saadiyat Island which proclaimed: Louvre Abu Dhabi 2015 … Closer than you think.
"We are expecting the name of the general contractor soon and will be starting the construction phase," says Laurence des Cars, curatorial director for the Agence France-Muséums, which is co-ordinating efforts to amass Abu Dhabi's collection.
"The collection will include 300 loans to begin with from France, but after 10 years, the Louvre Abu Dhabi should be autonomous.
"The acquisition process never stopped, although things slowed down from a construction point of view. We have been working very closely with our colleagues from Abu Dhabi to give the museum a strong collection from the start of its life at the highest possible level in the art market today."
An acquisitions team have been scouring the globe for prized objects, which then go before a board of 11 before they join the collection.
Recent purchases include a Bactrian princess statuette from the third millennium BC, originating from Afghanistan, an early Ottoman fountain and pavement, Paul Gauguin's Breton Boys Wrestling and a daguerreotype photograph by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey dating back to 1843 and showing a veiled woman.
"We are on a very good track and are constantly engaging our audience to give a taste of what Louvre Abu Dhabi is going to be like," says des Cars.
If there was any doubt that the museums will soon become a reality, they are laid to rest when Saadiyat's three poster boys - Frank Gehry, Sir Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel - appear on a panel together at the fair.
There is nothing terribly revelatory in what they have to say. We learn Sir Norman thinks the region is progressive, Gehry wants to spend more time in the Middle East and as for Nouvel - well, none but the French speakers quite know what he is saying. He speaks in his native tongue and few headsets are available for the audience to listen to his words in translation.
But in a way, it doesn't matter. To get one of the doyens of architecture on stage is a feat. To have three en masse is nothing short of astonishing and took, by Sir Norman's own admission, three years to pull off.
The very fact they are there as a collective force and afforded the same kind of adulation as A-list celebrities from the 500-strong crowd says it all.
It heartens many of the 50 gallery owners exhibiting at the fair, as does the visible presence of the museums' acquisitions committees, who make a point of visiting booths on the first day of proceedings.
Notable absentee galleries this year are White Cube from London and the US-based David Zwirner and Tony Shafrazi, although none will say exactly why they decided not to come, save for Zwirner's representatives, who state simply that they are doing "15 fairs this year, a number of them for the first time".
Michelle Farrell, the exhibitor relations manager, says the dropout of 12 galleries is normal, adding: "Each gallery has its own reasons, but we expect them to return. We just try to maintain the quality of galleries on an international level."
Those who do come, though, say it is crucial to be a part of the cultural scene's formative stage. Nicholas Logsdail, of the Lisson Gallery in London, says: "It is the zeitgeist of the moment. We came last year and found it very interesting and we came back because we feel culturally committed to this region.
"Its future is fundamental, not only to its own, but in the bigger picture of where the world is going in the first part of the 21st century.
"As a gallery, we are never looking at the short-term commercial aspect."
He had a successful year in 2011 with post-fair sales and this year does well from the offing, returning with a more thematic curation of work by Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramovic, Julian Opie and Jonathan Monk (selling four of the latter, one Kapoor and two Abramovics to private collectors).
"Of course we want to see the artists being placed in good collections and the museums," he says. "The educational process is fundamental. If you are going to see signature Emirati artists emerging on the world stage and you are bringing the world stage here, they have to experience it and know what constitutes the world stage. You cannot aspire to be something you do not know about.
"The establishment of world-class museums is so essential - it will be the window onto the world."
Mark Francis, of the New York-based Gagosian Gallery, agrees: "We have got to look at it in the long run."
The Gagosian arrives just days after its downtown gallery was swamped by a 1.2-metre tidal wave brought in by Hurricane Sandy, wrecking walls and causing thousands of dollars of damage.
While its art escaped unscathed, others were not so lucky. Zwirner had two exhibitions ruined and donated US$50,000 (Dh183,665) to a relief fund set up by the Art Dealers Association of America to help smaller Chelsea galleries recover.
In tough times for the art world, it is even more vital to be present. Francis says: "The museums are still acquiring. The fair has got to be a precursor to the institutions. You need artists, exhibitions, art schools - it is an economy in which galleries, museums and collectors all have a part."
While the halls at Abu Dhabi Art are packed - there are 20 per cent more visitors this year to the free exhibition and talks, taking the tally to 21,500 - the atmosphere is distinctly more relaxed than last year.
Then, gallerists moved onto Saadiyat Island from Emirates Palace for the first time and there was a frisson of tension in the air as they raced to set up with the finishing touches to the building still being completed around them.
This time around, organisers have scrapped the pavilion's unpopular upper floor and redesigned the layout in both halls to give a more spacious, airy feel. If the fair has settled into its new home, that maturity is reflected in the art on display.
There are no $12 million oversized rings from Jeff Koons, no $10m Louise Bourgeois spiders, nor any of her vast installations in cages; in short, there is little in the way of showboating.
Even the El Anatsui metal tapestry, an annual occurrence at the October Gallery, is on the smaller side, the $3m Picasso Torero at Edward Tyler Nahem is understated, the Alexander Calder mobile at the Kukje Gallery so small, blink and you miss it and the only Koons brought by the Gagosian is the subtle Primal Swish, an exquisitely painted white rose surrounded by deceptively haphazard streaks which, on closer examination, have the delicate touch of Seurat.
It is an altogether more grown-up affair, with a number of gallerists willing to take a gamble in bringing new artists and fresh artwork created this year or last, rather than trotting out classics that are guaranteed to sell.
If the museums' committees are proceeding with renewed vigour, it seems to have rubbed off on exhibitors and their enthusiasm gives the impression they want to inspire the same passion for discovering new talent in this nascent audience.
Kamel Mennour, who has exhibited since 2009, brings a Giacometti and Kapoor alongside Ann Veronica Janssens' blind coated in gold leaf and concrete block installation sprinkled with glitter.
He was also behind bringing Tadashi Kawamata's Inside Chairs for Abu Dhabi, an apparent Tower of Babel made of 1,200 discarded chairs.
Like the museums, it seems to be making a defiant statement: seemingly precarious, it is so tightly woven, it is as firm as a rock and unshakeable.
"I want to smell and be part of this utopia," Mennour says. "I carefully curated my booth; it could just as easily be done at Art Basel.
"It shows our DNA as a gallery. Of course, we brought our works with the institutions in mind.
"Abu Dhabi Art is not in the race of big fairs, but it is important it exists to accompany the institutions - it is good not just for Abu Dhabi, but for the region."
The organisers, too, seem willing to push the envelope.
Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem, whose works question his conservative religious upbringing, puts in an appearance, as does Ghada Amer, the controversial Egyptian artist whose nudes leave her own parents appalled.
"They don't like to look at them," she admits. "I'm a little scared about the work I have on display here."
The Tina Kim Gallery's decision to exhibit Malaysian Winter, featuring women in provocative poses picked out in embroidery thread, is a bold one, albeit unwittingly so.
"This is our first year here, and we were not trying to push boundaries, it just happened to become available and is a beautiful painting," says director Randy Moore.
While the Arab Spring is largely ignored by the show - some gallerists mutter that it simply "doesn't sell" - the Atassi Gallery from Damascus felt it had no choice but to exhibit work depicting the revolution still raging on home turf.
The gallery has not been able to operate for months and has shipped most of its work to Dubai, together with other Syrian outlets.
It decided to focus solely on the work of Ahmad Moualla, whose Power and People spread across six canvases, gives a panoramic view of life against a backdrop of chaos and terror.
With slapdash brushstrokes, Moualla's hastily painted figures in black and grey emerge from the shadows against the stark yellow of lit doorways, fighting, running, kissing and dying in a bleak litany of the scope of human experience in the face of violence.
Gallery owner Mouna Atassi says: "The goal of the gallery is to represent Syria, and this is such a strong statement, I felt I wanted to dedicate the booth to one painting - not because of a sense of responsibility but because it is a complete work that serves as a historical record.
"Under the current circumstances, I could not bring paintings of flowers."
The gallery's Delphine Leccas compares it to Picasso's Guernica and says Moualla is one of a number of Syrian artists driven underground, expressing their frustration and anger through their artwork.
"The painting is a reflection of what is happening now," she says. "It is difficult for artists to express themselves totally freely, but their work has suddenly become much more powerful and personal. It looks like nothing else."
While all the gallerists agree they want to be part of the exciting new developments taking place on Saadiyat - the Louvre will be followed by the Zayed National Museum in 2016 and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi the following year - no one seems quite able to decide exactly what Abu Dhabi Art's role is.
With longer-established fairs such as Basel and Frieze, it is perhaps more of a case of going for the hard, obvious sell. But in the Middle East, where a love of art is still burgeoning, imparting an appreciation of artists and their works seems as much a part of the package.
Kapoor says: "Here we have the idea that while there is resource and wealth … there is the sense that without a deep cultural input, life becomes meaningless.
"One of the things that has to happen without a doubt is that there needs to be talent - curatorial, artistic and so on - grown here.
"It is a process and it's absolutely vital. Without that, it is always an import. You need a generation of artists, dealers and entrepreneurs who understand these questions and who have the ambition to take it beyond."
He first visited Abu Dhabi in 2007, when plans for the Louvre were first unveiled, and says the transformation since has been breathtaking: "One is used to the idea things like this have an endless gestation and then maybe happen.
"Here, the whole island has suddenly got life and form; it is just astonishing."
But he says Middle Eastern artists should be wary of being pigeon-holed and "playing that role of being a kind of cultural export … those are the things we have to be very clear we are not doing."
For gallery owner Thaddaeus Ropac, selling art is just one aspect of attending fairs around the world.
"When we go to these fairs we have many artistic projects, such as exhibitions, and finding new spaces for our artists and art fairs become the place where all this happens," he says.
"In the last two days, I have achieved more in organising interesting projects than I would expect from a place like Abu Dhabi.
"It has become a place where you come and make connections in the Middle East.
"We need to sell because it is important and finances all these things, but it is almost secondary to the main idea of presenting your art and developing new markets, which means exhibitions much more than selling singular pieces."
Frederic Leris, of Galerie Enrico Navarra in Paris, is revelling in the number of visitors asking questions and the interest sparked by a Subodh Gupta Ambassador taxi painted silver: Some days you have to talk about the art. It is the only thing interesting about our job - otherwise we might as well be selling cars."
Emirati artist Alia Lootah will have to go overseas to study for her doctorate in art history. But she says the art scene is developing while the fair gives the UAE credibility: "I feel a responsibility as an artist to be a part of it, even if my work is never exhibited.
"The works which will be on display here will be important to artists from all over the world."
Andree Sfeir-Semler, whose eponymous gallery from Germany is showing work by Marwan Rechmaoui from Lebanon and Emirati Hassan Sharif, emphasises the focus should not simply be on encouraging Middle Eastern art, but rooting out quality.
"We should be aiming for something that has an identity and is rooted regionally but is relevant universally - that is important art," she says.
"If you do not have a local root that brings you to universality, it will be like McDonald's. We should not be aiming for fast food or fast art."
She is particularly excited by a new generation of conceptual Arab artists who use minimalism rather than looking like pastiches of western artists.
As for the fair, she says: "It is only important that these [significant] galleries come to Abu Dhabi to create something and start a new scene which does not exist … but we are not there yet."
As for when that will be - well, it may be closer than you think.
Tahira Yaqoob is a former features writer for The National.