Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 May 2019

An art exhibition at a shopping mall: a stroke of brilliance or the final commercial nail in art's coffin?

A collaboration between the M WOODS Museum and the Dubai Mall takes risks that pay off

Andy Warhol's 'Silver Clouds' at the Dubai Mall
Andy Warhol's 'Silver Clouds' at the Dubai Mall

A cynic might argue that a collaboration between a contemporary art museum and a vast shopping mall, where upmarket brands abound, represents the very worst commercial excesses of the art world. But on this occasion, the cynic would be wrong – or at least, not entirely right.

For while there is certainly something unsettling about seeing a selection of paintings, photographs, sculptures and video installations from Beijing’s M WOODS Museum dotted around the fashion wing of the Dubai Mall, the quality of the work and the inventive way it has been displayed quickly dispel any doubts you may have about this marriage of creativity and commerce.

The show, which consists of about 40 artworks spread across seven pavilions on three different floors, is a joy – ambitious, challenging and, at times, extremely funny. Taking these pieces – many of which comment on today’s capitalist, technology-driven society – out of the gallery and placing them in a shopping mall is cheeky but it works brilliantly.

The collaboration between the M WOODS Museum and the Dubai Mall
The collaboration between the M WOODS Museum and the Dubai Mall

The man responsible for all this is Chinese curator Michael Xufu Huang. Still only 25 years old, Huang, the co-founder of the M WOODS Museum, is considered one of the most exciting young curators out there. In 2017, he was included on Forbes’s Art and Style “30 under 30” list, and has given talks at Harvard and Yale. He is also a trustee of the New Museum in New York.

The highlight of the show, which runs until April 30, is undoubtedly Pavilion 6. Huang has pulled together a selection of works from M WOODS Museum’s hugely successful 2017 exhibition “Heart of the Tin Man”, including Norwegian-German artist Yngve Holen’s You Got Issues (2016) and Swiss artist Pamela Rosenkranz’s Look Deeper (2016). Even in this abbreviated form, the collection packs a punch with its clear-eyed dissection of how technology is changing – and often damaging – human beings.

“Throughout the history of art, every period has had an important theme that influences the art at the time,” Huang explained during an exclusive tour of the pavilions. “Technology is the main motif of what is happening today. You don’t have the human-to-human contact anymore.”

Look Deeper, a refrigerator full of different coloured Voss water bottles, initially strikes you as aspirational – how many models do we see on Instagram sipping Voss? – but the bottles are, in fact, packed claustrophobically, shut off behind the refrigerator’s glass door. They are relying on the very thing that traps them to remain cool. It’s a haunting comment on consumerism and social media.

The collaboration between M WOODS Museum and the Dubai Mall
The collaboration between M WOODS Museum and the Dubai Mall

You will also find three of Argentinian provocateur Amalia Ulman’s photographs from her series “Excellences & Perfections” in Pavilion 6. In 2014, Ulman created a fake Instagram account, which she used to chart her journey from innocence to brash notoriety – think boob jobs and cash – before finally completing the cycle and posing as a clean-eating wellness guru. The hoax was a sensation at the time and has lost none of its power to shock here. “Technology is drowning us because we can’t be ourselves,” said Huang.

Elsewhere, in Pavilion 4 you can see Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds. First exhibited in 1966, this immersive installation allows visitors to walk among the dozens of shiny silver balloons floating around the room. Pavilion 3 introduces a number of influential Chinese artists from the 80s to the present day.

Zeng Fanzhi’s colourful, disturbing portraits reminded me of Francis Bacon’s bleak characterisations, while Ouyang Chun’s large canvas, Abandon Painting, which depicts a man throwing his paints and brushes away, is absurdly childish but somehow not at all sweet. The brutish brushstrokes and lack of realism accentuate the action of throwing the creative tools away.

Ouyang Chun's 'Abandon Painting' on display at the Dubai Mall
Ouyang Chun's 'Abandon Painting' on display at the Dubai Mall

American artist Paul McCarthy’s 1965 video installation in Pavilion 1, cisuM fo dnuoS ehT/The Sound of Music, is a recording of The Sound of Music played backwards, with the pictures upside down. It is strange and hypnotic to see something so familiar messed about with like this. Well worth a look, as are Lu Yang’s kaleidoscopic videos, which here seemingly portray humans as characters in a video game.

I spoke to Huang after the tour and asked him about the challenges of displaying art in a shopping mall. But he was adamant that the architecture and the natural sunlight actually enhanced the works in a way that he had not experienced before. It is hard to disagree. Cynics be warned: you’re going to leave here converted.

M WOODS at the Dubai Mall runs until April 30. For more information, visit: www.thedubaimall.com

Updated: March 13, 2019 10:23 AM

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