x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Art of the people

In Dubai Delights, the artist David Mach constructs familiar faces out of postcards.

The on-site installation artist David Mach has been lauded for making contemporary art more approachable for the general public.
The on-site installation artist David Mach has been lauded for making contemporary art more approachable for the general public.

David Mach is an angry man. Not that you can see it in his artwork. At his current show on display at the Manu Chhabria gallery at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac) in the Mall of Emirates, an image of a happy little boy peers out at viewers in Ready to Fly, a large-scale collage made from greeting cards. When seen from afar, the collage seems like a simple portrait of a smiling boy, but up close, onlookers can see the bits of greeting cards featuring falcons in flight. According to Mach, the inside of the cards say "waiting to fly".

This does not exactly seem like an outpouring of artistic rage, but in his own way, Mach is setting out to insult the art world that has alternately embraced and expelled him at various points in his career. Mach has work hanging in the National Gallery in London and was shortlisted in 1988 for the Tate's Turner Prize, one of the most coveted honours in contemporary art. Yet the artist, who was born to working-class immigrant parents in Methil, Fife, Scotland, aspires to be a man of the people. He has little time for the elitism of the art world.

"They're obsessed with the intellectual - with what they call the intellectual - which is often not intellectual at all," says Mach. "I grew weary of that quickly and I found that what you're doing is limiting; why would you not want to contact everybody?" The Turner Prize committee agreed, and has lauded his work in Turner Prize: Twenty Years, saying that he has made contemporary more unapproachable for the general public and has dispelled the image of the artist as an alienated creative genius. Mach often describes himself in pejorative terms and says he is almost distressed by how normal he is.

This normality is also evident in his choice of exhibition spaces. Instead of showing at galleries, Mach prefers on-site installations in public spaces where he creates the work and exhibits it at the same time. He says he likes the viewer participation he gets while creating and doesn't mind if the response is critical. Mach is detailed in his process, which involves cutting up and reworking hundreds of postcards, matches or coat hangers into huge collages - the ones on show at Ductac are mostly half-metre squares - and relishes the physical aspect of his profession.

In 2007, Mach was asked to come to Dubai for the annual Summer Surprises Festival, a group of art, dance and music events in shopping malls around the city. Mach says he immediately loved the idea of showing his work at a shopping mall, mainly because it would irritate the gallery snobs, but also because, he says, he is drawn to all things populist. "In the art world you can hear doors closing when you show in places like shopping malls," says Mach. "They say you can't do that, so I've always made a beeline to places like this."

While in Dubai, Mach made one of the works on display now, called Super Highway, a square collage of an Arabian stallion, by compiling postcards of Sheikh Zayed Road at night, live inside of the Mall of the Emirates. The reaction to Mach's project was overwhelmingly positive and he decided to come back for another visit with this show, Dubai Delights. In homage to last year's live-art experience, Mach chose to show work inspired by his first visit to Dubai.

Ten of Mach's works hang on the walls, and though technically inside a mall, the space is just as white and haughty as the galleries that Mach so dislikes. The art world's "man of the people" still needs to make a living, even if the gallery goes against his ethos. Each of the pictures are on offer for Dh163,000, except for Super Highway, which is priced at Dh475,000. When he was thinking about motifs for the show, Mach searched his own visual vocabulary to come up with images that would be particular to the Emirates but well-known enough to relate to viewers anywhere. Because of this, images of veiled women and henna-swirled hands pop up alongside the UAE flag and patterned carpets.

Mach willingly admits that he doesn't know much about Dubai (this was only his second trip), the Emirates or the Middle East in general. Instead, he says he relied on his notions of the region and that themes from Arabian Nights came up often. Though critics might dismiss this as Orientalism at its worst, Mach doesn't see it that way. He says he looks at Arabic calligraphy as a design inspiration and decided to use it as a purely visual element, regardless of what the words meant. One of the collages called Gulf War shows the eyes of a veiled woman and is made up of smaller pictures of oil fields, a not-so-subtle reference to the turbulence and wealth often associated with this region. Though it is somewhat commercial and at times facile, Mach is not afraid of facing a cliché head-on. "You have to be obvious, and I'm not afraid to do that," he says, in a tone that makes it seem like someone had dared him to do this.

He likes the brashness of Dubai as well. "I like the can-do-ness of it, and this place is absolutely jumping with ambition and effort. "If you're young, free and single, this is the place to be. It's like the Klondike Gold Rush." Mach, who is now 52, rose to success in the 1980s with a piece called Polaris, a large-scale installation of a submarine made entirely out of tyres, which many took to be a statement against Cold War-era nuclear armament. Though Mach has said that it wasn't his intention to create a visual work of protest, he is comfortable letting viewers draw their own conclusions. There is still controversy surrounding the piece. One man disagreed with Mach's supposed message so strongly that he tried to burn down the entire installation, but burnt only himself and ended up dying from the injuries he incurred in the process.

Mach is a long way from those days, though, and says he is hesitant to make socio-political and religious statements with his art. "I'm slightly embarrassed to be making political statements," he admits. "It's like, 'Well, who are you to be making a political statement?'" But this is exactly what he is doing, whether he owns up to it or not. It's not as if the images in Gulf War are neutral. Still, he insists that he has no pretensions about what his art conveys. "For me, it's a visual thing. That's why I love these postcard works, because they are very decadent."

Though deeply connected to the actual act of making things as well as the amount of detail put into each image he creates, Mach says that intellectual content is already there in his "decadent" images; it doesn't have to be discovered. This obviousness gives his work a slickness that some people might equate with a lack of meaning. But Mach says that it's just the would-be intellectuals of the art world trying to look down on the public and insisting that all art must contain hidden intellectual messages. He feels that rarefied group of artists and gallerists look down on him, too.

"The people that rule the art world... they're dying for you to disappear, they're dying for you to stop," he says. The rulers of the art world are apparently out of luck, because David Mach - and his popular art - are here to stay. swolff@thenational.ae