Kuwaiti artists Alia Farid and Aseel AlYaqoub will celebrate the Gulf’s ongoing love affair with the artificial with an arboretum of plastic trees at Jameel Arts Centre when it opens by the end of the year
Electric botanical garden to open on Dubai Creek
Dubai – and the GCC more generally – has gained a reputation for its glorious embrace of the artificial: fake islands, fake Chrysler building, fake lakes traversed by fake dhows. It’s an image that, in some ways, the serious-minded organisation Art Jameel has taken pains to correct, focusing not on the glitz of Dubai, but on building spaces in which research, art and education can come to the fore.
Except for now.
The winner of Art Jameel’s first commissions' competition is an installation by the Kuwaiti artists Alia Farid and Aseel AlYaqoub that celebrates, AlYaqoub says, the tendency towards the “absurdly artificial” within the GCC.
“When you drive down the road in Kuwait,” explains AlYaqoub. “You’ll see these cherry blossoms or these different palm trees that are lit up at night. During the day they are quiet and mute. They replicate the natural – the plastic is coloured the same way. But by night it’s like an electric botanical garden. The trees light up and they’re animated.”
Farid and AlYaqoub are creating an arboretum of these plastic trees, with plaques identifying each of the varieties, that will be installed at Jameel Arts Centre when it opens on Dubai Creek this winter. The site will be less Kew Gardens and more Alice in Wonderland: some trees will be too big, some trees will be too small, some will be fatter than they ought to be, some will be thinner. The artists will play with the colours of the plants, mixing red trees with yellow and green ones – “almost like painting the landscape,” says AlYaqoub.
“We want to encourage thinking about artificiality,” she says. “Is it something concerning, especially when we see kids wandering around artificial gardens? Is that something that will worry us for future generations, or is this something that we can live with?”
The work also reflects on the rising temperatures of the environment, in which even native plants struggle to survive. “We come from a desert landscape,” AlYaqoub continues. “It’s already difficult to maintain indigenous trees with all the pollution and heat – and it’s just getting hotter and hotter. It’s not clear what we should do instead. In the GCC, we have a tendency to have a temporary replacement for now while we figure out what we’re doing to do.”
AlYaqoub and Farid are the winners of the organisation’s new Art Jameel Commissions programme. The two, who are collaborating for the first time, were selected from a shortlist that also included Mohammed Kazem, Anahita Razmi and Mounira Al Solh – a group selected from more than 180 submissions. “The number of submissions exceeded our expectations,” says Lana Shamma, Art Jameel programmes manager.
The jury was made up of writer and Global Art Forum co-commissioner Shumon Basar; curator Reem Fadda; James Lingwood, co-director of the London commissioning organisation Artangel; Elvira Dyangani Ose, the Creative Time curator and lecturer in visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London; and Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation.
Shamma notes the jury was impressed by the work’s engagement with pop culture from the Gulf, and by how it proposed to function in the new complex.
“With the commission being sited at Jameel Arts Centre, it is important that the sculpture resonates with visitors and provides a means for interaction beyond the gallery walls,” she says. “We could envisage families coming together and interacting with the botanical gardens – and even taking refuge under them.”
AlYaqoub and Farid have been given a US$70,000 (Dh257,000) budget to realise the work, for which they are travelling to Guangdong, China, where many of the artificial trees sold in Kuwait are produced. They will collaborate with the manufacturer there to customise the trees by changing the LED lights, for example, or changing the leaves of the trees.
The selection specifically responds to the landscape design that Art Jameel has in place for the centre, a mix of indigenous and imported trees. AlYaqoub and Farid are matching these natural trees with their artificial ones – hence the work’s title, Contrary Life: A Botanical Light Garden Devoted to Trees (2018), which mirrors the real.
The competition programme will extend over the next three years. “We thought about media that artists don’t usually have a chance to work in,” says Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel. “That could encourage them to push their practice by taking on a challenge and having the ‘gift of time’ to really explore the medium within a site such as the Jameel Arts Centre.”