Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 30 September 2020

Grendizer in Dubai: the story behind the incredible images

Photographers Marc Ninghetto and Rafi Kabbas are showing the anime character in a new light

Many people growing up in the late ’80s will be familiar with the name Grendizer – the giant robot, with its golden horns and beams of concentrated energy shooting out from its hands, was once the most popular anime character in the Arab world. The Arabic-dubbed cartoon was so popular that in my small home town in Syria, we had a carousel that featured not horses and cars, but multicoloured Grendizers. They made beeping noises and their eyes lit up as they went up and around. As boisterous six year olds, we’d fight over which of the Grendizers to ride in. The black, blue and red one was the most coveted, as it most resembled that in the show.

Now the super-robot has come to Dubai, brought to the bustling city by Swiss photographer Marc Ninghetto. Except the Dubai in his work has no traffic jams, flashing lights or advertisement-adorned highways. The Grendizer in Ninghetto’s photos stands tall amid the city’s landmarks. Looking away from the viewer, it surveys an empty, peaceful iteration of the global hub.

“Grendizer was my childhood idol,” Ninghetto says. “He was my friend, brother and father-figure. It was the first robot I knew. The only one that resembled humans. The ones that came afterwards, like the Transformers, were more mechanical. Except for its horns, Grendizer very much looked like a person.”

This is the third instalment of Ninghetto’s photo series featuring Grendizer. The first two had the super-robot standing tall in New York and Los Angeles, as well as beside some buildings in Russia that Ninghetto was fascinated by.

The project fuses ­Ninghetto’s interest in landscapes, architecture and robots. He uses a technique called digital sampling, whereby he captures images of three-dimensional robot models and incorporates them within landscape photographs. “This is the first time all the photographs feature a single city,” Ninghetto says of the eight large-scale prints that make up his exhibition The Solitude of a Machine III. “Though, I wouldn’t say the photographs are about the city, but what the city represents.”

Ninghetto had never been to the UAE before his exhibition was unveiled earlier this month at MB&F M A D Gallery in The Dubai Mall. He says it was challenging, working to place the super-robot in a city he’d never visited. “But it was fun. I don’t know the place so I made the pieces with my foreign eyes. I worked on them like postcards,” Ninghetto says, adding that although it was the third instalment of the Grendizer series, he approached it like a whole new project. “It’s like seeing a movie you liked and want to erase your mind and start fresh.”

Grendizer behind the Executive Towers in Business Bay. Courtesy MB&F MAD Gallery 
Grendizer behind the Executive Towers in Business Bay. Courtesy MB&F MAD Gallery 

To get some insight on Dubai, Ninghetto collaborated with Syrian landscape photographer Rafi Kabbas, who lives in the emirate. Ninghetto says it was the first time he worked with anyone on a project – he usually takes the photos himself. “I wanted an insider who knew the city,” he says. “I definitely pushed him out of his comfort zone. He usually takes photographs of desert landscapes. I kept asking him to go back and retake a number of photographs, asking for different angles and lighting conditions.”

Ninghetto says there are a few points that recur throughout The Solitude of a Machine photographs. Grendizer never looks at the viewer, but instead, gazes across the city. In some of the prints, the viewer can only see the robot’s back as he looks on to the famous city skyline. Ninghetto also made sure Grendizer’s presence was a meditative and peaceful one (especially in contrast to the original manga series). “The show was a violent one, especially looking back at it as an adult. There was always the threat of war, of the planet blowing up,” Ninghetto says. It was his way of taking the war-designed robot to a place of peace.

Ninghetto, who works as a fashion and advertising photographer for watch and jewellery brands, says The Solitude of a Machine project gives him the space to breathe in a way his everyday job doesn’t. “It’s good for my mind,” he says. Yet, there is some overlap. Ninghetto says he worked with the Grendizer figure as he would have a model.

I didn’t know what to think. I was a huge fan of the anime [series] as a child. We’d watch it all the time. The robot was our hero. But I was a little bit confused by what the intent and motivation was behind the project.

Rafi Kabbas

The photographer, who is in Dubai for the exhibition, plans to explore the city, taking some pictures himself as potential landscapes for future Grendizer projects. “I want to take this week to talk to some people here, gain some insight on the city and take some photographs of Old Dubai, vintage Dubai,” he says.

Prior to his collaboration with Ninghetto, Kabbas was more focused on taking landscape shots. The project pushed the photographer, who has lived in the UAE for more than 13 years. “It’s a lot easier taking pictures for one’s own portfolio or social media channel,” he says. “With this project, I was trying to do Marc’s vision justice. The gallery put us in touch. He was looking for someone who was familiar with the city and could get some intimate photos of the cityscape. It was a first for me, but I welcomed the challenge.”

Kabbas, who began as a travel photographer in 2013, says he was initially confused when he heard the project involved the super-robot Grendizer. “I didn’t know what to think. I was a huge fan of the anime [series] as a child. We’d watch it all the time. The robot was our hero,” he says. “But I was a little bit confused by what the intent and motivation was behind the project. It made much more sense once I looked into Marc’s past work.”

Grendizer against Burj Al Arab. Courtesy MB&F MAD Gallery 
Grendizer against Burj Al Arab. Courtesy MB&F MAD Gallery 

For three months, Kabbas travelled around Dubai, looking for locations that could accommodate the giant robot. He finally decided on 45 spots, taking photographs from various angles and using different composition techniques, before sending them to Ninghetto.

“The idea was to have Grendizer blend in with the landscape or cityscape. The final work should not appear to be altered by Photoshop. I took a mix of photographs, some of open places, like desert shots or of Dubai’s skyline. Others focused on a single building and were tighter in frame.”

Kabbas says the project helped him expand on his composition techniques while looking at Dubai in a whole new way.

The Solitude of a Machine III is on show at the MB&F M A D Gallery in The Dubai Mall

Updated: December 17, 2019 07:20 PM

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