x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Set in stone

A dozen sculptors are busy shaping stone in the capital for the Abu Dhabi International Sculpture Symposium.

With the Arabian Gulf in the background, Husam Chaya, right, supervises assistants as his piece takes shape at the Armed Forces Officers Club.
With the Arabian Gulf in the background, Husam Chaya, right, supervises assistants as his piece takes shape at the Armed Forces Officers Club.

It is now three weeks since a patch of open ground by the water at the Armed Forces Officers Club last saw peace. The arrival of 12 of the 17 sculptors who are taking part in the first Abu Dhabi International Sculpture Symposium has meant that the air is now permanently filled with a billowing cloud of fine, white dust, while the ground judders with shrill bursts of drilling. This is a construction project of a slightly different kind, though. What were, three weeks ago, great blocks of crudely cut stone are rapidly turning into a series of sculptures expected to transform the landscape of the city.

Caroline Ramersdorfer, from Austria, whose eight slabs of Turkish marble have now been filed and ground into shapes that closely resemble those on the plaster model of her piece, is only a couple of weeks from completion. The help she has received from her four Egyptian assistants has, she says, been invaluable. "I am a very hard worker and I really want to get the best out of the experience," she says. "It's like they really are my hands. We don't speak the same language, but we communicate very well nonetheless."

Husam Chaya, from Lebanon, is this year's emerging artist (each year there will be one from the region) and is in what he describes as the "middle stage" in his piece. The tall pillar, wrapped with writhing curved shapes, has had the surplus marble cut away and its features are now being defined. "The most challenging part," he says, "will be when I make a hole through the middle." With three weeks to go until the symposium closes, the sculptors' thoughts are now turning towards where their works will reside. Although the decision is being made by Abu Dhabi Municipality, some have more specific ideas than others. "I want it to be in a place with no trees within 15m, on grass on a small hill," says Chaya, who also wants it to be accessible to the public every day. "The artist always has a right to suggest what happens to their work, but I'm sure the organisers have a good understanding."

Yoshin Ogata, from Japan, is creating a piece that resembles smooth ripples of water. "I have no idea where they are going to put it. Hopefully on or near water," he says. "The concept should be strong enough that wherever it is, it speaks to you," says Fabrizio Dieci, from Italy, whose three blocks of stone are connected by a series of tendon-like strands. The subject of location had come up earlier in the week during a panel discussion at Zayed University, where several of the artists considered the role of public art. Not knowing the intended location for the work, said Jon Barlow Hudson, from the US, was one of the more challenging aspects of a sculpture symposium.

When asked whether they would prefer to have their works displayed in a sculpture park or on a roundabout, they unanimously agreed on the former. "I would rather see it in parks along the Corniche," said Hudson, "where lots of people can interact with it." Also discussed was how the artists could make their works appeal to Abu Dhabi's diverse population. "Artists unconsciously work with universal forms," replied Hudson, "such as the vortex and the spiral. Sculptors are removed from the rest of the art world, which is into multimedia and performance - temporary and experiential art forms. Our work will be around a lot longer, so we tend to work with universal forms."

Lee said the onus was on the viewer more than on the artist. "A visual language is common to all artists. Your take depends on where you are coming from." There has been a trickle of visitors to the Armed Forces Officers Club, but the artists would love to see more - "particularly students", said Ramersdorfer. Jo Kley, from Germany, whose smooth spiral is being realised in Turkish diabas, believes public input is invaluable. "Galleries don't always tell it to you straight," he says, "but people, they always tell you exactly what they think about your work and what it means to them."

The Abu Dhabi International Sculpture Symposium runs until April 7. Members of the public can see the artists at work daily between 4pm and 5pm (except Fridays) at the Armed Forces Officers Club. A series of related discussions with the artists will take place at Zayed University. For more information, go to www.adiss-ae.com.