x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The world fair

Feature The art world reunites in Abu Dhabi as Emirates Palace hosts the second artparis. A meeting point for the modern and the contemporary.

<i>Les Mains</i> by Hassan Hajjaj.
Les Mains by Hassan Hajjaj.

Artparis is back in Abu Dhabi, with reinforcements. Last year's sales weren't terrific: with a turnover of just under $16million (Dh58.8m), however, the event is about far more than money - it promises to reassert the emirate's position as a meeting point for contemporary art both in the region and in the world. This year, no fewer than 58 modern and contemporary art galleries from 22 countries will be packing out the Emirates Palace from Tuesday 18 to Nov 21 (the invitation-only preview takes place today). The range of actual art on show is no less heartening. More than 3,300 artworks from over 700 artists will go on show. The roster of big names include Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse while many pieces from young and emerging artists are also on show and look likely to catch the attention of budding collectors who have yet to enter the single-name leagues. From 19th century landscapes to gothic earth-moving equipment, there's high-quality imaginative work from every corner of the globe.

The fair kicks off with a seminar that is also an art performance entitled Abu Dhabi Art, Talks and Sensations, which the organisers describe as a "symposium-show". It promises to investigate and explain the contemporary Arab aesthetic. Curated by Fabrice Bousteau, the editor of France's celebrated Beaux Arts magazine, the programme is three hours long and will feature about 30 participants who will mix debates, performances, music, philosophy and video projections. An interesting blend of education, entertainment and art, it sets the tone for many of the side shows to the main event.

With an emphasis on promoting Arab works, emerging artists and contemporary art, artparis also provides an opportunity to showcase home-grown talent. Movement and Communication?Travels Through Desert and Sea, curated by Amal Traboulsi, focuses on contemporary regional art with pieces from Rachid Koraichi and Chaouki Chamoun. Also on display, the Young Talent exhibition showcases eight emerging artists from eight up-and-coming galleries from all over the world. Of particular interest are pieces by Jamshid Bayrami from London's Xerxes gallery.

A varied programme of lectures, debates and symposiums will run alongside the exhibition and art world titans including Shirin Neshat, Nasser Kallili, Zaha Hadid and Thomas Krens will all participate in fringe invitation-only events. They are far from the only international names to be drawn to the show, an impressive list of gallerists, collectors and artists are flying in from the world's art hubs, confirming the current international interest in art in the Arab world.

Enrico Navarra, one of the leading Parisian gallerists participating in artparis-Abu Dhabi, is so convinced about the rise of the East that he has just published three tomes focusing on the best artists in the Arab world. The book In The Arab World ? Now - is a celebration of artists, galleries, museums, collectors and designers from across the Arab world. Navarra believes that where there is political will, there is a way: "What Abu Dhabi is doing for culture, with their projects for art galleries and museums will cause a massive upheaval in the international art scene and market. The best Arab artists will be wooed by collectors and critics alike, who will exhibit them more and more at biennales and in museums throughout the world." While compiling his book, he says he came to understand the level of international interest. "We quickly realised that we had stumbled on a phenomenon that goes far beyond the framework of art. Here, as elsewhere in the world, contemporary art has become a societal phenomenon, expanding its influence with each passing day." This year, Adach and TDIC, the show's organisers expect up to 15,000 people to visit the exhibition. A societal phenomenon indeed. But where to start at an exhibition of this size? Here's our round-up of the best art on show.

For the most venerable names, head to the stands of Galerie Gmurzynsky. Attractive minor works by the likes of Picasso and Chagall rub shoulders with Le Canal du Loing au Printemps, le Matin, an 1890s river scene by the neglected English impressionist Alfred Sisley. Many an art buff claims that Sisley went off the boil towards the end of his life, but this obscurely troubling landscape, almost Bonnard-like in its restlessness, argues otherwise.

More Chagall and Picasso can be found at Die Galerie, along with an interesting selection of hectic, folksy work from the midcentury European movement, Cobra. Die features Karl Appel's tremendous Head in the Mountains, an explosion of furious colour which bears little trace of the master's lyricism. If anything, it suggests a brawling knot of spirit animals caught in an avalanche. At Galerie El Marsa, the Tunisian painter and potter Khaled Ben Slimane has some vibrant canvasses whose free-floating dream figures clearly echo Joan Miró's style, albeit with a calligraphic twist. At the same stand, his countrywoman Rym Karoui's paintings suggest a kindred approach. Quite soon you'll start noticing family resemblances everywhere.

Arabic calligraphy looks to be the fair's other dominant strand. It's a "founding theme" of the show, say the organisers, though one wonders to what extent the material forced their hand. Seemingly every second artist on the bill has at least toyed with the aesthetic possibilities of script, often with rather insipid results. Tunisia's Nja Mahdaoui, however, takes a bracing approach to the genre: his richly coloured masses of text collide to form hard-edged, angular designs whose clanging force recalls the Vorticist movement, an offshoot of cubism which captures the industrial optimism of the machine age. See them at Marsa and also at Waterhouse and Dodd. By contrast, Iran's Pouran Jinchi, showing at Third Line, gives the washed-out look a good name. Her spare compositions - letters enclosed in bubbles or floating coolly in space - have a sweetness and asceticism all their own.

Several galleries have staked their entire fair on a single artist's work. The South Korean artist Bahk Seon Ghi, showing at the Sun Gallery stand, specialises in levitating sculptures of furniture, formed out of hundreds of pieces of charcoal dangling from threads. The effect is unsettling, as if part of the room had been squatted by ghosts. Jim Dine, the first-wave pop artist best known for having created that irrecoverably 1960s form, The Happening, is showing new work with the Daniel Templon gallery. These days he seems to produce little but murky paintings of hearts and Disney's Pinocchio, and the new show does little to suggest a wider horizon. Still the work showcases Dine's characteristic obsessive intensity.

Jablonka is showing new work from Phillip Taafe, a New York-based artist who blends crackling op art patterns with life sketches from a naturalist's album. The resulting images - vibrant, hypnotic, faintly sinister - are well worth a look. If HP Lovecraft designed wrapping paper, it would look like this. Finally, some of the most notable pieces at this year's event are showing outside the main exhibition space. Head out through the back left-hand corner of the building to find the monumental art garden and Caterpillar, a near-lifesized JCB mechanical excavator picked out in high-gothic tracery. This surely represents one of the most enchanting products of Wim Delvoye's difficult sense of humour. The Belgian artist generally goes in for the revolting and disturbing, so these ornate - indeed, calligraphic - medieval forms represent something of a more genteel offering. Beside the geometric sculptures of Vladimir Skoda and the extreme reticence of Giuseppe Penone's Arte Povera explorations (both also showing in the garden) Delvoye's Tonka Toy cathedral ought to look rather jolly.

Additional reporting by Hannah Westley.
elake@thenational.ae