German photographer Tor Seidel takes a fresh look at Dubai
From a sparse, sandy landscape dotted with hardy desert shrubs rises a giant billboard structure, stripped of its former garish advertising campaigns. In the background stands a partly constructed building and, of course, a crane. For many Dubai residents, this type of vista became such a common sight during the murky years of the global financial crisis that they wouldn’t have given it a second glance.
But captured by the lens of German photographer Tor Seidel, the image framed and hung on the wall as part of his exhibition Just a Look at XVA Gallery, it is certainly a cause for reflection.
“The empty billboard is a really a good metaphor to capture the atmosphere of this city during the financial crisis,” says Seidel. “The advertisements that had been there showing renderings of an ideal city completely stopped, leaving an empty, almost surrealistic space for people to think about what it means and the illusion behind the facade.”
Emptiness is a key component of many of the images that are on show in the exhibition. They are all taken from Seidel’s book, The Dubai, published by Hatje Cantz, which offers a fascinating perspective on the city as seen through his observant, critical and often humorous viewpoint.
In one image, of the massive interchange on Sheikh Zayed Road next to the Burj Khalifa, Seidel used a long exposure to create the illusion that the roads are empty. This photographic trick highlights the orange-yellow glow, as well as the seemingly impossible configuration of the road structure.
“This one, for me, is the best example of how Dubai works,” says Seidel. “When you first come to the city you are confused and you don’t know where to go or how it works, but there is a warm character to the place that attracts you to it.”
All of the images in the show were taken between 2008 and 2014. They are certainly impressive, digitally reworked, with each containing between 20 and 40 separate photographs, but they are more than just photojournalistic frames. They are an artistic examination of the visual aesthetics of the city and, as such, trigger critical discussion into the many aspects of this rapidly developing and unashamedly ambitious city.
An enormous image of the model for the Dubailand leisure development is one of the highlights of the show. Taken without any context to indicate that it is just a model, it looks like an aerial view of a fantasy world – kind of like Oz-meets-Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Seidel laughs at my observation.
“Well, in a way, Dubai is a fairy tale,” he says.
This is a message underscored by the fact that the giant model, measuring 7 metres x 12 metres, has yet to be translated into reality, even though the project was first announced in 2003.
Seidel’s body of work takes a slice of Dubai’s archaeological and social history and presents it in a subtle but highly self-conscious way. For many residents of the city, it will appeal to an undercurrent of awareness that most of us have experienced – which makes it a successful art project.
“Many of my images are like questions,” he says. “They have their own mind and, for the viewer, if he spends time with them he, too, starts to ask questions.”
Also part of the show are four images from an in-progress upcoming book that looks beyond Dubai to the UAE as a whole. They are of the same style as the others but more tongue-in-cheek and cannot help but make you smile.
The arctic scene from the entrance to Ras Al Khaimah’s IceLand features in one. In another, a model stands in front of a thick plume of dark smoke rising from behind the Fujairah mountains. Dubai has not been abandoned, however. It is represented in the new images by a bizarre angular, uninhabited villa in Al Quoz, and the only part of Dubailand that was built – the entrance – which includes a model rollercoaster, a skier and a racing car.
“The [upcoming] book does not have the documentary character like my Dubai book, they are more strange, or uncommon images from across the country,” says Seidel. “I want to interrupt my viewer through staged photographs.”
• Just a Look by Tor Seidel runs until October 4 at XVA Gallery in Dubai. For more details, visit www.xvagallery.com.
Updated: September 12, 2016 04:00 AM