x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

How a rock star manages to stay on track

There are so many art openings this week that it seems indulgent to dwell on Rod Stewart and his love for model railways.

Model railways may seem an unlikely hobby for somebody like Rod Stewart, but could provide a gentle antidote to the pressures of celebrity life.
Model railways may seem an unlikely hobby for somebody like Rod Stewart, but could provide a gentle antidote to the pressures of celebrity life.

There are so many art openings this week that it seems indulgent to dwell on Rod Stewart, who plays Dubai this Friday, but I can't stop thinking about his love of model railways. That's models of railways, you understand, not railways for models, though one suspects the husband of Penny Lancaster and formerly of Alana Hamilton and Rachel Hunter would keep an open mind. Every so often the story filters out into the British press for a round of ritualised jeering - "do you think I'm geeky?", that sort of thing - as in 2007 when Stewart's 1:87 scale replica of Grand Central Station made the cover of Model Railroader magazine. (Stewart, unperturbed, said it meant more to him to appear in that publication than in Rolling Stone.)

The assumption behind the mockery, of course, is that train sets are for children and introverted deadbeats who fear the complexity of the adult world and that a swaggering rock star like Stewart should therefore have no use for them. I wonder, though. In so many ways the approved trajectory for a rock life mirrors the plot of JK Huysmans' novel A Rebours, one of the founding documents of the 19th-century decadent movement. Mightn't Stewart's strange hobby be excused by reference to Huysmans, on something akin to constitutional grounds?

Consider: after a dissipated and sinful youth, the aristocrat Jean des Esseintes decides that he's had it with humanity and so retreats to a country villa, there to pursue his weird notions of good taste. He has precious stones let into the shell of his pet tortoise so that it matches his rug, remodels his dining room to look like a ship's cabin and compels his live-in servants to work in complete silence.

His amusements include the grotesque authors of Rome's Silver Age and a laboratory for blending experimental perfumes. So far, so rock. It would be disappointing to learn that, for example, Alice Cooper had done any less. But then there's this strange outburst: "Has not man made for his own use an animated and artificial being which easily equals woman, from the point of view of plastic beauty? Is there a woman whose form is more dazzling, more splendid than the two locomotives that pass over the Northern Railroad lines?"

On first reading the book I took this as part of Huysmans' contrarian attack on the Romantic cult of Nature (the novel's title is usually rendered in English as "Against Nature"). Yet Stewart gives me pause. Could it be that Huysmans was describing an authentic symptom of extreme jadedness? That hedonism of the sort that rock stars and French aristocrats get to explore leads, via some quirk of libidinal transference, straight into the steamy embrace of the locomotive?

Stewart isn't the only rocker with a train set. Eric Clapton and Phil Collins, much-married men both, have also been known to dabble. Pete Waterman founded his own hobbyists business, Just Like The Real Thing. More research seems in order. Perhaps that notional railway for models would shed some light after all. We'll invite Keith Richards along for a ride and see where he directs his gallantry. There are models of a different sort at Portfolio gallery with Resurrection des Mannequins, a photographic show from Sertac Tasdelen and friends. A group of Dubai artists including Lamya Gargash, Gita Meh and Lateefa bint Maktoum, have embellished Tasdelen's images of shop-window dummies. Expect mixed results.

At Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde there's Lara Baladi's new show Diary of the Future, in which the artist explores her grief at the death of her father through readings of coffee grains. Green Art Gallery has a very solid-looking group show from seven emerging Lebanese artists. Finally, Abbas Akhavanof has a show called Islands at Third Line, in which he turns a wall of the gallery into a map and invites the viewer to invest in portions of his imaginary real estate. Buyers should email elake@thenational.ae for further exciting property opportunities.