x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Portrait of an evolving nation

Two exhibits at the Venice Biennale art festival are showing the UAE through the eyes of regional artists.

Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, visits the Adach platform accompanied by its curator, Catherine David, during the vernissage of the 53rd Biennale International Art Exhibition in Venice yesterday.
Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, visits the Adach platform accompanied by its curator, Catherine David, during the vernissage of the 53rd Biennale International Art Exhibition in Venice yesterday.

VENICE, ITALY // The UAE's debut yesterday at the world's most prestigious contemporary art event, the Venice Biennale, was a double feature: a national pavilion and a separate platform for art presented by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

The Adach platform, shrouded in mystery for months, was revealed as a demolition of preconceptions about life and art in the region, and the opening of a dialogue on the possible products of the great cultural experiment taking place in the UAE. Created by the French art historian Catherine David, the exhibit funnels visitors into a narrowing corridor lined with media images of the Emirates as a developer's paradise: saturated brochure shots of gleaming developments and shopping malls, with accompanying text hailing a dynamic property market.

Older images of the nation's birth - black-and-white photographs of isolated desert settlements, then of the earliest stages of urbanisation - suggest the miraculous way the cities rose out of the sands, almost like mirages. It places the viewer in the realms of cliché. As soon as one rounds the corner, however, the commercial sheen vanishes. Grainy video footage of rushing streets, shot from the window of a moving car by the Lebanese filmmaker Wael Nourredine, announces the start of what Ms David has called a "territorial analysis" of the Emirates. A winding path leads the viewer past video screens showing interviews with Dr Abdel Rahman Makhlouf, Abu Dhabi's original town planner, and with the Indian architectural scholar Kaiwan Mehta.

There is a film of the performance piece Autobiography (03-07), by the Emirati artist Ebtisam Abdulaziz, who also contributes paintings to the UAE pavilion. In this work, the artist dressed herself in black pyjamas and a mask, both of which are covered in columns of four-digit numbers copied from ATM receipts, then took to the streets of Sharjah to perform symbolic actions - feeding receipts into a ballot box or having herself dragged along the pavement in a clear plastic sack.

As Ms David noted, apart from their polemical comments on the dehumanising side of commerce, these street scenes "say a lot about life ... It's really amazing to see the way people are reacting. I'm not sure people would be so welcoming, and quiet, and nice, in London." Perhaps the highlight from this phase of the show is Lifts, a series of photographs by the young Saudi artist Sami al Turki. Al Turki travelled the road between Dubai and Jeddah picking up hitchhikers - south Asian labourers, for the most part - and shot strikingly sensitive portraits of them during the journey. He also gave them cameras to take pictures of themselves when they arrived at their destinations.

The result is a piecemeal travelogue of unloved roadsides, waste territories, and the vividly human individuals struggling across them. The centrepiece of the platform, however, is a few feet above. Next to a comfortable mezzanine lounge, the better to encourage discussion, there is a scale recreation of one of the storage rooms at Dubai's Flying House gallery - what the artist Hassan Sharif calls his "supermarket".

On shelf after shelf, Sharif's creations pile up - bundles of nylon rope bound with wire, notebooks stitched with twine, heaps of clear plastic pouches containing what appears to be grey fluff. The style is reminiscent of aspects of the Fluxus movement, though the intention here seems to be less to provoke than to record. Sharif's materials are studiedly modest; they reflect the makeshift side to life in the Emirates, the ragged counterpart to the gleaming visions.

His work is, Ms David said, "really very precisely and very deeply related to what I would call the materiality ... of the place he is living in Dubai." This appears to be one of the overarching aims of the show: to examine in as unvarnished a style as possible the texture of existence in the Emirates. As Ms David put it: "When you look carefully at many of these works, what do you see? Nothing flamboyant, nothing about luxury. But works which are attentive to human conditions and daily life ... you can see a certain number of very personal, very precise analyses and comments on the state of things."

If the Adach platform emphasises circumspection and reserve, the UAE's national pavilion, curated by Tirdad Zolghadr and presented by Dr Lamees Hamdan, launches itself on to the international stage with an extravagant sense of irony. Entitled It's Not You, It's Me, the show nominally focuses on the work of the Emirati artist Lamya Gargash, who has produced a series of sumptuously coloured and oddly dramatic photographs of one-star hotel rooms - a play on the Emirates' fame as the first nation to boast a seven-star hotel.

Among other exhibits, there are also number-paintings from Abdulaziz, photographs from Tarek al Ghoussein, and architectural models of planned developments within the UAE. Yet the works, despite their interest, are all but upstaged by their mode of presentation. What is announced as a public question-and-answer session by Zolghadr and Dr Hamdan is revealed, on closer inspection, to be a performance by a group of actors lip-synching to a recorded script. Gallery visitors are given an audio guide, apparently narrated by Dr Hamdan, which pokes elaborate fun at the notion of biennials, national pavilions, and the practice of offering an audio guide. It even segues into a brief lecture on the concept of self-reflexivity in art, a moment of meta-curatorial brio that sets the tone for the confounding but infectiously good-humoured show.

Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, was among the dignitaries to visit both exhibitions yesterday. The Biennale will be open to the public from June 7 until Nov 22. elake@thenational.ae