The art amid the architecture at Expo Dubai proved far more accessible and effective than is generally believed, and testified to the truth of ideas expressed by critic Julian Stallabrass among others about the globalisation of the artistic sphere and the use of art in urban and regional development.
According to Expo Dubai Senior Vice President Hayat Shamsuddin, artists were commissioned to make public pieces to be placed at specific spots to help turn the space – which would become an urban creativity centre named District 2020 – into a vital extension of the city of Dubai and a model smart city following the end of the exhibition. The works were to reflect new and future visions of neo-utopia, in line with the experimental spirit of such spaces. “We saw Expo as an international dialogue forum and felt that contemporary art was an appropriate reflection of our vision for a shared human moment.”
Selected by the Egyptian curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the artists include Hamra Abbas, Afra Al Dhaheri, Shaikha Al Mazrou, Monira Al Qadiri, Abdullah Al Saadi, Asma Belhamar, Olafur Eliasson, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Khalil Rabah, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Haegue Yang. Forming a virtual walking tour within the exhibiuion, their work breaks national as well as intellectual barriers, and suggests new configurations of connectedness in a city intent on being emphatically contemporary.
According to Abou El Fetouh, for his part, the fact that the space would be an urban extension of the city was crucial to the idea of art playing a role in its formation – and attempt to show that art can speak to a general audience. He sought “artists eager to produce large-scale works with ideas that can entertain and raise perpetual questions”.
Once the artists were chosen, he explains, “we all worked together on the paradigms in the Book of Optics by Ibn Al Haytham [Alhazen], which is a very advanced take on visual imagination that demonstrates Arab civilisation’s interest in the imagination and the philosophy of the image”.
The book dates back to the 11th century, but it proved crucial to the modern moving image. It provided Abou El Fetouh with a unique perspective on contemporary art, benefiting from such ideas as the precept that a whole image can only be realised in the imagination while what is visually perceptible is but a fraction of what we actually see, which includes prior knowledge, memory and the ability to make measurements.
“One unique ability definitely shared by all human beings,” Abou El Fetouh says, “is that of imagining and grasping a narrative however ‘strange’ to them it may be. That’s why returning to the ideas of Ibn Al Haytham today provides an appropriate context for looking at contemporary works of art that will inspire visitors and provoke them to invest the power of their imagination in engaging and interacting. We wanted to show the artistic dimension of our cultural history, and at the same time to rethink it as a means to incite innovation in contemporary artists.”
The real challenge was conceiving of the imagination as a truly universal impetus. “Expo is a globalised event,” Abou El Fetouh says, “but these works both stress and transcend identity, because of their presence in between the participating countries. Each work represents its maker more than anything else.” This is especially true of Emirati art, which operates in a very wide range of registers.
For Shamsuddin, an important aspect of the selection was its panoramic quality, and the way the works raise questions about the relationship with the surroundings, with the earth, outer space and the environment, thereby forging connections with the issues that beset humanity today.
The tourist conception behind the event, operating through the use of maps and tours, enables viewers to observe the works as art within architecture, which is part and parcel of how the works were conceived in the first place.
The Korean artist Haegue Yang’s piece comprises balls of colour that make a loud noise moving in a celestial-spheres arrangement that recalls not only the solar system and beyond but Alhazen’s notions of perception.
The Palestinian Khalil Rabah’s sculpture is a reference to an 11th-century instrument for measuring latitude without the need for calculation tables, using sunlight and the machine’s own three constituent elements. Rabah expands these further, setting them out over an engraving of a diagram that indicates the latitude of Expo itself.
The Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare created a large, hand-painted piece of fabric that appears to flutter in the wind, drawing on an originally Indonesian design that spread in West Africa and came to represent African identity. This stresses the role of trade and travel, and early forms of globalisation, in the formation of necessarily complex identities.
The Kuwaiti Monira Al Qadiri’s Chimera is a gigantic iridescent oil drill made to look like a spaceship or a being from the future, and this results from the artist’s research into the aesthetics shared by oil and pearls in terms of colours, qualities and effect on social and economic life in the Gulf.
The Tunisian Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s work is the shadow of a bicycle, outlined using digital technology and enhanced with a layer of colour. It appears to be a kind of mythical creature, but is in fact an homage to Alhazen’s ideas about sight.
The Danish Olafur Eliasson’s The presence of absence pavilion is a bronze recreation of a now melted glacial ice block that had formed off the coast of Greenland over millions of years. It engages with themes of climate change and irrevocable damage to nature.
The UAE-based Indian Hamra Abbas’s Garden is a kind of three-dimensional narrative mural executed on the ground. On a large scale that allows the viewer to walk through it, it evokes the beauty and quietude of Mughal miniatures.
Emirati contributions include Shaikha Al Mazrou’s The Plinth is an actual marble plinth ready to bear another sculpture in an attempt to emphasise dialogue and sustainability. Abdullah Al Saadi’s Terhal uses stones from Wadi Tayybah in the Emirate of Fujairah to intervene in a public seating area surrounded by fountains. It constitutes visual narratives like maps arranged according to the artist’s own code. Afra Al Dhaheri’s Pillow Fort Playground is among the most lyrical pieces on show. It draws on the traditional children’s game of arranging he traditional Emirati floor pillows called tikkay into various shapes using white marble.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekl