Magazine article Art Monthly

The Sharjah Biennial

Magazine article Art Monthly

The Sharjah Biennial

Article excerpt

Before the first barrel of oil was exported in the early 1960s Dubai was a fishing village, a haven for smugglers, inhabited by nomadic people. Dubai has transformed, like an architectural extreme makeover, into a playground for the Gulf, a destination associated with decadence and secular culture, where the restraints of the Muslim world are soon forgotten. Think of Las Vegas and then multiply by ten and you have an idea of the ostentation and scale of Dubai: whereas the Luxor Hotel in Vegas is built in the shape of a pyramid, Dubai is planning an underwater hotel that will boast pyramids and the Colosseum.

In March a collusion of art events drew visitors to the region. Art Dubai, the Gulf's first art fair now in its third year, was held in conjunction with the Global Art Forum, a series of panels and discussions with leading architects, museum directors and curators. There was also the supposedly alternative Bastakiya Art Fair and the Sharjah Biennial, which promised an international perspective.

Art Dubai differs from its western counterparts in both positive and negative aspects. First, it is a multicultural environment where one encounters a global, expanded vision of the art world. Galleries from Tehran and Mumbai sit alongside those from London, Beirut and Seoul (there is admittedly a lacuna of American galleries). The fair is a microcosm of the city itself, where the great contrasts are among the most interesting cultural phenomena on display: busloads of migrant foreign workers paid a pittance to work on construction sites share the roads with Lexus SUVs carrying Sheikhs whose rule is absolute and whose wealth is startling.

There is an obvious lack of artwork that is politically provocative or sexually explicit. An aesthetic of polite abstraction dominates much of the work on display. La B.A.N.K. from Paris was one of the few that paid homage to its context, showing Zoulikha Bouabdellah's coloured aluminium wall pieces that spell 'love' in Arabic. The artist's installation Walk on the Sky: Pisces, 2009, was also one of three pieces commissioned by the Abraaj Capital art prize, an initiative that offers $1m in funding, a sum that makes the stipend of other prestigious art prizes seem like pocket change.

A video lounge on the lower level of Art Dubai, curated by the team from Bidoun, featured a cross-cultural selection of artists and filmmakers, including Ziad Antar, Koken Ergu and Kenneth Anger. This was one of the most successful elements of the fair and seemed gloriously immune to any commercial concerns.

Local galleries, including The Third Line, B21 and Jam Jar, were featured in the fair. These have taken up residence in an industrial warehouse district of Dubai where concrete mixers prepare the endless tons of raw material necessary for the infamous building boom in the city. Such is the scale of the city's ambition that one of the edifices under construction, the Burj Dubai, will contain a nerve-shattering 160 storeys. This (soon to be) tallest building in the world stands in marked contrast to the modestly scaled Al Quoz gallery district, where dusty workers ride bikes past the interlopers from the art world. Claudia Cellini, director of Third Line Gallery, is also the commissioner of the first UAE pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. Like most Dubai residents she is an import. Indeed, in the city as a whole foreigners comprise over 90% of the population; it is an expatriate tax haven that often resembles a colonial outpost.

Sharjah, a port city that is palpably more conservative than its neighbour Dubai, is the home of an international biennial that was a highlight of the week. …

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