There was nothing affordable to be found at Abu Dhabi Art (20th – 23rd November, 2013), and that was a very good thing. It’s a sign that in its 5th year, the fair is coming into its own and the Gulf is becoming an attractive market to draw sophisticated gallerists, artists, and collectors. Held on Saadiyat Island, the luxe desert island that will eventually house the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Art’s physical placement alone signifies the branded vision it has for the place it is destined to establish as a critical stopping point on the international art fair circuit.
To someone who hasn’t visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it might seem redundant that Abu Dhabi and Dubai both hold annual art fairs, while Sharjah hosts a strong biennial. Why can’t they combine efforts to become the region’s art fair? Wandering the exhibition halls, notebook and Dictaphone in hand, it quickly became obvious to me that while it certainly features contemporary work, Abu Dhabi Art is very focused on modern art and developing sister campuses of fabled art museums. Of the 50 galleries participating in this year’s fair, only one, Salwa Zeidan, is based in Abu Dhabi. In contrast, Dubai has become known for its contemporary art and, as an open hub, drawing galleries and artists from all over the region. With 16 museums, Sharjah has become a cultural centre for the preservation of local heritage.
The two exhibition halls at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair featured some of the world’s most prestigious galleries and were a real balance between Arab and international art. Among young collectors there tends to be a greater knowledge of contemporary Arab artists than modern masters, and more than one gallery shifted attention back in time. Dubai-based Meem Gallery pointedly separated work into two distinct spaces, one for modern art and the other for contemporary. Sculptures by Iraqi icon Dia Azzawi led to Berlin Angels, a show stopping piece by Egyptian mixed media artist Khaled Hafez that brings ancient Egyptian iconography into the present, juxtaposing super heroes and a lithe super model masked to look like a goddess.
Galerie el Marsa from Tunis (which is about to open a second space in Dubai at Alserkal Avenue), seamlessly exhibited Arab and North African works from the 1950s to the present. I asked Lila Ben Salah, to describe the gallery’s reasons for bringing modern art to Abu Dhabi. With a French accent she explained, ‘We saw that there is a real demand for modern works by artists who are, by the way, the fathers of the contemporary artists. We are eager this year to show work by Mahjoub Ben Bella, who has been painting since the 50s. It is important to know the past to understand the present. Many people know about these artists and see or even buy them in Europe.’
Turning a sharp corner in the maze-like halls, I unexpectedly encountered pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Damien Hirst, and Marina Abramovic. I was happy to reconnect with old favorites by Tammam Azzam, Larissa Sansour, Rana Begum, and Ahmed Mater. At Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car was provocatively installed with Robert Longo’s Study of Mecca in the background. Wurm literally injected a perfectly functional red Porsche with Styrofoam and fiberglass to make it chubby, emphasizing the gluttony of today’s world in which enough is never quite enough materially, while ideals for physical beauty remain rail thin and spare.
Although he had every justification to respond to my questions in a bored voice, I was moved by the by the passion evident in Daniel Lechner’s (of Cheim & Read) words as he offered an interpretation of an installation by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. Encaged in chain link, and topped with a mirror, the work had the curves of a woman’s fertile figure and featured cobalt jars filled with water to symbolize unique memories. Despite the extreme beauty, there was also a feeling of entrenched sadness as the beauty was surrounded in steel. Lechner confided that before her death, he used to go around to Bourgeois’ home for tea, sometimes even participating in her art salons.
This year’s fair offered a particularly strong showing of Emirati work. I thoroughly enjoyed my walk through Emirati Expressions Realised, a group exhibition of emerging and established local artists. Unfortunately, there were strict rules against photography and the security guard wagged his finger at me more than once, so I couldn’t capture the work visually.
Here were the highlights: poet and painter Mohamed Al Mazrouei transcended boundaries to depict the Last Supper with bold strokes. Mohammed Kazem (whose career is on the fast track these days with a retrospective opening at Sharjah’s Maraya Art Centre the same week), went on a fishing trip, fell off the boat and was lost at sea for 30 terrifying minutes. His installation, Directions, is a 360-degree conceptual piece that envelops viewers with video to simulate the experience, while a GPS device tracks coordinates as if to reference the artist’s very existence within boundless space. Blue Freedom, by Ebtisam Abdulaziz, a self-identified Systems artist, documented a recent performance piece in which the artist stepped inside a clear bubble and painted it Yves Klein blue to symbolize the unique lens behind which each person views the world.
There were a number of displays surrounding the main galleries, my favourite was something that bordered on magical—an encounter with musical plants titled Akousmaflore. Disguised as standard hanging houseplants that could be found in any flat, these beauties were wired to respond to gentle touch with unique chords. I learned that human beings emit an electrostatic aura that effects our immediate environment. The interactive installation was created by the duo Scenocosme, comprised of Gregory Laserre and Anais met den Ancxt.
Also of great note was Abu Dhabi Art’s curatorial decision to launch a performing arts platform this year. Meticulously curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh, Durub Al Tawaya, which refers to the resting places awaiting travellers on a journey, took on the project of bringing performance art into Abu Dhabi, by staging exhibitions, poetry readings, and live performances to various off-site locations, including a traditional wooden boat in the port. Some of my favorite experimental artists like Selam and Sofianne Ouissi and Hamdan Al Shamisi participated. The sites were reached by special buses though the scheduling could be optimized to create a better experience. A nervous VIP minder packed me into a chauffeured car and we embarked on a wild goose chase to locate a poetry performance. Luckily, I was later able to take in a dance performance and screen several short films near the fair’s lobby and experienced a taste of the platform.
To readers who live outside of the UAE this might not seem that remarkable. However, performance art is not at all common, and public arts programs (including street art) are still in the initial phases of development. By getting behind performance art, Abu Dhabi Art has significantly increased the chances of these kinds of public projects gaining acceptance. If the logistics improve next year, the performance platform would be reason enough alone to visit Abu Dhabi Art.
By Danna Lorch