Art Scene Dubai shot by Neven Allgeier & Benedikt Fischer. Part 1: Galleries and Exhibitions. With a text by Kevin Jones
Millions and Vermillions
By Kevin Jones
“Please don’t touch that painting!” The harried gallerist skids to a halt alongside a visitor about to place her finger onto a soft mound of vermillion acrylic in a work by Syrian artist Elias Zayat. The scene is Galleries Night in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, a fifty-thousand-square-metre cultural “destination” of rows of Hollywood back lot–style warehouses peppered with trendy retail and gastro concepts in the midst of a grimy industrial zone. Once every three months, the floodgates of culture are flung open to Dubai’s motley population. A fluid crowd of expat Westerners and Arabs from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and so on rubs shoulders with fresh arrivals, long-term residents from South Asia and meandering clusters of local Emiratis as well as, occasionally, their GCC brethren. To the dismay of some exasperated gallerists, the event adheres more to the logic of a footfall-hungry mall than an enclave of high culture. Which is why many have opted to do a “soft opening” (to stick with retail jargon) a week prior to the boisterous Alserkal-promoted fanfare to engage with a targeted audience of their collectors and more seasoned, less touchy-feely visitors.
The scene moves at two speeds because Dubai is still a work in progress. Like many of its neighbours, the emirate experienced breakneck development, its oil reserves igniting a giddy spending spree. The dystopian fallout of this development-in-overdrive is what Qatari-American artist Sophia Al-Maria calls Gulf Futurism.
Visit any of the opulent shopping malls here and you’ll quickly get the point. The cultural zone, in this context, is slippery territory.
Dubai’s arts infrastructure was fast-tracked into existence in a matter of years. From a scattered handful of galleries in 2004, it now has the Alserkal epicentre, and another cultural outpost in the city’s financial hub, the banker-riddled Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC).
The arts ecosystem is merrily lopsided towards the commercial: no top-down government approach to culture exists, and nonprofits are, well, nonexistent. But the handful of serious galleries here show consistently engaging work across all media from local, regional and international artists. Dubai is a springboard for accessing other markets, and the galleries here are all seasoned exhibitors at fairs from Frieze New York to Art Basel Hong Kong. While there may not be scores of local collectors, there is a solid base that regularly collects both in the region and abroad. Interestingly, a new breed of collector is being groomed here – young, largely expat professionals who have engaged little with art in their home countries but, thanks to the galleries and the yearly fair Art Dubai, have made forays into collecting. A growing group called the Young Collectors Collective (YCC) stokes that fire.
The question of censorship always crops up, and it is a frustrating one.
There is censorship, yes; it is evident in, for example, the black marker cover-ups of risqué photos in imported magazines, but there is also challenging work shown under the radar. Far more decisive, however, is that there is not a particularly developed critical apparatus here, but I’d put that down to the ferocious neoliberalism of Dubai: a commercial gallerist, first and foremost, wants a good review; in everyday conversations, though, they’ll engage critically … with other people’s programming.
Perhaps because it is a work in progress, Dubai doesn’t like to show its backstage. It prefers the glimmering, polished spectacle to the vulnerable making-of. Yet these photos reveal the galleries in their shadowy un-Dubai moments – that suspended time when one show has come down, and the next not completely installed. It is a moment that cuts to the quick of identity. Is a gallery still a gallery with no art displayed? When sculptures languish in clouds of bubble wrap? When canvases loiter in piles propped along the wall? Gallerists are at their most inventive in this inchoate time when an exhibition sits in half-opened crates on the floor. In a glimpse, everything can change.
KEVIN JONES is a writer based in Dubai.
NEVEN ALLGEIER & BENEDIKT FISCHER are two photographers based in Frankfurt. www.ruine.biz
>>>See also Neven Allgeier's whistlestop tour of the 9th Berlin Biennale, curated by DIS in 2016 here.<<<