Jessica Hume wrote in The National yesterday about the first UAE Pavilion at
the Venice Biennale. I was glad to see a story about arguably the most important
foreign project by the Emirates as a whole: participation in the Biennale is an
unconventional tool of engagement with the rest of the world and, most
importantly, demonstrates a united creative stand by the UAE.
At a time when many art critics discount the notion of nationhood, the curator, Tirdad Zolghadr took an unusual approach by attempting to re-examine the ideas behind exhibition making. And, just like that, you have the UAE doing what it does best – revise concepts that are virtually taken for granted by the rest of the world. It was a perfect fit.
While many people from the UAE might expect an art exhibition to consist of canvas on white walls, the UAE Pavilion asks visitors to examine the notion of cultural development and to perhaps allow the right of each civilisation to achieve it in its own way. The Pavilion does not demand of its visitors that they connect to images of a foreign land; after all, 900,000 people attend the Biennale, and however powerful the PR machine the UAE has built, many still do not understand who we are and why we have done the things we’ve done up to now. So the Pavilion is not about the art itself, but rather the development of a credible identity in a union that emerged towards the end of arguably the most utopian era in recent history. How else could you tell the world about your journey from nomadic dwellings to urban consciousness?
This becomes apparent when you examine the Pavilion’s components. The choice, and indeed the work, of the featured artist, Lamya Gargash, reveals much about the state of the UAE: we are changing, and we accept change, but we look over our shoulder – and whatever looks back at us, we take it forward with us. Lamya’s previous work examined issues such as the abandonment of local homes: the speed of time is faster than the rate at which we age, so wrinkles in homes precede the wrinkles of the people who live in them. She does not invite you to a funeral, but there are no brides there either. Her specially commissioned series has yet to be finished, but it will probably examine an aspect of daily life that is perhaps going unnoticed.
A collection of additional works by other artists address more underlying themes from several mindsets – such as that of Hassan Sharif, a self-confessed cynic who is sarcastic about mass consumerism and the new world order (his works on show at the Pavilion are on loan from the Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar Foundation and Qatar Museums Authority). Tarek Al Ghoussein, on the other hand, deals with the emergence of identity and the need to construct spaces, while Huda Saeed Saif’s work is more documentary in style, providing polite, detached narratives on the seemingly mundane environment around her.
Then there is the KIOSK project, by Tulip House in Berlin – a growing archive of dialogues, interviews and autobiographies about places, towns and territories worldwide. For the UAE Pavilion, Hannah Hurtzig has captured various discussions mapping the nation’s cultural landscape: the early ideas about the UAE’s formation, how the national anthem was given lyrics, a private collector’s ideas for the display of his yet unseen works, a conversation about lost memory on ecological questions and the protection of species.
There will be a re-enactment of an earlier event by the Jackson Pollock Bar,
with fictional components that shed light on how significant a role the Emirates
intends to play in the development of the arts.
Finally, the Pavilion will display more traditional aspects of cultural development through architectural models of museum projects that demonstrate current thinking on cultural infrastructure so far.
The title of the exhibition, admittedly a cheeky one chosen by those behind
the Pavilion itself, is It’s Not You, It’s Me: which says a lot about the UAE’s
unapologetic approach, but more importantly is a reminder that we do not see
ourselves as the “coexisting other”, but as the self.
The Pavilion hopes to achieve two things: first, to make visiting it a less passive experience and a more engaging one, through not only examining the works but also interacting, listening and thinking of what a Pavilion is trying to say in new ways. Second, to understand the phenomenon that is the UAE and how its various, occasionally collision-esque, contexts will come together in forging an Emirates that is not only United and Arab but that is neither a binary Abbasid Baghdad nor a multiplying Moorish Andalusia; it is our Emirateropolis.
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