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Bubbles in Paradise? Stay Tuned.

Jill Spalding

Group photo in front of SANAA's Bubbles, 2013. All photos courtesy the author, seen here in a white hat.

Fly into Dubai and even post-recession 2008 the glitz and the gold are still there as billed. The red-bull energy that shot up the tallest building in the world, an all-missions-possible airport, and a mall that has made shopping a natural resource, is still filling five-star hotels, stocking three-star restaurants and erecting corporate verticals.

Abu Dhabi too comes on strong as you shoot past its skyscrapers, $6-billion Emirates Palace Hotel, irrigated forest of instant palm trees and Masters golf course tinted emerald by aerated reservoirs, to the Grand Prix circuit that put its image on fast-forward. But if you decode the reflections off their glittering supertalls, the cliché analogy of Vegas on steroids, if it ever held true, will seem markedly yesterday. Pulling against the wave of fossil-fueled confidence is an ebb of anxiety that, if not visible, is palpable. Yes, crime is low, skilled-labor wages are continually adjusted to expectations, and inflation is under control. Control, however, is both the key and the wild card. Security is tight because at any minute the entire region could blow. It is said that only the U.S. 6th Fleet and its army of drones ward off Iranian attack boats capable of taking out the Gulf states in a nanosecond. Hence the escape plans the ruling families have in place—planes and pilots at the ready and multi- million dollar bullet-proofed apartments with panic rooms waiting in London.

As sand-swept as the desert, borders remain porous, allegiances not profiting from global commerce remain tribal, and native populations (the only residents granted citizenship) remain less than 15% of the whole. While the Gulf states are ruled through branches of government which,as in China, bankroll and fast-track favorite projects at will, recession and vestigial discrimination fuel worker unrest, and the ensuing tension is unleashing internal dissension.

Traffic Gallery.

Traffic Gallery.

A carefully camouflaged system of indentured servitude staunches the former, but the fallout from the latter is now playing out. Qatar’s university curriculum, heretofore taught in English, has switched to Arabic, and Abu Dhabi’s resolve to pull the plug on Dubai’s irrational exuberance extended a partial bailout that has left its fabled Palm Jumeirah hostage to plumbing problems, Palm Jebel Ali downsized, and the prestigious World archipelago sinking back into the sea.

What I found most intriguing at each level of encounter was the paradox engendered by a major shift in priorities. Fully understanding that gas and oil will run out, Gulf-state rulers are rushing headlong to convert to eco- and knowledge-based economies. Dubai has rallied funding for the “world’s-first green” Masdar City; Abu Dhabi has just opened the “world’s largest” solar plant; and Qatar, on fast-forward with Education City, a horizontal compound of art, science, technology and medical facilities, has just won the Architectural Review’s prestigious international prize for Regeneration & Master Planning for Valley City, a low-lying development which stretches cooling fingers of vegetation through long rows of housing.

Within this overriding mandate, however, subtle tensions reflect an ever-widening ambivalence. Although Qatar, like the Emirates, says it is instituting parliamentary law, its residual memory of slavery (abolished in 1952) keeps labor laws feudal. Domestic help, now contracted mainly from the Philippines, may not resign or protest broken contracts or inhumane working conditions. And in the Emirates, though they too are seeking respect with state-of-the-art medical facilities, even international professionals, lured to the country by huge salaries, can be summarily jailed, as in the case of a South African doctor who, despite clearance by a medical panel, is awaiting retrial for failing to prevent the death of a leukemia patient in his care. Ironically, it is not the ruling families who hold the hard line but the citizenry, who are seemingly inured to the overnight dazzle of gleaming infrastructure. It is said that an Arab Spring in the region would produce the reverse result, giving power to the conservative faction of even the most prosperous states—hence the Al-Thanis’ exorbitant, carefully planned getaways; the former Lycée Français in Manhattan and the glossy 72-story London commission from Renzo Piano, The Shard, whose top 10 floors lie empty, in waiting.

More intriguing is the ruling families’ envisioned panacea: the overarching conceit that, if undertaken on a scale never before attempted, a push to culture through art will allay social anxiety and anchor the tenuous foundation of a civilization in transition. That the Gulf ’s rulers are manipulating art as a political tool, in the belief that a push to high culture can ease local tension, resolve the deepening crisis of regional identity, and achieve global reach is at once heartening and quixotic, indeed touching, for in my conversations with artists, my viewing of work exhibited and my reading of related materials, it was in the region’s very push for art that the fissures appeared.

Fortunate to have linked up with Creative Time, the pre-eminent non-profit public art installation group invariably received at a very high level (meetings with ambassadors, curators, royals and so forth), I joined them in Doha. Qatar, whose unflinching fundamentalist support of Sunni Syria is pitted against its ruling family’s resolve to take the world stage, was the right place to start. Though the struggle is genuine, the resolution, for the moment, seems uncertain and the contrasts are stark. A state about the size of Connecticut with only 250,000 citizens and a workforce made up of 1.4 million foreign workers who cannot own, rent, get a driver’s license without employer permission, change jobs or leave the country, Qatar has thought to buy global respect with world-class collections and museums.

For a trove of regional treasures gathered over many years by the Emir’s nephews, I. M. Pei was coaxed out of retirement to float the lavish Museum of Islamic Art on an island built to his specifications. Glorious is the word for Pei’s final erection, though I found ponderous the helmet of glass and steel that last-hurrah muscle has lowered onto fragile textiles, translucent jades, and filigreed gold. Boldly new, it taunts the newly old, a masterful ‘60s structure across the bay, whose demolition to make way for new development is on hold, albeit temporarily, by royal order.

Qatar, like the other Gulf States, is an absolute monarchy whose authority is unchallenged—indeed, Authority designates each branch of government. Established by the Emir’s powerful daughter, Sheikha Mayassa Al-Thani, the Qatar Museums Authority is pioneering an instant museum culture. Now proceeding grandly with Jean Nouvel’s National Museum, a series of pavilions modeled on the desert rose, it began quietly with the art exhibition and teaching center we visited. It did not escape us, however, that the only Qatari artist featured, Amal Al-Aathem, showed thinly- veiled allegories of fully-robed women whose sole identity derives from the moon. Tellingly, too, attendance was sparse.

Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi and curator at the Barjeel Art Foundation.

Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi and curator at the Barjeel Art Foundation.

It seems there is as yet little local interest in contemporary work. Walking us out to a plaza planted with sculpture, the curator, Sa’id Costa, pointed to newly-built restaurants which he thinks will encourage attendance: “After a nice lunch, they’ll wander over to look at the art.” He is equally hopeful about a man-made hill of biblical proportions rising across the way to house a mega-development. “More malls,” he conceded, “but more visitors to our Center.”

The only city fabric not cut out of whole cloth was the old Souq Waqif. Increasingly a vestige of the bustling life of its vanished trading-post economy, it funnels tourists through back streets crowded with vendors, stalls hung with caftans and the smoke of cooking and lanterns. Just as there is no glass or steel to be seen here, so there is not a wooden shutter or food vendor in West Bay, an instant city of sterile skyscrapers stamped on the dust that torque, jag and sashay through computer-enabled contortions to elbow for more space. The only language not indulged in is color. Is the gray palette deliberate to give gravitas to new money? Or to not flash corporate salaries that average $85,000 a year in front of workers’ wages which average $3600 yearly?

The same question holds for Sheikha Mayassa’s ballyhooed $1-billion collection of modern and contemporary uber-works (you’ll guess the usual suspects: Rothko, Warhol, Hirst and Koons, and who has not heard of the $250-million Cezanne?) whose destination—palace or public?—remains, again tellingly, unclear.

These thinly veiled tensions surfaced continually in the Emirates, where we headed for Art Week, a lively grouping of openings and events in sprawling venues that is nibbling at the heels of Art Basel Miami Beach. Here too, lying under the radar of cutting edge, was the mantra don’t rock the boat. The Flying House, for example, a showspace for Emerati artists (primarily the venerated Hassan Sharif, who received us), is curated for political correctness; mountains of flip-flops, bent spoons and pulped parcels screamed “contemporary” without ruffling feathers. A more interesting presentation, in the house-studio of brothers Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh, artists exiled from Iran, introduced material that carefully skirted dissidence by restraining its risqué exuberance to sex and not politics.

Still bolder, indeed shocking had its owner not been royalty, was a collection presented at the Barjeel Art Foundation by Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, who doesn’t hesitate to pronounce loudly the words “Jew” and “Christian” (otherwise never heard during the six days of our stay) nor to show works depicting every religion and image now banished from Arabia: Churches! Women! Nudes!

Most challenging, given the certainty of censorship (a book taken off the shelf of a library I’d browsed earlier had whole passages blacked out) was the Authority’s decision to let its stated support of a “grassroots cultural movement” play out at the Art Dubai International Fair itself. And, whether in anticipation of international attention (I spotted the Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon, MoMA’s Glenn Lowry and the Guggenheim’s Richard Armstrong), or the conviction that a short week’s exposure is harmless, there was no lack of strong social and political commentary on view. Buried in Art Dubai’s impressive statistics—28,000 attendees (up from 5,000 in 2008) and 75 galleries from 30 countries—was such bold material as a sequence of photographs morphing the nozzle of a gas pump into a gun to a man’s head, and conceptual puns like scattered pieces from a piece destroyed opening night for the 500 dirhams it contained, which the artist had chosen to leave where they’d fallen as having played out his idea.

It impressed that regional artists were well-represented, many commenting on loss, alienation and the violence of war (though largely through the tradition of patterned geometrics and the accessible medium of photography, since there are as yet no established art schools offering formal training in the region). Sales were brisk, although— to the concern of deep-pocketed dealers like Leila Heller, who would like to develop a younger generation of collectors—mostly to white-robed royals trailing a retinue of advisors. (“My advisor puts it all in boxes and doesn’t unwrap them,” Sheikh Khalifa would tell us of purchases that exceeded the wall space of his palace.)

A stop at a brave, outlying gallery called Traffic was heartening for closely-curated installations that questioned the vanity of supertalls and marked identity loss with a wall going nowhere. Also impressive were the warehouse spaces in Al Quoz, similar in size if not number to West Chelsea, all outfitted for Art Week with work that, if uneven, was as challenging, conceptual and international as anything you might find at Documenta. The most memorable— tethered doves paired with boy corpses to mourn a recent atrocity; candles burning down in worn leather shoes as they snuff out the old order, and geometric wall-pieces composed of large mirrored shards that challenge the inviolable non-figurative narrative by reflecting your image—suggested real breakthrough.

Until casual encounters spoke otherwise. One artist I talked to, who requested anonymity lest he be deported, told of the “false glitter” of artful presentation that adjusts commissioned work to meet the “Authority’s definition of free expression.” A pamphlet I read by Jaswinder Bolina alleged that Dubai “is giving up too much to the West… enacting New Money neurosis” with “an embrace of the Modern that is almost entirely superficial,” that its “gleaming facade subverts the default associations of the region with poverty, medieval religiosity, sectarian strife…” and so on.

The monumental rift between the progressive Western-educated ruling families and a fundamentally religious Bedouin society which is only one generation away from trading across the desert on camels, was evident at a luncheon hosted in her husband’s receiving quarters by the more liberal Dr. Lamees Hamdan, who sits on the board of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and in 2009 brought the first UAE pavilion to the Venice Biennale. While only calligraphy decorates the mijlas, in their home she hangs nudes—although “only on the second floor, and bums only!”

Still more revealing of internal tensions was our time in Abu Dhabi. Had they let the full-throttle vroom vroom of Ferrari World and Yas Marina’s Grand Prix racing circuit alone represent global reach, it would have been mission accomplished. Equally impressive are long-term schemes like a solar plant the size of 285 football fields which will filter sewage water for future development.

It’s Abu Dhabi’s push to instant culture that reveals the fissures. Saadiyat Island, a $30-billion multi-use luxury resort development, impressively spearheaded by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan (who received a cultural leadership award from America Federation of the Arts, and was annointed commander of France’s Ordres des Arts et des Lettres) in 2008 detailed plans for the “world’s most prestigious cultural district.” Five years later, its cluster of defining museums is still “Coming Soon.” Although Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Center seems to be under way, ground has barely been broken for the Guggenheim—it seems that the engineers who reviewed Frank Gehry’s well-received riff on the region’s signature wind towers, which ventilate by drawing the desert wind in from the bottom and funneling it out the top, found that his plan cooked rather than cooled the interior and sent it back to the drawing board. And there is no sign of the Louvre; it’s said that no one liked Jean Nouvel’s final design but it was too late and embarrassing to fire him, so it too is being re-worked. More astonishing, given that Emir Zayed had entrusted the selection of an architect for his eponymous National Museum to an international jury, four iterations of the chosen design failed to meet his idea of a falcon, so riling Norman Foster that he walked away from the fifth. Happily, a contractor has finally been green-lighted to break ground, but until a hole is actually drilled(!)…we were told to stay tuned. The much-anticipated Maritime Museum, which was to have been floated by the prestigious Tado Andao, has also been postponed.

What gives? A short conversation with the Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulrich Obrist gave pause. He noted that the region’s contemporary art push is so young. Dubai’s first art fair opened in 2007; Abu Dhabi’s in 2009. The first auctions of modern regional art (Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which have pulled in a respectable $225 million to date) were held in 2006; 2008 saw the opening of the first viable contemporary art galleries. The first design fair, DDD, representing six continents and hugely well-attended, launched two years ago, and the region’s first contemporary art museum (Qatar’s Mathaf) opened its doors in 2010. No question that attention must be paid. Still, I find myself wondering, Will art proffer a new limb, or just a salve, for a soul torn asunder?

Ironically, it would seem that the emirate most closely meeting the stated goal of transition through culture is the poorest. Indeed, so resource-deprived is Sharjah that no visitor to its Biennial spends the night. “Why?” I asked Tom Armstrong; “Because there’s no hotel”—which may have meant anything accorded a star—but the lack of glossy infrastructure is significant. Sharjah is also the most conservative of the Emirates. Though the Emir had been notably progressive—after all, he sent his daughter to the Slade, a hotbed of free thought—he clamped down after drugs infiltrated his kingdom and his son died of an overdose. While headscarves are not mandatory, it is asked that you cover up and there is no chance of encountering anything visibly offensive (even a specially commissioned art work, judged inappropriate, was removed). And yet, springing up every two years like a crocus in the baking desert is the internationally acclaimed Sharjah Biennial. It is galvanized by the Emir’s progressive daughter, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who this year celebrated five new multi-functional art spaces by appointing a foreigner (Japan’s forward-thinking Yuko Hasegawa) to connect a sequence of courtyards with outdoor installations that involved giant palms, gongs, pavilions and videos by artists such as Runa Islam, Saâdane Afif and Ernesto Neto, as well as indoor exhibitions ranging from familiar (Francis Alÿs) to lilting (an inner- court spraying mist) to tough (outsized allegories by rising local photographer Ahmed Mater that translate the Persian tautology of Gardens of Paradise into the jihad causality of bleak cemeteries). All who attended thought the Sharjah Biennial an unqualified success. One wonders, though, what happens when the tents of Art Week are rolled up, the exhibition spaces shut down and the art flock moves on.

I found it significant that the installation at the Biennial garnering greatest attention was SANAA’s mountain of bubbles, their iridescence referencing the loss of a pearl-diving identity and their implied inclination to burst challenging the all-go confidence of rulers whose livelihood and constituency are as shifting as the sands.