Fairs United Arab Emirates

A century-old monument highlights Abu Dhabi’s ambition

There is a fascinating resonance between the wild, ambitious idealism that once inspired Tatlin’s tower, and the 'remarkable, miraculous, limitless possibility of thinking' that has inspired the development Saadiyat Island

Tatlin's constructivist tower on Saadiyat

ABU DHABI. The most interesting work of art on show at Abu Dhabi Art 2011 is not for sale, it could hardly be more prominent, and yet most visitors give it no more than a passing glance.

Just beyond the main entrance to the Manarat Al-Saadiyat is one of the earliest surviving models of Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin’s The Monument to the Third International, conceived between 1915-20. Though the original disappeared long ago, this ten-foot-tall model was built in 1967 by the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, using extant plans and photographs. The New York-based dealer Tony Shafrazi had the idea of bringing it to Abu Dhabi Art 2011.

What makes the piece so compelling is the relationship between it and its current location. There is a fascinating resonance between the wild, ambitious idealism that once inspired Tatlin’s tower, and what Shafrazi called the “remarkable, miraculous, limitless possibility of thinking” that has inspired the development of Abu Dhabi and in particular Saadiyat Island, now home to Abu Dhabi Art.

Saadiyat Island will soon house the Zayed National Museum (designed by Foster + Partners), the Louvre Abu Dhabi (Jean Nouvel) and, with luck, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (Frank Gehry). Only by understanding what this island was until recently—an unpromising stretch of barren, sandy land—does the link to Tatlin and his strength of vision become clear.

There’s another parallel here when it comes to the height of the proposed tower. Had it been built, Tatlin’s tower would have been the tallest building in the world. Today that honour belongs to the gargantuan Burj Khalifa that opened earlier this year down the road in Dubai. Originally known as Burj Dubai, it is said to have been renamed after Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Sheikh Khalifa, in gratitude for recently coming to Dubai’s financial rescue.

It might sound silly to attempt a connection between Russian constructivism in the 1910s and what is happening a century later in the Arabian Gulf. Yet the wild and at times utopian ambition behind both makes it just about possible. It is this element of what is happening on Saadiyat Island, if nothing else, that surely would have met with the approval of Tatlin, Malevich and others.

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