Fairs United Arab Emirates

Art on shifting sands

The most culturally successful Abu Dhabi Art to date was without the Guggenheim this year

Tony Shafrazi admires the Kids’ Zone

abu dhabi. “The Guggenheim is certainly not cancelled,” the US ambassador, Michael Corbin, told me. “It’s just delayed due to cash flow problems and the Arab Spring”. This was at an exhibition of Middle Eastern artists hosted in the residence to show his general support for the role that art is playing in Abu Dhabi policy. There were more signs of official approval for the idea of art. A huge red ball is appearing in surprising places, such as the Zaha Hadid-designed bridge, and in shopping malls. This is an installation by Kurt Perschke to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Sheikha Salama, wife of the powerful Crown Prince, and her sister-in-law, Sheikha Shamsa, gave parties worthy of The Arabian Nights in their palaces for artists, dealers, journalists and assorted panjandrums, and Zaki Nusseibeh, adviser to the president of the UAE, invited lecturers at Abu Dhabi Art and artists to his house in the oasis of Al Ain. The Sorbonne Abu Dhabi has joined forces with the Louvre and Ecole du Louvre for a curatorial training programme.

So why the general feeling of uncertainty about the future for art in Abu Dhabi? Much of it can be put down to the chronic secrecy with which public affairs are conducted, fed by uncertainty about where the focus of power is at any moment. What is certain is that central government (that is, Abu Dhabi, the energy-richest emirate and the capital of the UAE) has been pouring money into the four, poor, northern emirates for infrastructure projects over the past year. This is an indirect response to the unrest in other countries in the region, which has not occurred in the UAE but has changed the priorities in the Executive Council, and led to the increased influence of Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ­national security adviser and deputy chairman of the council, a relative conservative who believes that housing and hospitals come before museums.

The cash flow problems are real. Hundreds of expatriate staff have been let go from government offices; the British architects Austin-Smith: Lord (see facing page) have not been paid; the staff at Jean Nouvel and Foster & Partners, architects of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum respectively, are barely working, and the tendering process for the Guggenheim, a complex design by Frank Gehry considerably bigger than his Bilbao museum, has been cancelled, which may well mean that in the process of moving from concept to detailed design stage it has turned out to be simply more expensive than Abu Dhabi will accept and the design is being renegotiated. The Guggenheim director and curatorial team, who were much in evidence at Abu Dhabi Art 2010, did not come down this year due to “an unusually intense concentration of commitments”, as they told The Art Newspaper. This was interpreted by many at the fair as showing an undiplomatic lack of commitment on their part, and that top-notch acquisitions for the future museum would not be made this year; after all, who was to advise the buyers?

So how was last month’s Abu Dhabi Art, run by the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), which is responsible for a housing and tourism development that includes the future museums? As a cultural event, which is what Abu Dhabi Art aims to be, this looked like the most successful so far. The move from the Emirates Palace Hotel, a pompous gilded and marble building, to the UAE pavilion, brought back from Shanghai after the World Expo 2010, and next to the Manarat al Saadiyat, an already popular exhibition and meeting place, completely changed its atmosphere. The great majority of dealers thought it was an improvement, Emirati and other families poured in, the restaurant worked overtime, and the lectures were well attended. A busy children’s zone with clean pinnies for all was staffed by dozens of painting teachers bussed down from a studio project in Dubai. A huge success was the photo booth by the street artist JR, which spewed out poster-size portraits to stick up around the Manarat. Everyone could identify with the “Emirati Expressions” exhibition, which showed photographs of the Gulf by the American master of the informal shot, Stephen Shore, and by his Emirati pupils, with some stylish, ironical pictures about Abu Dhabi’s love of extreme landscaping by the Palestinian-Kuwaiti, Tarek al Ghoussein. In a night-time maze of art, performance and film, orchestrated by Fabrice Bousteau, I saw a brilliant danced impersonation of a chicken.

This Abu Dhabi Art showed that the planned museums will have an audience, but an art fair exists to sell art. This fair, like last year’s, had three kinds of galleries: the ones from the region; the ones from beyond the region who brought art with which, if they got it right, buyers from the region would identify; and the famous New York, London and Paris galleries—the ones that distinguish Abu Dhabi Art from the Dubai fair —with the big Western names at very big prices. There were plenty of sales in the first two categories to private buyers, mostly Middle Eastern, at prices that ranged from around $10,000 to $200,000 (but more around $30,000). Tunisian gallery El Marsa sold a calligraphic work by Rachid Koraïchi for $125,000 to a Middle Eastern buyer. The Saudi gallery Lam Art sold an installation by Fahad Al Gethami, made up of iron sheets, to a Middle Easterner for $18,000. The October Gallery from London sold an El Anatsui hanging for “several hundred thousand” and had covered its costs. As in 2010, Londoners Waterhouse & Dodd made many sales, among which a phantasmagorical digital manipulation of the Emirates Palace Hotel by Jean-François Rauzier for $27,500, a Shirin Neshat for $15,000 to a European living in Abu Dhabi and two Patrick Hughes perspectival, hyper-realist works for $28,000 each.

Some international dealers found buyers but sales were patchy. London’s Lisson Gallery sold works by Shirazeh Houshiary, Rashid Rana, Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei. Its founder, Nicholas Logsdail, said he would be back, partly because he had been fascinated by The Arabian Nights as a child, and partly because he thought Abu Dhabi, though difficult, was “the place in which to invest for the future”. Acquavella brought down a museum-type show of its stock, including a vivid little Degas of race horses, but did not report any sales. Pace installed a numinous James Turrell that was much admired although unsold, but found a buyer for a Tara Donovan abstract of pinheads for around $250,000. Sheikha Salama, who last year had bought a Damien Hirst gold cabinet of pretend diamonds from White Cube, and a large Anish Kapoor concave mirror from Kamel Mennour, this year acquired Giacometti’s Femme Debout, 1961, again from Mennour, Jeff Koons’s Dipstick, 2003, from Gagosian (Jeff and Larry are now firm fixtures at Abu Dhabi Art and took part in a public discussion about the art market) and the large Sean Scully triptych, Tin Mal, painted in Morocco’s Atlas mountains.

Tony Shafrazi, who brought down big and bold Keith Harings and Basquiats, and the Moderna Museet’s recreation of Tatlin’s Tower, was refreshingly frank about the Abu Dhabi Art experience. He told The Art Newspaper: “You come away doing some small business. It doesn’t cover expenses, but you are left with this feeling of really believing in the future. But it gets extremely demanding doing this every year.” He gave pointed advice in his public talk, when he showed the great Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko bought by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran in the 70s, and explained how prices have risen since then. “Somewhere,” he concluded, “they [the Emiratis] have to come to terms with the significance of contemporary art in society and deem it important enough to establish significant funds to build an aggressive collection. To have transformed the country in the past 40 years is miraculous; to have turned the desert green and built some of the most impressive buildings in the world smack in the middle of sand—there has been nothing like this in history.”

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