Art fairs struggle to find a balance between commerce and content. Surprisingly, Dubai’s superficiality became the setting for an examplary offering of attractive, thoughtful, progressive and also commercial work. As the sixth edition of Art Dubai, this year’s selection demonstrates a confident identity and graceful handling of cultural constraints and artistic investment in challenging conventions.
In earlier years, international galleries pandered to what was assumed to be local taste. This year, those concerns were literally left at the door, where two enormous photorealistic portraits of horses were posted opposite the extravagant Cartier showcase room in which the sponsors displayed their glittering wares in cases surrounded by orchids and blond models in ball gowns.
Once inside the opulent Madinat Jumeirah conference center, the actual art on view was strikingly subtle and diverse. The most conspicuous golden piece was a bewitchingly irreverent highly polished bronze sculpture at the Pilar Corrias Gallery. There, Brazilian artist Tunga presented a giant gold bone bent like a ring. In keeping with current trends for memento-mori S&M-inspired jewelry, the work was part of an on-going series titled “Les Bijous de Madame Sade.”
Beyond Mrs. Sade’s inner circle, more conventional forms of craft and domesticity were the themes dominating the work on view. They attested to the insight expressed by author Douglas Coupland during a talk with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Shumon Basar, when he ruminated about how conspicuous displays of free time are the luxury most competitively and aggressively flaunted in our hyper-occupied culture.
Though out the fair, artists hailing from various countries recreated banal and anachronistic items in art materials or used typical household objects to make ambitious sculptures or installations. Both practices underscored a different focus and relevance for the fair than the brand-name pickings and luxurious objects offered in past years. Domesticity as a guiding principle invites attention away from the decorative desires of the Sheiks and creates a more modest yet stimulating environment while addressing wider issues of gender, family, power and aspiration. The extravagant attire worn by visitors during the VIP opening and the days after demonstrated that Dubai remains a market for high-end collecting. However, mid-priced work sold strongly throughout the fair’s four days and the most popular pieces were created by artists in the region who focused on materials and issues that are accessible to a broad range of viewers.
Among the homey pieces was Sundarshan Shetty’s untitled wood “travel-kit” at Vienna’s Galerie Krinzinger. Shetty’s suitcase is packed with rudimentary necessities, including a hairbrush, scissors and razor, all re-created in raw unpainted wood. It looks as though a kindly artisan ancestor from a past era were outfitting us with whatever we might need for today’s jet-setter life-style. More disquieting was Antoine Aguila’s 2011 “White Widow” sculpture, in which he casts an eighties’ era Sony TV in silicone. Without its screen, the odiferous object emanates a Cronenberg-like threat to suck the viewer into oblivion.
Elizabeth Gower and Aderk Suleman employed everyday items. At the Melbourne-based Sutton Gallery, Gower showed a collection of paper plates cut like a precocious child’s arts and crafts project into snowflake patterns and mounted on a tangerine-colored wall. Suleman’s large sculpture of cooking colanders assembled into a massive donut shape so that the spiked stands point into the center is mysteriously titled “It’s happening all Over Again.” Sushasini Kejriwal’s fiber-glass fruit stand in New Deli’s Seven Art Limited solo-artist stand brought the chaos and visual stimulation of a hectic low-level market-stall into the pristine and prestigious Art Dubai interior.
Taking this modest attitude to a meta-level was Nelson Leirner’s series of assemblage pieces – a playful humbling of art fairs’ commercial qualities. Leirner mounts Sotherbys auction catalogues in basic plastic boxes and attaches cheap kitsch items to each one. A cover showing a Nara little girl has her face replaced by a lacquer Bugs Bunny keychain. Chintzy rhinestone flowers adorn a catalogue for vintage jewelry, and a Courbet babe has a single earring of neon peace signs dangling off her image. All of these additions are eye-catching and exemplify the superficial qualities that are often mis-associated with glamor and luxury. While the high-end art advertised on the auction catalogues ranged from a subtly-hued painting to a glittering set of rare diamonds, their new accessories screamed for attention. With this simple juxtaposition, Leirner made an endearingly self-deprecating statement about art’s salability and the challenges of creating a highbrow but accessible art environment in Dubai.
– Ana Finel Honigman