According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, it’s time to put away the age-old reference to “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” It seems that the canon has been forever destabilized as, for the first time in history, the name Mohamed has made the list (2004) of the twenty most commonly chosen baby names in England and Wales. Suddenly, chances are that the boy next door may be a Mohamed, God help us all. A testament to the UK’s rapidly changing demographic fabric, the news reflects the alarming rise in the number of Muslim families in the country, as well as their apparent insistence on maintaining traces of their cultural heritage, however symbolic. It seems that the days of Hossein = Hoss, Mohamed = Michael, and Cyrus = Cy are coming to an end, alhamdillah. Britain, with a population of roughly 61 million, is now home to about 1.6 million Muslims. When reached for comment, officials noted that Jack and Emily firmly held on to their status as the most popular names for newborn boys and girls. Jack, in fact, has held on to the top spot for ten years running. David has altogether dropped from the top fifty — marking an end to the days in which Bowie, Beckham and beyond ruled naming circles. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Charlie and Evie made notable gains, while last year’s big climber, Alfie, dropped nine places to 27.
Dubai is at it again, desperately trying to make a name for itself on the world stage. This time, the city-state plans to ambitiously enter the annals of history. During this year’s shopping festival city planners managed to orchestrate the largest-ever gathering of persons with a single name. According to witnesses, between 1500 and 2000 Mohameds gathered at one of the city’s green spaces. From babies to the occasional geriatric, it was undoubtedly a rare moment in which class and race lines dissipated. According to our correspondent in Dubai, the event moved countless to the point of tears. So how did organizers ensure that the assembled were legitimately Mohameds and not mere attention-seeking charlatans? All participants were asked to produce a birth certificate upon arrival. The previous record for the gathering of people with one name was in Spain. There, a comparatively modest figure of 375 Marias gathered in 2003. The name record was the latest in a string of record-breaking feats that Dubai has engineered. The city also holds the record for the largest human flag, the biggest prayer mat, and the longest sofa. According to the BBC, plans are in the works for the largest charity box, the biggest mosaic made from drink cans, and the fastest pizza-eating attempt.
Branding a Revolution
As crowds gathered in Martyrs’ Square in Beirut for the funeral of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, all the old flags came out. One could catch sight of the tired Progressive Socialist Party logo (white graphics on a faded blue background), Pierre Gemayel’s mug flogging for the Kitaeb (his haggard face jutting out from a stylized cedar tree), and a glut of hastily spray-painted banners. Aside from the fractious political implications at play, from an aesthetic point of view, one could only scan the crowd, read the typology, and sigh: How seventies. The old flags looked as tattered as the history of Lebanon’s civil war itself.
That was on a Wednesday. By the time popular protests swarmed the same square to bring down the government the following Monday, visual strategies had changed dramatically. “Independence 05” banners — stark, hip, sleek, and modern — flashed before the cameras, projecting a youthful, energetic image to a frenzied media eager to take it all in. The posh sophistication of these logos should come as no surprise. This is Beirut after all. But how did such a massive aesthetic overhaul happen so quickly?
Behind the scenes, a few members of Beirut’s bumping advertising community — creatives, if you will — had been exchanging phone calls among themselves and the opposition camp. They met to crank out a logo in less than two hours and boom, a revolution was branded.
The people who created the “Independence 05” logo work for two of Beirut’s leading ad agencies and one of its major production houses. None will disclose their names or affiliations, in large part because their firms do brisk business throughout the region, Syria included.
The chief designer of the logo, however, was happy to discuss aesthetic choices. “It’s a reminder of the first independence,” he says, in reference to Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943. “What we are trying to say is there is a new one and this time, this year, it’s no joke. It’s the second independence if you wish.”
The language? English and Arabic. The colors? Red, white, and a hint of green. “Like the flag,” he says, “plus the colors are good to freshen the image.” (Any media consultant will sell you on the success of red and white branding.) “It’s designed in a trendy way, in expectation of a media situation. It has taste, has forwardness, has progressive feeling. The choice of typography — modern, clean, bold.” And the medium? “Everything — pins, stickers, posters, banners, wallpaper for your mobile phone.”
Beasts of Burden
It seems that the sweeping tides of benevolent political correctness missed Turkey entirely on their passage though the Mediterranean. Go figure. A recent press release from the Environment and Forestry Ministry announced that Turkey will rename three animals whose scientific designations include references to Kurds and Armenians — historically shafted minority communities within greater Anatolia.
Vulpes Vulpes Kurdistanica, a species of red fox, will now be referred to as just Vulpes Vulpes. A species of wild sheep called Ovis Armeniana has been changed to Ovis Orientalis Anatolicus, while a variety of deer known as Capreolus Capreolus Armenus will be rechristened Capreolus Cuprelus Capreolus.
“Unfortunately, foreign scientists, who for many years researched Turkey’s flora and fauna, named plant and animal species that they had never come across before with a prejudiced mind-set,” the Ministry statement read. Prejudiced indeed, let the purging of the lexicon begin.
Grozny Emergency Biennale
Palais de Tokyo — Centre for Contemporary Creation
February 23–April 3, 2005
A suitcase filled with works, projects, and concepts by more than sixty artists from around the world recently hit the road, heading to a seldom visited and often forgotten destination: Chechnya. Simultaneously, a discreet corner of the vast Palais de Tokyo, Paris’s Centre for Contemporary Creation, duplicates and showcases what the artists were asked to provide for the traveling exhibit. Gathered under the title The Grozny Emergency, this self-proclaimed non-biennale is a call to artists’ solidarity, empathy, disgust, and frustration with the gritty reality of the ongoing conflict in Chechnya.
Plainly displayed facts state the sociopolitical manifesto-cum-background canvas for this anti-biennale. Among a powerful list of attestations, the spectrum hits hard, from the 100,000 deaths since 1999 and another 100,000 between 1994 and 1996, to the fact that only six of the hundred libraries in Grozny remain open today.
As part of Jota Castro’s one-man show Exposition Universelle 1, he and co-curator Evelyne Jouanno mobilized artists during the last week of January 2005, in anticipation of the anniversary on February 23rd of the first deportation of the Chechens in 1944; they set this as the symbolic date for sending off the trunk full of artworks. His was a call to engage, react, mobilize.
A solid outreach and informational program accompanies the temporary installation, including Mylene Sauloy and Manon Loizeau’s films on the daily life and culture of Chechens since the beginning of the first war in 1994; an Internet post with webcam and direct access to the website created for the occasion; as well as roundtable discussions organized by the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) on the current Chechnyan situation.
Organized with no funding and practically no time, the show presents raw responses, without flash. The setting is more rummage sale than white cube, forcing the viewer to practically unearth works envisaged for the long haul to Grozny. Artworks sensitively range from the handmade, rough-and-ready to more delicate finished objets including sketches, handkerchiefs, typewritten memos, pillows, leaflets, a trunk with a paper missile, clothing on hangers. Most of the artists’ works remain fittingly anonymous despite the long list of internationally renowned artists including Turkish art collective Oda Projesi, Francis Alys, Lucy Orta, Torino-based collaborative A Constructed World, Ghazel, Anton Vidokle, and many others.
The emergency of this biennale is about bringing attention to a socially engaged outlook, one that fittingly provokes two questions: What would one want to send? What would one want to receive on the other end? But most importantly, it highlights the raw social, political, and cultural Chechnyan reality, and more broadly, reminds us of conflicts elsewhere — stories that we should perhaps not fail to neglect whilst visiting the more glamorous biennales.
Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center
March 10–April 23, 2005
The mere mention of normalization carries with it a multitude of connotations. Post-war détente? Assimilationist rubric? From the macro level to the personal, it is this ambiguity that will likely spawn a diverse series of expressions in an exhibition program by that very title at Istanbul’s Platform Garanti this spring.
Acknowledging the contested nature of the normalization rubric, its historical roots as well as its present day nuances, lends a strong framework for organizers Vasif Kortun and November Paynter to initiate a dialogue with artists drawn from Turkey and further afield. Featured will be works by Can Altay (Turkey), Yael Bartana (Israel/Netherlands), Mark Leckey (UK), Aydan Murtezaoglu (Turkey), Phil Collins (Ireland/UK), Solmaz Shahbazi (Iran/Germany), Wael Shawky (Egypt) and Jalal Toufic (Lebanon).
Altay, for his part, takes two previous exhibitions (also held at Platform) as his point of departure, re-representing them, in condensed form — raising questions as to scale, packaging and consumption of art at large. Collins will present a series of photographs featured in his latest publication, while Shawky offers a new video work featuring himself in a supermarket reciting sections from the Koran. At first glance, the video appears much like a news broadcast, effectively blurring the lines between consumerism, information dissemination and exotica.
Shahbazi will debut a video work that takes moments from the city of Tehran, playing with the workings of memory, the construction of personal and collective narratives and, finally, history-making. Mark Leckey will show a video born of a computer-generated view of Jeff Koons’s iconic bunny. Placed in Leckey’s own London flat, the computer encircles the sculpture, though one cannot see its reflection in the bunny’s silver skin — effectively a spectacle of a spectacle. Also to watch out for will be Murtezaoglu’s Hip Activities, a treatise on the quest to transcend the bounds of the possible, a self-proclaimed “melodramatic parade of displacement.”
A lecture program will be held in conjunction with the exhibition, featuring interventions by Will Bradley, Jalal Toufic, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Irit Rogoff, and Natasa Petresin.
The March exhibition is the third installment in a series of programs on the notion of normalization, the first two being Art for … parts 1 and 2, in which works by Turkish artists that had hitherto not been shown at home, as it were, were placed on display — both in absentia (through catalogues) as well as in tangible fashion. Central to the mandate of the two previous exhibitions was a dialogue about the notion of “art for export”; to what extent, asked organizers, is art production informed by a self-conscious marketing tendency, and what is the nature of those tendencies? Parallel programs are being developed by Rooseum in Malmö, Sweden and WHW in Zagreb, Croatia.
In the end, Normalization stands to be one of the stronger group shows of the year, commissioning work in relation to a theme that defies the realm of the gimmick and having great resonance not only in a contemporary Turkey coming to terms with its own shifting positions — political, social, and so on — but also in multiple contexts far removed.
Kutlug Ataman: Küba
The Sorting Office
March 22–May 8, 2005
It’s hard to forget Kutlug Ataman’s breathtaking Küba, a piece that took the Carnegie Prize last year, privileging voices within one marginalized Istanbul community via a forty-channel video installation presented on forty TV sets, second-hand chairs and stands. Creating a narrative space for the community’s residents to speak about themselves via virtual “auto-portraits,” Ataman avoided the pitfalls of both sentimental ethnography and slum tourism in paying homage to the potent mix of performance, play, and fantasy that go into self-representation and, finally, the making of a community — both imagined and real. Gangster, addict, student, mother, lover, whore — Ataman’s pseudo-characters run the gamut, though never ceasing to confuse us as to where fact ends and fiction begins.
London’s Artangel, who commissioned the original piece, has now orchestrated Küba’s debut at London’s Sorting Office, which will doubtless have fascinating dialogue with the project as a former transit point for, well, mail. After London, Küba will travel to a railway station in Stuttgart, down the Danube to Vienna and finally end up at a passenger ferry terminal on Circular Quay in Sydney before returning to Istanbul in 2006. Needless to say, the migration takes on added resonance given the fact that the residents of Küba, a Kurdish shantytown in the northwest of Istanbul, have been uprooted a number of times in the community’s tumultuous history.
Interestingly, the Küba’s London debut comes on the heels of the Royal Academy’s “Turks” exhibition — a wholly different approach to Turkish historiography, one arguably rooted in notions of civilizational greatness and such and thus a stark contrast to Küba’s uncensored, controversially raw verité view of contemporary Turkey. An accompanying symposium on the May 7, 2005, entitled “Where is Küba?” with Ataman, Goldsmith’s Irit Rogoff, critic and historian Sukhdev Sandhu, as well as the New School’s AbdouMaliq Simone, will debate the wider implications of the Küba initiative.
Flight 405 — the Beirut Project
April 9–June 18, 2005
Andrée Sfeir’s ambitious new gallery space in Beirut, set to open in April, aims to link the art market as we know it with the emergent contemporary arts cultures of the Middle East. While Sfeir, who is of Lebanese origin, has been running her Galerie Sfeir-Semmler in Hamburg for two decades, this will be her first foray into the Middle East.
Housed in a former cement factory in the Quarantaine neighborhood, near Beirut’s harbor, the gallery stands to be one of the largest private exhibition spaces in the region. Opening with a selection of international artists, the premiere show has the potential to destabilize the rigid lines separating us and them. Composed of commissioned works, the exhibition entitled Flight 405 — the Beirut Project, will be rooted in the theme of identity, showcasing artists from Sfeir’s Hamburg stable, as well as a number of new names. Look out for new works by Emily Jacir, The Atlas Group/Walid Raad, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Alfredo Jaar, Akram Zaatari, Elger Esser, Till Krause, and Hiroyuki Masuyama. Jacir, for her part, will present Nothing Will Happen, a work based upon the internalization of her own outsider status in the unlikely context of Linz, Austria. Another video piece, Ramallah/New York, chronicles the artist’s experience living between the two cities, providing an alternative conception of space beyond the scope of the conventional map. The Atlas Group will present a selection of plates from a project titled, Sweet Talk: Photographic Documents of Beirut, Commission 1992/2005, one part of an ongoing documentary project about Beirut’s buildings, street, and other spaces of national, political, historical, and cultural significance. Zaatari will present a new work on the southern Lebanese town of Saida. Pistoletto’s work, ostensibly an extension of his Love Difference project, will consist of a novel installation in the form of a conference table, and Jaar will debut with a light installation.
Hala Elkoussy: Peripheral
Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art
April 17–May 5, 2005
The circuitous route of a winding minibus is the point of departure for Hala Elkoussy’s upcoming exhibition at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, an exploration of center and periphery in the context of this city, perhaps any city. A video essay documents the bus navigating a dizzying urban space, the persons within at once individuals and part of collective, on route and off. Caricatured persons are animated within this particular vision of humanity: A “made in China” salesman’s frustrations mirror those of an entire generation of youth; an idyllic young couple “make it,” having bought their own villa in the desert complete with swimming pool; a runner jogs methodically throughout. All seem to negotiate a precarious space, their own senses of self destabilized only when they note the existence of others. Here, marginalization assumes an economic, social, and political form; the fringes are both tangible and metaphorical in nature. Testimonials taken from the media and beyond interrupt the dreamlike quality of the video, grounding it in reality.
In conjunction with the video projection, Elkoussy presents a series of photographs of scenes that mark the boundary between the urban and the nonurban (read: desert). Drawing upon the landscape tradition — the photographer bathes the images in a warm, luminous light — these oddly ambiguous spaces reveal the binaries that characterize the city, the simultaneity of significance/insignificance, visibility, and utter obscurity. The paradigm shift in representation parallels the alternative reality of those characters that live amidst the margins. This is their reality, says the artist. As ever, Elkoussy questions the bounds of what constitutes the photogenic, questioning the canon of that which is worthy of representation. Peripheral is ostensibly an extension of her (re)construction series, a photographic project in which protagonists are caught at points that are both banal and monumental, real and fictional. Either way, the state of flux abounds.
May 19–June 11, 2005
Political life in Lebanon sometimes seems to occupy its own alternative reality, though its absurd twists and turns nonetheless color all aspects of the country’s cultural life, contemporary art included. To wit, recent rounds of elections have caused a number of synaptic sparks to fly, often to brilliant effect. A political campaign is, after all, an intensely visual affair, with posters and flyers
accumulating everywhere at once like the mechanisms of a messy, competitive, and chaotic creative process.
Jalal Toufic’s video Saving Face pondered nine long painstaking yet poignant minutes of a worker scraping away thick layers of campaign posters following the parliamentary elections in 2000. The shredding of one paper face forever yields another below, as the aesthetic exercise comes to resemble an act of archeological (and phenomenological) excavation.
The space of political papering is public and visible by design, consisting of building facades, storefronts, construction walls, and just about any flat exterior surface capable of catching the eye of passersby. In Beirut, that space is highly politicized to begin with.
Election season flyers are temporary. Posters of political leaders are more permanent, serving as visual elegies for the dead or reminders of past crimes. More malignantly, these remarkably resilient bits of paper also mark territory, announcing the religious affiliation or sectarian allegiance of neighborhoods, as if to say this street belongs to an us versus a them.
As Rosalyn Deutsch suggests, interventions in a city’s spatial environment are strongest when they challenge the neutrality of the public sphere, exposing its social organizations and ideological
operations. This is exactly what was at stake in the interventions of Ola Sinno (who aped the election season strategy and papered her neighborhood with a poster of her own self-portrait and the biting slogan “Acknowledge Me!”) and Rana Maktabi (who spray-painted city walls with a stencil of a young woman next to the words “You can’t stop me”), both of which swiped at the ways in which Beirut’s public space is largely gendered male.
But the work of an anonymous collective named Heartland, scheduled for an exhibition in the Laboratory at Espace SD from May 19 through June 11, is poised to push these street-style urban interventions further. The group’s first project introduced a fictional candidate into Beirut’s most recent municipal elections. Their second project tackled money, also a public space if you think about it, embellishing one thousand lira notes and putting them in circulation. Their third project is timed to coincide with both their show at SD and an upcoming round of parliamentary elections, sure to be contentious after all that’s happened in the country since February.
Venice Biennale — 51st International Art Exhibtion
June 12–November 6, 2005
2003’s Venice Biennale was an art bazaar. Francesco Bonami’s diffuse, arguably magnanimous act of handing out platforms left and right garnered mixed reactions, from a brilliant deinstitutionalization project to post-modern Othering strategy that carved artists into mini Bantustans (the Africans, et al.). Whether you loved it or hated it, Spanish duo Rosa Martinez (the reigning doyenne of biennales) and Maria de Corral seem poised to present another face of contemporary expression at this year’s event — arguably one that is increasingly traditional, pared down to essentials of engaging with work rather than taking on grand notions of internationalism and the like. De Corral, for her part, will present her personal tracing of trends in the contemporary arts in the Italian pavilion entitled The Experience of Art — a mix of pioneers ranging from Barbara Kruger to Bruce Nauman to arguably wildcard, younger artists such as South Africa’s Robin Rhode and Zwelethu Mthethwa. At the Arsenale, the ancient home of Aperto, Martinez will offer a presumably more experimental selection entitled Always a Little Further, a self-proclaimed “essay presenting artists and aesthetic trends relevant at the beginning of the third millennium.” Her selection runs the gamut from Louise Bourgeois to the Guerilla Girls. In the meantime, former Museum of Modern Art contemporary curator Robert Storr, who has already been named director of the 2007 Biennale, has organized a symposium to take place in the fall on the “analysis and study of the state of contemporary art (its codes, languages, new and old paradigms).”
Among artists from in and about the Middle East region, not a great many risks have been taken, with favorites Mona Hatoum, Shahzia Sikander and Ghada Amer included on Martinez’s list. Younger artists Emily Jacir and Runa Islam represent newcomers to the canonical Venice realm, along with Istanbul’s Bulent Sangar.
The national pavilions — that oft-bastion of big hair care of Ministries of Culture — are often where things get a bit interesting and/or disastrous. In Lebanon, the tumultuous events post-Hariri have put that country’s pavilion on hold this year. Egypt’s participation is an evolving soap opera to follow as the Ministry initially made the surprise suggestion of the trio of Adel El Siwi, Ahmed Askalany, and Sherif El Azma. By all accounts, the selection spawned a controversy of epic proportions, particularly as all three, in very different ways, do not hail from the staid halls of the Ministry. At press time, it seemed that the artists had been completely discarded while a group universally referred to as “three old men” will be going in their stead. It seems that some things never change.
For Iran, Bita Fayyazi, and Mandana Moghaddam represent contemporary expression in their country, while newcomers Afghanistan, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are being leveraged into Venice’s world view.
The sign by the ticket booth reads, “WELCOME… Enjoy passing a good time by watching 1973, Panorama of the 6th of October [War] accompanied by the sound effects and music program.” And so it begins. Following the stream of earnest citizens onto the monument grounds, one is at once ushered into a mini-bazaar: gift shop, popcorn stand, mosque, and a studio with cardboard cutouts of ex-presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser to greet you at the door. Inside the studio is an impressive rack of costumes (from the Pharaonic to the fellah) to choose from or, if you prefer the slicker Photoshop option, you may have your likeness inserted beside your favorite local actor or busty pop star against an improbable background. They weren’t kidding about showing us a good time. A little disoriented, it’s time for a stroll through the museum park. Constructed in 1983 with the assistance of Korean technicians, the museum is a monument to Egypt’s October 1973 Victory. And there he is, our omnipresent president, with words of endorsement writ large on a towering billboard, thanking men of the armed forces for their sacrifices for the nation, defending its honor, etc. Meanwhile, all around are families ambling in a space sprinkled with the monstrous apparatus of war — missiles, tanks, cannons — as freshly (spray) painted and unreal as model airplanes. Violently opposed to war, I feel anxious about the effect this ambiance must have on its audience.
As it turns out, I needn’t worry about this atmosphere stirring belligerent sentiments. They’re lovers not fighters, these irreverent Egyptians. And with an entrance charge of three Egyptian pounds (fifty cents US), this is merely an affordable Eid family outing and a feel-good venue, war-lite. Still, everything considered, there is something deeply disturbing about the sight of small children treating tanks as monkey bars (not unlike the sinister innocence of little boys play-fighting with water guns). This impression is not alleviated by the absurdity of a veiled relative scrambling up the armored vehicle to collect a child straddling its menacing projectile.
Within the main building is an uneasy truce between your standard military propaganda and installation art. There is a decent mosaic of Egyptian armed forces conducting battle, enshrined by a basin of plastic flowers — always plastic. Friezes depicting battle plans, the “great crossing [of the Suez Canal]” and acrobatic Pharaohs have all the definition of a much-handled soap bar. Across from them hang collages, bouquets of disembodied military heads floating on water, before nondescript battleships that look like something you might encounter at a downtown art gallery.
Finally, we line up for the main event: A painstakingly detailed and dizzying diorama featuring the mayhem of war-spent cartridges and soldiers strewn everywhere amidst explosive battle by land, sea, and air. A dramatic voice-over in the soap opera tradition narrates the events, blow by blow, accompanied by an over-the-top musical score. In one word, the music is bathetic; in two: oppressively sentimental. The platform turns at an excruciatingly slow lurch, granting us ample time to reflect on war’s unsavory glory.
Filing out, I find myself meditating on the function of such a seriously silly museum. Clearly intended to bolster that fragile construct, national identity, I wonder how much less self-deception there would be without self-image; how nationalism, a high-maintenance project, must be jealously protected and appeased, as with any insecurity. “The measles of mankind,” pronounced Albert Einstein, on nationalism. And are wars, inevitably, not the side effects of this malady of immaturity? In the final equation, these people don’t need “monuments” like this, but more public spaces, affordable parks, or arenas for less incongruous pleasures.
I feel perfectly happy to declare that I have no qualms about having grown up in England relatively unaware, up until very recently, of the specific postcolonial debate around its diasporic community within contemporary art. In the late Nineties I went to art school in Coventry, a place that, I have recently been told, was where the original Black Artists’ Movement (BAM) was founded back in the early Eighties. During my gratifying three years there, never at any point did anybody mention that this was where the likes of Eddie Chambers and Keith Piper set out their agenda for pursuing an emancipation, for gaining recognition as black artists; pride was actually placed on Coventry being the birthplace of the Art & Language group. In fact it was a few years later when undertaking postgraduate studies in London, during a lecture by Jean Fisher, that I became aware of what was initiated by the BAM at Coventry two decades earlier. However, by this point in my life, although understanding the aims of this group and accepting that it was a necessary eventuality, I began to wonder whether knowing about these previous struggles was actually of any genuine significance to me and to practitioners from ethnic minorities of my own generation.
Despite reports of the escalation, nationally and internationally, of Islamophobia, it is fair to say that Britain is perhaps the most advanced nation in Europe, if not the world, in terms of acceptance and integration of its many diasporic groups. More importantly for this discussion, if one looks within the visual arts, it is clear that we are at the beginning of a new era, with a new generation that has emerged in recent years whose practices have transcended racial expectation, and have never dealt with the increasingly stereotyped issues of postcolonial identity, nor have really felt any pressure to do so. Within the cultural context, previous discussions that still continue to be knocked about around such subjects as “hybridity” and “creolisation” have undoubtedly been surpassed, in practice at least, if not in criticism. We can be black/Asian and British, and even feel more European than most Brits, without any hint of a contradiction. We can even take quiet amusement at such curious anomalies as the number of upper and middle-class white Brazilians who come to study at art schools in London in order to produce art about life in the favelas in Rio.
Examples of the new-era practitioners that I am thinking of include Glasgow-based artist Rosalind Nashashibi, who has become increasingly recognized internationally, and whose practice has entered wide fields of artistic enquiry. Nashashibi’s films are set in various locations around the globe including the United States, Scotland, and Palestine. Capturing the seemingly mundane and un-constructively used time and routines of the everyday, her films are respectful delineations of the collective human condition. They possess a subtle humor, such as in her film Midwest: Field, where we listen in on a conversation between a group of men in Omaha, Nebraska, who share a passion for flying radio-controlled cars; or in the poignant Dahiet Al Bareed: District of the Post Office, set in a barber’s shop in Palestine’s West Bank. In her films the artist and her camera are always palpable, and there is a strong sense of investigation into the potential of the film medium itself. Thankfully, despite the ease with which it would be possible to think of her practice in purely racial terms, nobody does, as equivocally, her films should be perceived in far more interesting ways than this. Another example is the artist Runa Islam. Often inspired by the working techniques of Godard and Antonioni, Islam is an artist that has a passion for cinema history. She concerns herself with the mechanisms of the filmmaking process, scrutinizing traditional narrative structure and ocular interface, and attempts to take films beyond this kind of closure. Her films, such as Screentest/Unscript, make transparent (the “performativity” if you like) all the elements required for filmmaking — the lighting, camera, bodies in front of the camera — and allow, through a viewer’s visual and aural perception, for a kind of transcendence of the filmic illusion. Islam treats the production of each new film as a brand new investigative gesture to reappraise the medium and to re-evaluate her working methods as an artist.
I have used these examples because a key factor for this discussion is the idea of “post-race.” No, really, this is something I’m quite serious about. However, I am not foolish enough to talk about post-race as some kind of utopian-idealist vision of leaving behind race. I am simply talking about this condition in solely professional terms; post-race here is not a speculative development that is academically informed within itself by the notion of race, rather it has just happened of its own accord. Perhaps it could simply be designated as a condition where if you were to act to racialize an arts practitioner (along with their practice), you are acting as more of a hindrance to them than a help. A question here is whether this newfound freedom has been a direct inheritance of the work done by practitioners such as the Black Artists’ Movement and others in the Eighties similarly looking for emancipation? My own feeling is that this may have had some effect, however, things have developed so much in a recent, short period of time, it feels more accurate to claim that this has been mainly due to general shifts in societal attitude, common sense… and actually, just producing un-ignorable great art. All has been going good and well. Or it was, until we reached a recent development that has seriously compromised the true advancement of contemporary art. It’s clearly time to get critical amongst ourselves.
The issue here is the total unwillingness to recognize how progressive the current generation of artists from ethnic minorities have been, specifically from the crowd that maintains a sympathetic attachment to the previous generation who gained (limited) recognition through their aspirations for liberation. And so, a new, particularly retrogressive form of “self-othering” has become the latest method used by parts of the “diasporic art” community (truly its own sub-genre!) for maintaining the recognition they currently possess. This curious incongruity is different from the old form of self-othering associated with consenting to hegemonic views of art produced by the cultural other. The new form is purely a marketing strategy timed to occur at the beginnings of a fresh epoch: a post-ironic form of self-othering by falsifying oppression, as it is considered the only way of maintaining or gaining recognition within the limited remit of one’s own production. Just to be clear, it is no longer “I’m a minority, recognize me as this!” but now “I’m not a minority, recognize me as this (but please do it in racial terms)!” — the new emancipatory paradigm. Subsequently, in the process of doing this, any signifiers of progress are deliberately dragged down with you, as signifiers of progress make your ethos look redundant.
The worrying thing is that this has gone so far beyond irony that it has become a perfectly credible method of operating. In the last issue of Bidoun, there appeared a preview of a recent exhibition held at a small project space in London entitled We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us, curated by artist Shezad Dawood. The critical framework for the exhibition was pronouncedly around the idea of levels of racial expectation (from who exactly is unclear) towards artists with Asian Islamic names and the particular issues they may deal with in their practices. Also at issue was an assumed misunderstanding that Islamic artists of various national heritages have some undistinguished connection through a common creative belief system. To assess this exhibition with imminence — looking at it from within the curators’ own method for formulating the exhibition — it is clear that the exhibition’s guiding principle was deeply problematic on a number of levels; and it was mainly the selection of artists that first set alarm bells ringing. A number of the selected artists in the show, such as the above-mentioned Runa Islam, have become renowned, and most importantly for this discussion, are not in any way observed in racial terms; or at least they weren’t until this exhibition. However, after reading the press release, going through the list of artists and coming across Rasheed Araeen’s name, I fully understand what was going on — Dawood had attempted to awaken Eighties-style multiculturalist antagonisms from a new, alterior angle. The peculiar paradox which arose was that in the attempt to criticize ethnically guided expectations and exhibitions, the curatorial strategy employed acted to inadvertently racialize the participating artists through their presence in an exhibition framed as such. Committing the curatorial faux pas of putting yourself in your own exhibition was taken to a new level here, as it asphyxiated the sensitive investigations of each of the other participating artists; a strategy that can be considered diminutive, and through the curator’s invertro-racializing gaze, is condescending even. Yet, some institutions would be willing to host this kind of exhibition due to its tumultuous claims to “criticality.”
Of course, individual artists are not the only ones that are prone to employing the new self-othering within the contemporary arts landscape. No, there are whole institutions that are at it too. The prime example is the Institute for International Visual Arts (inIVA), an institution that despite having received copious levels of funding and having existed for ten years, has barely produced an exhibition of any real note; a truly astonishing achievement indeed. Caught in an indeterminate vacuity between Eighties-style politics around cultural diversity and the consensus-internationalism pervading the biennial circuit, inIVA has ignored the important post-racial developments at ground level within its own locale, and continues to champion what could be most accurately described as “inIVA art” — “diasporic art” that employs an immediacy of apprehension in disclaiming increasingly stereotyped issues of identity for the purposes of spectacularizing and standardizing racial difference. Examples of this kind of practitioner include Zineb Sedira or Jananne Al-Ani, whose utilization of lens-based media provide an easily digestible, visual immediacy. InIVA has always claimed to represent marginalized artists, yet actually it is fair to say that they do the opposite — through their racialized gaze they actually marginalize artists, as each artist that they show becomes part of their brand of “inIVA art.” InIVA is the monad to self-othering. Aware that they are critically redundant as an institution, they self-other themselves and they cause self-othering to stunt the developments in art that have eclipsed postcolonialism, in order to preserve their ebony tower.
This tendency’s occurrence, which at present only appears on the domestic front, is the result of a clear intention to continue dwelling in the relative comfort and safety of domiciliary postcolonial discourse. Obsessing over race and revisiting questions that are no longer valid in order to stifle from within, has become the new modus operandi at the expense of genuine critical self-valuation. And the really ironic thing is that the revitalized strategy adopted here was never really that effective the first time around.
“Darling, I’ve bought you some crack,” purrs Loreta, striding in my front door. “From Satwa.” The crack in question is actually Krack, an antiseptic cream for sore heels, purchased from an area of Dubai known for its bargain basement outlets full of Burberry and Tods, besides the odd illegal substance. To our next meeting, the six-foot-something artist and sometime catwalk model brought a box of Forever Rosemary, the well known “ambassador’s chocolates.”
Born in Lithuania, Loreta Bilinskaite-Burke began learning English at the age of nineteen; with the ear of the polyglot, she delights in the creative use of the language by the South Asian traders that rule deluxe Dubai’s reality-check neighborhoods. In a land not known for its developed sense of irony, Loreta’s inventive, tongue-in-cheek art practice is refreshing. (In another persona, she fronts a weekly style program on Dubai’s national radio, discussing the delights of Obscurity perfume, Your Boss and Polite aftershaves, Manly Man from Titanic eau de cologne and so on. Her latest series of work, in part commissioned by Bidoun, sees the artist direct and model for a series of “advertisements,” with all clothes and accessories sourced from Satwa, in a wink at the branding of desire.) She plucks her influences from the most unlikely sources — this in a place where most artists turn their backs on the urban experience, preferring nostalgic pastoral scenes of the desert and imagined times gone by.
For Dubai’s first public art project — a parade of camels that mimicked similar ventures with cows in New York, London, and elsewhere — Loreta collaborated with mosaic artist Jenjira Prasertsin to produce Dubai Dream. Amid a herd of illustrated models, it rose above the cheesiness of the project to actually say something about the city. Covered entirely in a mosaic of rough-cut “diamonds,” Loreta’s sculpture is seductive; sold for 250,000 dirhams (68,500 US Dollars), it is a particularly well-appointed camel, and no doubt broke some world records. Yet we know that the sculpture is fake — created in mirrored glass rather than diamonds. It represents the Dubai dream — from the coveted jewels that fed the trade port’s rise to power to today’s celebration of corporate capitalism. But on closer inspection, the mosaic simply reflects viewers back at themselves. The mirror image is fractured, distorted. Is this the ultimate in kitsch or a thing of great allure? Once again, the Dubai dream has you foxed. Loreta has plans to continue her exploration of the city’s predilection for flash; a current project involves covering a sports car in tiny mirror tiles.
Loreta moved to Dubai only two years ago, yet her practice is arguably representative of the transient city. She takes a sharp yet not wholly cynical eye to Arabia’s land of dreams. Her work dwells on her adopted home’s service culture: Playing with the futuristic city’s reliance on imported labor, she commissions South Asian garment factory workers to produce art for her. One such “manufactured painting” features a white canvas patterned with a concentric eddy of black sequins. “I asked them for a beginning and an explosion,” explains Loreta. “It’s their interpretation. At first, they didn’t want to work off-pattern. But this ‘Madam,’ ‘Sir’ culture is new for me, and I wanted to test it out — in a reverse of the Dubai dream, I’m paying people to have an opinion.” She riffs on a favorite subject: the similarities in practical terms between communism, as she experienced it in Lithuania, and capitalism, as manifested in extreme form in the UAE. “In the end, everyone wears the same, expresses themselves through the same possessions, and is paid not to think.”
Atelier Loreta is a flat overlooking a featureless, inner-city landscape of square towers broken by intermittent scrubby patches of sand. The walls currently feature a series of land- and seascapes on canvas. Inspired in part by the UAE censorship department’s habit of shading or scribbling over offending words, phone numbers, and images in imported magazines and newspapers, she has blocked out notes written along the horizon with simple rectangles of red hand-rolled glass.
Before moving to Dubai, Loreta lived in London and worked predominantly in embroidery and installation, although her interest in needlework lies more in her Lithuanian roots than any Tracey Emin–esque affectation. “At home, everyone can sew,” she assures me. Supporting herself through art college by working as an international catwalk model, she spent hours each week at various embassies, queuing for visas. As an Eastern European, she had to renew her UK visa each month. Every visa became “like an award.” Appropriately, she began silk-screen-printing the badges of admittance onto prized Lithuanian tablecloths — “something you reserve for special guests” — and embroidering letters and symbols in gold and silver thread. “Indefinite period,” “Leave to remain,” “Marriage Single Entry,” are picked out in ironically reverential and lovingly sewed threads.
She professes to be more interested in the process of making rather than the show of exhibiting, as illustrated by video works that she shows alongside major projects. Words (2003) is a collection of rosettes, each carrying an embroidered word, taken randomly from tabloid front-page headlines. Contrasting her life in London with the “medialess existence” of some of her rural relatives in Lithuania, she has created a series of trophy-like tapestries. The “fifteen minutes” of each subject, each headline conjured up by subeditors working to deadline, is painstakingly created in the most time-consuming method. In the accompanying video, Loreta sews everywhere: in London, on the bus, the tube and shuffling along on a protest march against the war in Iraq; at catwalk shows, in makeup; as a “flower pot” (decorative guest) at a fluffy corporate function; dressed as an airhostess for an Emirates airline shoot, sitting in a crowded square in Marrakech. “Kylie,” “Bin Laden,” “clone,” “ripper,” gradually take shape, created in a kind of performance. As an installation, the work plays with the viewer’s perceptions: Anxiously, the mind’s eye tries to connect the arbitrary words, to create sensational sentences.
Loreta’s work in embroidery came to a head with Worship, a vast tapestry featuring footballer David Beckham in a pose that mirrors icons of saints in her local church in Lithuania. Made with the same stitch used in the Bayeaux Tapestry, using gold and silver thread, the work was completed over three months, mostly in Lithuania one long summer. From that season’s spiky haircut, to his gold Adidas shoes, Becks was created in minute accuracy. It was, says Loreta, an explicit effort to immortalize his universal yet disposable fame in infinitesimal, laborious detail — in effect, to materialize time. His fame, following the 2002 FIFA World Cup, was all-consuming; his persona alternately glorified and vilified by a media well-versed in Bushist polarities of “good” and “evil.”
Once again, “the Beckham,” as Loreta likes to refer to it, was a peripatetic work: The accompanying video shows the British icon taking shape at picnics, by the beach, in the family’s summer house, in a concrete landscape in Vilnius. It became, as she documents, a social event, with friends and relatives coming from afar to spend a day stitching and chatting. In a way, Loreta’s documentation of the summer of Beckham is a paean to changing times. Harkening back to her own childhood, she captures Russian cartoons on television. The older generation — those who still live a simple country life, fetching water from the well, living on dry bread in the winter — had no idea who they were creating, but the post-post-Gorbachev youth act all “homeboy” for her camera, lip-synching perfectly to rap and talking knowledgeably about Becks’s latest performance.
Her portrayal of her family is warm, but not purely innocent. Shown alongside Worship at Central St Martin’s College and then (ironically enough) at Victoria House in London, the video prompted gallery visitors to ask Loreta questions such as “Where did you get these people from?” This perhaps says as much about the service culture of contemporary art practice as it does ignorance within Europe.
Loreta’s relationship with her home country is complex, yet she has no truck with the anguish of displacement as expressed through traditional identity politics. A documentary style series of portraits of old women, taken each summer on her return, is a bald attempt to capture slipping time. “I am a part of it, every time I go back. But equally I’m at home elsewhere in the world.” One moment in the Beckham video captures her relationship with her home country: Relatives and friends, all staying at the family summer house in an idyllic, Hansel-and-Gretel forest, dress up in their oldest “country clothes” and mug as models, prancing down the catwalk of the garden path, with Loreta forced to sit in the “front row.” “They do this every year,” she sighs. “It’s kind of taking the piss.”
Attempting to describe the work of Tarek Al-Ghoussein is turning out to be a futile endeavor on my part: No matter how I look at this work, I immediately link his “performance photographs” to Palestinian visual discourse on exile, displacement, the conflict, and their diverse representations in art. As a Palestinian myself, I fear that my reading is contested by my unconscious resistance as well as my emotional insistence on reading in the primordial way. Ghoussein’s identity is constituted, nevertheless, on fragmented grounds, indicating that it cannot simply be re-included into that from which it has previously been excluded.
Even he would not deny the following: His composite background, his lack of direct familiarity with Palestine itself, is at the heart of the artist’s work. Ghoussein was born in Kuwait. In his youth, he traveled widely with his diplomat father and family, including spells in the US, Morocco, and Japan. He studied photography at New York University and the University of New Mexico in the US, and worked as a photojournalist before turning to academia and the life of a photographic artist.
His first series of “performance photographs” were self-portraits, exhibited in the 2003 Sharjah Biennial as large light boxes, and consequently in group exhibitions in Europe and the US. During a solo show of the work in Berlin, the images were attacked — stoned, ironically — and the glass shattered, adding a layer to Ghoussein’s exploration of the myth of the Arab terrorist. He has further explored the media’s role in myth-making in a collaboration with Chris Kienke, The War Room, a huge display of 2000 images taken of the television coverage of the current war in Iraq. The images depicted the artist in various locations in the UAE (where Ghoussein now lives and works as a professor at the American University of Sharjah) and later in Jordan, looking out over the Dead Sea, his back turned to the camera. In each photo, his face and head are covered, his identity concealed.
Yet the fabric he uses, the kaffieh, has long stood as an icon of Palestinian resistance, and has similarly been adopted by many others as a symbol of defiance against tyranny. As such, Ghoussein’s clear identification with his Palestinian roots and simultaneous denial of the self, the image, the face, reflects a certain tension between his projected identity and its unsettling relation to a specific geographical space (Palestine) and the wider context of Arab identity (the Arab world).
This anguish is beautifully portrayed, for example, by the artist’s defeatist posture as he walks on the tarmac towards the airplane in what, at first sight, seems to allude to a hijacking or an escape, a climatic moment which is usually enacted with the last gasp of human fortitude. He seems aware that this emotion, and the repudiation of his fundamental right to have a home, creates an inherent deprivation, a dead end, which has infiltrated many of his recent works. Even though this body of work appears subdued, with the colors having faded to grays and concrete ubiquitous, here they are far more about confronting reality. No more horizons of a distant land are to be found, no mounds to climb, no tarmac to cross, no destroyed edifice to walk past and maybe beyond.
Instead, in the new series, there are walls and fences, barriers and dead ends. There are few illusions: He will not be returning to a Home.
Coincidentally, I am from Home, and where do I begin to talk about barriers and walls and fences and road blocks and dead ends? Here Ghoussein has internalized these obstacles in his work, trying to investigate their physicality and appreciate their particular aesthetics. It is as though he’s marking his own bearing, his exile, with those objects/acts that are displacing thousands of Palestinians, denying them their land, home, and livelihood. Although he’s experimenting in his practice with those barriers and walls that he can see, feel, and touch, still he can never experience the gravity of the situation they create on the ground.
Thus, what began with acts of masking the face, concealing the frailty and the wounds, has culminated in recent works with the removal of the self completely from the frame. He doesn’t see the particularity of his individual deprivation as relevant anymore; he doesn’t see himself as an important element in the composition of the image. Indeed, he has come to terms with the insignificance of his personal conflict over his identity and focuses rather, in his own words, “on the profound threats to the continued survival of many Palestinian communities.” Now he can be in the frame and he can be out of the frame. He can be practically anywhere but home.
Fantasy embraces all forms of dreaming. In architecture, it implies a composed, projected environment that is surprising to the eye — a deliberate exercise that tests reality and triggers possibilities for the future. In a sense, all architecture is fantasy. Architectural design is always speculative, since it attempts to specify the future.
Recent progressive architectural projects have generated new forms and expressions in response to new global realities, cultural fascinations, and technological advances. Like their predecessors, the new architectural fantasists move beyond the mundane to transfigure, distort, and extend, and therefore bring new meanings to architecture.
The digital interface: new ways of imaging and imagining
Contemporary culture is led and powered by digital imaging technology, which has transformed the way we visualize and see the world. Architects are now equipped with enhanced tools of dreaming. And as these imaging tools become more sophisticated, the line between the imaginary and the real is increasingly blurred.
In this hyper-consumerist culture, digital/synthetic landscapes are increasingly depicted as “total lifestyle experiences,” ready to be consumed. Be that as it may, digital spaces reveal and/or visualize the unconscious desires of urban spaces, in the sense that imaginary architectural space can be modeled, rendered, animated, and experienced. It brings forth a new set of dreamscapes, mysterious and surreal. This implies a Freudian spatial unconscious, which can be subjected to analysis and interpretation. The tools of digital dreaming, meanwhile, have opened up a window that looks onto the “urban unconscious.”
The tourist city
Historically, the origin of modern vacation time can be traced back to the 1930s, when workers in France, for the first time, were given the right to twelve paid vacation days. Today, tourism has become a “total lifestyle experience.”
The modern tourist resort is by definition a constructed one. The tourist’s perception seems to have shifted away from the pictorial 18th century: There is no longer the desire for the panoramic view. The excessively visual contemporary culture has made everything look familiar. Contemporary tourists are looking for familiarity: They want to feel at home in a strange place.
This has lead to concentrated tourist infrastructures and mega-structure complexes (containing hotel + apartments + mall + cinema + expo + anything goes), which are clustered very close together.
In Dubai there is little difference between holiday accommodation and housing. Architectural programs are becoming fused and undifferentiated. The morphology of the landscape and seascape is becoming fabricated to the point that it may soon be difficult to differentiate between the natural and the constructed. Dubai’s natural beachfront is 45 kilometers long. Artificial islands will add another 1,500 kilometers of beachfront, turning the coastline and the city into an inexhaustible holiday resort. This constructed landscape, like a stage set, provides edited scenes of adventure and entertainment.
The city as non-place
The visual voyage through any contemporary cityscape operates like a continuous shift between eye and mind, as though differences no longer existed between the two. Without a doubt, the city has ceased to be an entity, a place with a specific identity.
Rem Koolhaas, in his well-known essay “The Generic City” published in the Italian magazine Domus in 1994 contemplates the following observations, which pertain so well to Dubai:
Is the contemporary city like the contemporary airport — all the same?
01.6 It is big enough for everybody. It is easy. It does not need maintenance. If it gets too small it just expands. If it gets old it just self-destructs and renews. It is “superficial” — like a Hollywood studio lot, it can produce a new identity every Monday morning.
06.3 The Street is dead.
09.2 The Generic City had a past, once?
10.2 The only activity is shopping…
11.5 Because the Generic City is largely Asian, its architecture is generally air-conditioned.
11.8 The apparently solid substance of the Generic City is misleading. 51% of its volume consists of atrium.
The city has definitely ceased to be a site: Instead, it has become a condition. Perhaps the city has even lost its site: It tends to be everywhere and nowhere. The growing proportion of space lacks meaning because nobody feels any attachment to it.
What used to be the “thrill” of the urban voyage is quickly giving way to banality and exhaustion: One has nothing more to discover, nothing other than immense, general, and nondescript spaces.
Dubai — Twenty-first century visionary architecture/hybrid urbanism
Dubai is an extreme example of urbanism. One of the fastest growing cities in the world today, it represents the epitome of sprawling, post-industrial, and car-oriented urban culture. Within it, large numbers of transient populations are constantly in flux.
The explosion of mega-scale structures and satellite cities provides opportunities for the study of new typologies of building programs and forms. Within the urban grid, and the monotonous and predictable urban condition, the generation of prosthetic geometries and new morphologies acts as a catalyst for innovation. Maybe this is the right time, in the evolution of twenty-first century architecture, to study and adopt new forms and technologies. The aura of optimism and the apparent financial success of the new building boom seem to require fresh, daring architects and designers.
Over the last twenty years, at a remarkable pace, Dubai has developed into a global crossroads. This urban mirage continues to spread out vertically and horizontally without any signs of slowing down. It takes in/purports a vertical urbanism — giant atriums and spidery passages among the towers — curiously set against a background of a sprawling “nothingness,” the desert.
To the visitor, this cosmopolitan city might seem peculiar and hyperactive, with no layering or apparent hierarchy. Its allure lies in its ability to adjust rapidly, in its complexity, in its contradictions.
The city tends to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time, because it has no urban center or core. Dubai thrives on newness and bigness, in an act of ongoing self-stylization and fantasy. Hence architecture is crucial, for it defines these elements. Little more than a grand-scale shopping mall, the city is comprised of “mind-zone” spaces, and of airport-like lobbies. In this theme park orientated cityscape, there is no differentiation between old and new. Everything is recent. Yet everything seems to point to the twin towers of consumerism and tourism.
Here, architecture and interiors act as interfaces to consumerism, to the act of purchasing, to the ephemeral experience. Interior shopping spaces are ever larger, more luxurious and seductive. The advent of air conditioning liberated the architectural form and gave rise to a new set of formal possibilities.
Dubai is a prototype of the new post-global city, which creates appetites rather than solves problems. It is represented as consumable, replaceable, disposable, and short-lived. Dubai is addicted to the promise of the new: It gives rise to an ephemeral quality, a culture of the “instantaneous.” Relying on strong media campaigns, new satellite cities and mega-projects are planned and announced almost weekly. This approach to building is focused exclusively on marketing and selling.
As the visionary architect Cedric Price noted in an interview in 2001, “The actual consuming of ideas and images exists in time, so the value of doing the show betrayed an immediacy, an awareness of time that does not exist somewhere like London or indeed Manhattan. A city that does not change and reinvent itself is a dead city…”
Dubai’s recent development has put it on the map of iconic projects, of real estate prospecting and holiday dream destinations. Yet what is missing is the visionary realization of its architecture. Now is the time for architectural projects to be innovative and original. Now is the time to initiate a much-desired discourse about the face of the city.
A historical perspective: a desert waterfront
Dubai began life as a small port and collection of barasti (palm frond) houses clustered around the Creek. Not endowed with abundant fertile land, early twentieth century settlers set about making their living from the sea, concentrating on fishing, pearling and trading. Commercial success coupled with the liberal attitudes of its rulers made the emirate attractive to traders from India and Iran, who began to settle in the growing town. This gave the city an early start before the explosion of wealth brought on by oil production in the late 1960s.
The trajectory of the development of Dubai is reflected in its population, which has grown fifteen-fold since 1969: from 60,000 then to well over one million today. It is projected that, by 2010, Dubai’s tourist trade will accommodate around fifteen million tourists per annum, serviced by more than 400 hotels. Comparisons are telling: in 2002, Egypt, for example, had 4.7 million visitors, and Dubai 4.2 million. (The former, of course, hosts “real history,” against the latter’s Las Vegas version — including, in the next few years, the construction of a set of Pyramids in the vast theme park Dubailand.)
The emirate’s expansion has followed the Los Angeles model: New developments sprout in the desert, beyond the older cores of Deira and Bur Dubai, linked by freeways and ring roads. The open spaces left in between are gradually filled with a lower-intensity, car-dependent form of urban sprawl.
Since Dubai has no real urban history, it has had to invent a variety of new urban conditions. Using its transitory oil wealth, the emirate has built “free zone” areas, promoted as clusters defined by economic liberalization, technological innovation, and political transparency. Jebel Ali Free Zone, an industrial and trading hub, was followed in the late 1990s by three sprawling industrial parks: Internet City, a bid to make Dubai the Arab world’s IT hub; Media City, which aspires to replace Cairo as the Middle East’s media capital while broadcasting the emirate’s vision of openness; and Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), a stock market headquarters meant to match those of Hong Kong, London, and New York.
While the desert is usually considered barren and worthless, Dubai’s “empty quarter” has unique real estate value, thanks largely to two companies: Emaar Properties (founded 1997) and government-owned Nakheel. Among many residential projects, Emaar is currently developing the 3.5 kilometer–long Dubai Marina behind the existing Jumeirah beachfront hotels. A high-rise city-within-a-city and home to more than 40,000 residents, it is set to become the focus of the New Dubai. Nakheel has become synonymous with The Palm, Jumeirah, a 5 kilometer–long, reclaimed island. Other Palms and islands are currently being “planted,” in the massive undertaking of transplanting the desert into the sea. The latest project, Dubai Waterfront, will not only add 375 kilometers of new beachfront but will include the largest man-made canal carved out of the desert. By 2002, when freehold property rights were established in Dubai, allowing foreigners to buy property for the first time, the stage had been set for a real estate boom.
If Rome was the “Eternal City” and New York’s Manhattan the apotheosis of twentieth-century congested urbanism, then Dubai may be considered the emerging prototype for the twenty-first century: prosthetic and nomadic oases presented as isolated cities that extend out over the land and the sea.
Yet, while Dubai is perhaps becoming architecturally the ultimate fantasy city, it has not provided many opportunities to innovative architects. Most of the new projects do not push the boundaries of design innovation. They stay within a safe range of design styles that are palatable to the masses.
Bidoun invited a group of international architects to project their architectural vision onto the city of Dubai, to elaborate on possible scenarios, fictional narratives and forecasts. Their respective visions are found on the following pages.
Terminal City: A project proposal for superlative architecture in Dubai
L.E.FT, New York
Modern Dubai is littered with architectural monuments that can be labeled as superlative architecture: an architecture that breeds on the next big thing — from the shock of the new by comparison to, and referential scale with what has just become old.
In Dubai everything will soon be outdone, a taller, bigger, and larger structure will quickly be erected. What is here today is almost immediately to be irrelevant, insignificant, not worth mentioning tomorrow.
With superlative architecture, “what if?” — a present state of possibility — is replaced by “now what?” — an afterward state of wonder in doubt. There is no more aspiration, no more imagination.
Our proposal, Terminal City, collapses the “city” experience into one building. There is no more city fabric, no more blocks, no more street, no more lots, no more center, and consequently no more suburban spread and peripheries. This new city, caught vertically between two airport terminals, is the last structure that modern Dubai will ever need.
Based on Dubai’s business and demographic models (catering to less then twenty percent nationals), it is a transient city wedged between constant arrivals and departures; with airports on the roof and the ground the city becomes groundless, non-contextual, and a continuous duty-free experience, capitalism at its best, or worst.
Once checking out of the terminal, one can only be on the way to checking in again, that is, on the way out. In between, a vertical city stretches, with all living working and entertainment amenities a city holds. Terminal city even has a cemetery, which, located at the center of the structure, is the furthest point away from any gates.
Terminal City structure is shaped by the overlapping geometry of the airplanes trajectories from Dubai to the rest of the world (using the Emirates Airlines as our model). Resisting any iconographic connotation the structure can only be read as the seminal symbol of what Dubai should ultimately represent: the first true global metropolis in the desert.
L.E.FT is a design collaborative dedicated to examining the intersections of cultural and political productions as they relate to the built environment, established in 2001 by Makram el Kadi, Ziad Jamaleddine, and Naji Moujaes in New York. With an interest in diverse programs, a focus on unconventional interpretations of the ordinary is posited as a design onset. L.E.FT has had exhibitions at Parsons School of Design, Rhode Island School of Design, Storefront for Art and Architecture, and Artists Space, and collaborated with Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis and OMA on competitions. L.E.FT received an honorable mention for Surround Datahome in the 2001 Japan Architect Shinkenchiku competition, and is a recipient of the 2002 Young Architects Forum Award from the Architectural League of New York.
Why are we still learning from Las Vegas?
WORKac, New York
At the turn of the century, Dubai counted 1600 inhabitants. Today it has almost one million. The growth in population is rivaled only by its growth in garbage: Dubai’s domestic refuse increases annually by ten percent with an expected two million metric tons in 2008. As Dubai has developed, its strategy has been to “x” its buildable surface, “y” its population and “z” its trash, to parts unknown.
This incredible boom is said to have come as a result of running the young emirate like a corporation. To attract businesses, Dubai conceptualizes islands of work it calls “cities,” “villages,” and “zones,” immediately linking its business ambitions to urban ideas. Like an archipelago of emirates themselves, these working hubs — Media City, Internet City, DAFZ, DUCAMZ, Knowledge Village — are all designed to perform at the highest competitive level possible. Each island provides everything from cutting-edge technologies to plug-in office spaces, move-in apartments, and financial breaks. Foreign ownership is encouraged — at least of businesses. Attracted by such promise, a young ambitious and smart work force moves to Dubai and by 2003, there were 203 different nationalities living and working in Dubai — constituting eighty percent of the overall population.
At first glance, these “cities” are more akin to American suburban office parks: generic oases of corporate boxes loosely organized around central parking lots and the occasional green lawn. Yet stepping out of the car, it is only a matter of seconds before this first impression is dissipated by the scale of the enterprise and its success. From MSNBC to Reuters, Sony, Zen TV, Middle East Business News, CNN, UNI TV and others, it seems everyone is here and working together. The energy is high and the rhythm upbeat; far from the nonchalant Middle Eastern tempo. While infinite possibilities crowd the imagination, the excess of life witnessed renders the architecture once again irrelevant. Whereas Las Vegas attracts gamblers, Dubai attracts entrepreneurs, and their needs are solely virtual.
Firmly grounding its image as a modern working city for the young and the bold, Dubai generates new typologies for itself. A hybrid between the Champs Elysées and a Manhattan Avenue, Sheikh Zayed Road is a single majestic gesture flanked by skyscrapers on either side. Like a trail in the snow, there is nothing behind the skyscrapers but more desert. This is Dubai at its best, where pure vision and the desire for density yield a fantastic urban moment in the midst of nothingness.
With the advent of the Palm Islands — I, II, and soon III — Dubai reveals its weakness. While proving once again the breadth of its vision at an urban level, it fails to provide the same invention at the architectural. In plan, and from the moon, the Palms are the result of a simple yet genius observation: If a coast line of length ‘l’ is artificially rippled into ‘x’ number of fingers, the length of beach front within a given area is multiplied by ‘x.’ This rippling in turn offers an evolution of the “front yard–back yard” suburban dream: “beach yards” for everyone. Once at the level of the Palm’s streets, however, the inventiveness is stifled. The Palm’s extruded buildings are an ode to “Lifestyle” where theming takes over living in a cacophony of staged styles. From the Asian, to the Tuscan and back to Venice, the Palm is but an architectural Epcot Center where all is fiction written by developers, even one’s life.
Today, in the battle between real life and its theming, it seems the latter is taking the lead. No longer satisfied with being the destination of choice for an incredible work force, Dubai is already launching its next big thing: Tourism — the same next big thing as for so many other cities. After building islands of work, and islands of living, the time has come for islands of leisure: entertainment for all and the creation of fantasy worlds ensuring consumption ad nausea. Disney has finally landed in Dubai.
In October 2003, Dubailand is announced: a five-billion-dollar mixed-use theme park, whose area will equal the current built surface of Dubai. The three-billion-square-foot project is expected to attract fifteen million tourists annually. Amongst the most extravagant projects of Dubailand is the creation of Eco-Tourism World — a green haven of sixteen different gardens, outdoor amphitheater, health spa and resort and academy for 1,000 students. The project’s centerpiece is Al Barari — an oasis of green that will extend over 14.6 million square feet. “Surrounded by, and bordering a protected wild-life sanctuary [it] will truly be an inspirational setting reminding one of the Thousand and One Nights stories.”
If ecotourism was invented to encourage developing countries to preserve their natural wealth, to promote sustainable growth and to support local businesses and education, how are bottomless “thirsty” projects like Dubailand and fifteen million new tourists expected to preserve Dubai’s desert and improve the life of its inhabitants? Why should the Middle East need its own Disneyland and why are we still learning from Las Vegas?
Shouldn’t Dubai — with all the intelligence and imagination and money it has already put forth — continue to become an example by developing new models for it and for the world instead of adopting already failed ones? Shouldn’t these new concepts grow from the dryness, heat, humidity and beauty of its desert?
Moving from the desert of Las Vegas to that of Arcosanti, Dubai could develop a new “zero sprawl” model and out-new the new urbanists. Dubai’s obsession with skyscrapers would finally be put to good use, building vertical density everywhere. Its suburbs would implode. Learning form the Palm’s ripples, entire neighborhoods would be compressed vertically, minimizing their impact on the ground while maximizing the effectiveness of their shared services.
The concept of islands would be transformed from “working,” “living,” or “playing” to “sustainable” and “self sufficient,” each one collecting its own water and treating its own trash. Dubai’s snubbing of infrastructure could lead it to drop infrastructure altogether. Going wireless in this new era, it could go carless as well — no more traffic, highways or pollution, only public blimps and private carpets powered by wind engines moving from one independent living hub to another. Building on its tradition of wind towers, Dubai would thicken the skins of its tower facades to become deep pockets of shadow and cool. It would abandon its love of bland horizontal lawns and adopt the wild organisms of living machines to constantly recycle the waters of its towers.
The new Dubai would concentrate on the “real” as an expression of what is in Dubai perhaps the ultimate fantasy. You live in a desert but with hundreds of thousands of urbanites; you have shrinking oil supplies but inexhaustible sunlight and wind; the focus on density in a small area has given you a city that can be completely traversed by bicycle in less than an hour. What if reality was more interesting than fantasy? Isn’t that what reality TV is proving? To move forward, Dubai should embrace the desert with skyscrapers of adobe, celebrate modernity through advances in sustainability and instead of pretending that the wavy glass of the glorified office parks and the thin-skinned plastic towers that line Sheikh Zayed Road are actually models of anything that can last, celebrate the fact that there is a pleasure in building Babelesque edifices but this time building them right: In Dubai you can always Google a translation…
Work Architecture Company (WORKac) was founded in 2003 by Dan Wood and Amale Andraos. Dan Wood is originally from Rhode Island and has lived and worked in Paris and the Netherlands. He received his BA at the University of Pennsylvania and his Masters from Columbia University. Prior to forming WORKac, Mr. Wood established an international reputation as Rem Koolhaas’s partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Amale Andraos was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She has lived in Saudi Arabia, Paris, the Netherlands and Canada, where she received her B. Arch at McGill University. After completing her Masters at Harvard University, Ms. Andraos moved to the Netherlands in 1999 to work as a principal designer with OMA and then to OMA’s New York office in 2002. Both partners currently teach at Princeton University School of Architecture. WORKac’s projects have been featured in exhibitions at the New York AIA Architecture Center, Princeton University’s School of Architecture gallery, the University of Texas’ Goldsmith Hall Gallery and McGill University in Montreal. WORKac has presented their projects in lectures at Columbia and Harvard, and in Copenhagen, Paris, Beirut, Providence, Montreal, and Austin. WORKac’s projects have been published in the New York Times, the New York Sun, Interior Design, Architecture Magazine, A+U Architecture and Urbanism, the AIA Oculus, and 30-60-90.
In Conversation with Farshid Moussavi
Foreign Office Architects, London
Antonia Carver: FOA came to mind immediately when we were planning this feature, partly because of the innovative nature of your work, and partly because of your concept of “foreignness.” I’ve heard you previously describe your practice as “based in foreignness” and “alienation” as a “creative moment.” For me, this chimes well with both Bidoun and Dubai. Could you explain how these concepts affect the way you work?
Farshid Moussavi: The way we mean “foreignness” is less to do with where we’re from, although we both happen to be working outside our home countries, and more to do with a theoretical idea about exteriority as a condition — a proposition for an attitude towards practice that you could adopt even if you were working in your homeland. We think that when faced with a problem, if you stand outside the problem, you see possibilities that you wouldn’t otherwise have seen. It’s possible to release yourself from the local constraints — although you do have to meet those local constraints for the project to be realized. At the level of strategy, the proposition says “let’s stand back and take a broader perspective.” It’s about creating a certain critical distance.
AC: So it’s about balancing internal (practice-led) and external (local) agendas? I feel that in Dubai, partly because the city is so new, the desert seen as so “limitless,” and there’s a supposed lack of a definitive architectural history or style, many architects have allowed their internal agenda to dominate, rather than attempting to embed themselves locally. I’m interested in the way you’ve spoken about contextualizing yourself as an architect, about attempting to “become local.”
FM: We try to think uniquely for every project, because we want to use practice in new locations as a way of constructing identity in our own practice. How is it possible to construct identity for a practice that works internationally? What is consistent and how do you develop consistency when faced with very different conditions, and when you don’t want to become repetitious in your practice? So we use different locations to develop our own practice. Dubai is very new but every site has its own specifics: Some require top-down strategy, in which the architect can impose their vision, others require the architect to generate a concept out of the interiority of the project.
AC: Could we talk a little about the Florence highspeed railway complex? We’re including the project here as an example of the kind of development that could be envisioned for Dubai. I’m interested in the way you’ve taken the station underground and created a park space above, yet connected the station to the city via the eye-shaped viewing holes. Would designing for a rapidly urbanized city like Dubai require different thinking than a European center like Florence?
FM: The way we relate to the idea of travel is common to all of us, so there are some aspects of a contemporary railway station that would be common, whether building in Dubai or Florence. Travel is part of everyday life — yet it’s become something symbolic, something disconnected from everyday life. Most European cities are digging underground and thus liberating ground above, creating new relationships between the city and the railway station. There’s a possibility in Dubai to create real contextual, physical relationships between the railway and the city — after all, a project like this is a huge structure that can radically affect the city.
In Florence, the competition was won by Norman Foster and while I have great respect for his work, it does seem to be a lost opportunity. The glass vaulted roof they are building has lost the project the opportunity of constructing public space on the ground. There’s no point in recreating a Victorian-type shed. Embarking on a new station or railway is about building efficient ways to conduct flows and taking the opportunity to reconnect areas of the city that have been disconnected for years.
AC: As we discussed before, Dubai is in desperate need of a public cultural center, hence us including renderings of your design for the new Centre Pompidou Metz, France [unbuilt]. What was the thinking behind the project and how might it relate to a city like Dubai?
FM: Our design for Metz was a response to the previous Pompidou, where the rooms are hyper-specialized, and initiated in some ways by the brief. We needed to tailor the new museum to different kinds of art, to have it as flexible as possible, and compose different room conditions. The Pompidou in Paris is an icon but works of art are exhibited, rather than interacting with the city. For Metz, we designed a building that had the city as a backdrop from every room. Every space frames the city, and there’s a constant filtering in of views and natural light — so the building brings in public circulation. The inspiration was the [free] museums of London, which are so incredibly public. In the US, museums are very much a commercial experience, but if you take a building like Tate Modern, on weekends it is like a European piazza! This condition was the inspiration for turning the museum into a public space.
AC: It seems to be a project that particularly relates to Dubai: The flexibility, the way it pays homage to the city, and attempts to draw people in — and also the openness and the way escalators are used to transport people between floors gives it some relationship to the shopping mall tradition…
FM: Yes, the escalators and other aspects of the building could be related to a shopping mall — after all, are people in the mall to shop, or to interact with other people? Escalators between the floors offer an extended length of time to interact visually and physically with other people, to create public exchange.
AC: I know you haven’t been to Dubai yet, but could you tell me about your impressions of the city from afar, and from its status and reputation in the international architectural community?
FM: I do admire Dubai — after all, the city has managed to use architecture to give itself a huge presence, not only in the Arab world but internationally. I heard the other day for example that Switzerland’s largest export is architecture. There’s a parallel case in Dubai where architecture has played such a fundamental role in creating an identity for a place. It’s visionary. But at the same time, there comes a time when various visions need to be brought together to create consistency within the urban structure. It’s not dissimilar to China and Korea, where there was an initial, uncontrolled rapid growth, but these places do slow down and realize that they have a mass of building but that they now need to take care in what they do next. From our discussion, it seems that Dubai is maybe now at this stage and that this project is part of the process of taking stock and reflecting on where it’s at.
No one sees the world quite like Foreign Office Architects. Their architecture lifts flaps of skin from the ground and mutates them in contorted twists, like plastic surgery for the earth’s surface.
—Design Museum, London
Established in 1993 by Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera Polo, Foreign Office Architects (FOA) is a London based international practice with a branch in Barcelona. While their work is highly sculptural and evocative, their designs emerge from a rigorous analysis of the brief and functional program.
FOA is best known for its award winning Yokohama Ferry Terminal in Japan, which combines landscaped public areas, conference and cruise liner facilities. Other built projects include the Bluemoon Hotel in Groningen, a Police Headquarters in La Villajoyosa, Spain and a park with outdoor auditoriums in Barcelona. The practice is also working on a number of recent major commissions, including large-scale office developments in Spain and the Netherlands; a Technology Transfer Centre and Social Housing in Spain; the master plan design for the Lower Lea Valley and the London 2012 Olympics Bid; and a new music center for the BBC in London.
The practice was shortlisted for the design of the new World Trade Centre in New York as well as the design of a new Pompidou Centre in France.
FOA represented Britain at the 8th Venice Architecture Biennale (2002) and a retrospective of their work was held at the ICA, London in 2003. Zaera Polo is dean of the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, while Moussavi heads the Institute of Architecture and is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
Dubai Culture Hubs
George Katodrytis and Khalid Al Najjar, Dubai
Transformation is a crucial element of contemporary urban culture. To cope with the demands of society, cities are constantly in flux. They grow both vertically and horizontally, increasing in density and intensity. They require restructuring and transformation on almost every level. Our proposal focuses on the manipulation of the urban fabric by inserting structures that trigger change, provoke and demand response.
The proposal is for a series of cultural hubs, which will act as focal points and public foyers where cultural programs can be plugged in: art galleries, museums, libraries, performance stages, poetry reading salons, music recital spaces, art auction facilities, etc. The main lobby of the buildings is to be as public and accessible as possible, like a typical Dubai shopping center, with escalators and ramps leading to the upper levels, and to special rooms for additional cultural events. All events and items will be consumable: the aim is to convert the culture of shopping into shopping for culture. The external skin structure and glazing is designed using algorithmic weaving scripts.
George Katodrytis is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the American University of Sharjah, UAE, and a consulting architect in Dubai. Previously, he taught at the Architectural Association and the Bartlett in London, and has lectured and exhibited worldwide. He has built offices, residences and residential conversions, corporate interiors and exhibitions in the UK and Cyprus, as well as contributing proposals for developments in the UAE.
Khalid Al Najjar studied at Columbia University, New York, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture, before moving back to his hometown, Dubai, and setting up dxbLAB in 2000. The firm has since been recognized as one of the most innovative in the region, recently winning the Best Design award in the Mohammad Bin Rashid Awards for Young Business Leaders.
Recognizing a common aesthetic, George and Khalid began working together on invited competitions and other proposals in Dubai in 2003. Projects are developed from a strong initial concept to a complete exploration of program and form, characterized by innovation.
Founded in 2000, Group8 is an architectural practice composed of nine partners, 16 employees, and two permanent consultants. They have recently won two important competitions: The “Maison Verte” that will house the regional administrative offices for sustainable development and the International competition for the extension of the WTO. They are research oriented with four of the partners involved in teaching at the architectural Institute of Geneva (IAUG), at the polytechnic school of Lausanne (EPFL) and as invited professor in the School of Applied Arts in Geneva. Group8 is not concerned with style or recognition through style. Group8 believes that architecture a never-ending work in progress.
Change has been divorced from the idea of improvement. There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways.
—Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace
In the early 1960s, while the rest of the world was busy incubating hippies, fighting with their neighbors, and declaring independence, the small trading post of Dubai was hard at work dredging its Creek to expand its already substantial, albeit largely shady, import/export trade. Then a few years later the small city discovered that they were on top of four billion barrels of oil. By late 1969, production was underway. While this was nothing compared to the neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi, which sits on the fourth largest reserve in the world, it provided enough capital to set in motion a thirty-year explosion of tax-free growth. A major metropolis was and is being constructed by a nouveau riche tribal village whose goal is to establish Dubai as a world-class city.
But what exactly is a “world-class city”? Naturally, it is a modern city that is the regional anchor with its share of superlatives — biggest flower garden, tallest building, highest population growth — and diversified zones of business, housing, shopping, and a fat pillar of tourism supporting it. One of the consequences of Dubai’s rapid rise is that everything is new. Postmodernism was the classical age of Dubai. Unlike the layered cities in Europe whose cores are medieval or American cities where the Industrial Age or Beaux Arts informed planning, Dubai’s early conventional wisdom was drawn from the font of postmodernism — not really in a doctrinal sort of way, just by virtue of the currents of contemporary building practice and the technology that was available. With these tools they laid the easiest path to accommodating financial growth and advanced the city toward its primary goal, namely, and establishing Dubai’s credibility as a “modern city.” Air conditioned glass boxes were the accepted/expected vessel of commerce so that is what was built despite the fact that they are hardly suited for the desert environment.
The city was more postmodern in spirit than in style in a period when dozens of generic skyscrapers sprouted with superficial nods to Middle Eastern symbolism, malls were huge but discrete and housing sprawled unit by unit. Emirates Towers, which opened in 2000, can be seen as a turning point that initiated a mixed program. It combines the most desirable office address with a five star hotel, luxury shopping, and restaurants in iconic twin towers. And today, Dubai has passed into its latest phase of mega development; a phase that is difficult to pin down with one label but that might find its home within “supermodernism.” It may be even better served by Rem Koolhaas’ latest trademarked word-child “Junkspace.” Koolhaas points out that “we have built more than all of our previous generations together, but somehow we don’t seem to register on the same scales. We do not leave pyramids.”
So from its classical, Postmodern Age, Dubai has arguably entered into its high classic Junkspace Age, which is marked by a spree of large-scale planning and development. In an effort to give birth to a city fully formed, government-financed developers are carving out huge portions of land and converting them from open desert to complete themed communities. These mini urban centers are comprised of integrated housing, business, shopping, and hotels, and peppered with generous doses of touristic draw. The developments include Festival City, where Dubai’s famous orgy of consumption, Shopping Festival, will find a year-round home; and International City which sponsors Chinese businesses in its Dragon Mart (because every major city needs a Chinatown); a Design Centre; and a central Forbidden City, walled off and touted as a “must-see tourist attraction.” And who could forget the Palm Islands and World Islands? The park-like atmosphere of these themed areas means that living in itself becomes a form of recreation. Leisure, work, shopping, residence, sightseeing are all collapsed into one experience. Increasingly, people live as tourists in their own city.
The New Authenticity
Another consequence of this thirty-year building boom is that the historic, traditional building techniques of the local people of Dubai could not possibly be sustained or adapted. There are several threads of historical continuity connecting the new Dubai to the old: its accommodating economic polices, the government of hereditary dictatorship, and the longstanding status as a duty-free port. Maintaining an architectural identity is not one of them, in fact there seems to have been little interest in attempting this. Instead there is an emphasis on the waterfront and, more recently, the airport, as spaces that move people and trade through the region. Given a strong disregard for things local, Dubai’s desire to be a conduit, and the fact that most of the city was built in the service of investment and consumption, much of the city’s architecture seems to fall into the category of non-place. That is a building or a site that is so generalized — so much a product of a global trend — that it offers no local context and can disorient someone into thinking that they are in no place or in any place.
Non-place is a problematic way to talk about the city, or cities, in general. It implies that they are counterparts to “places” which deserve to be seen as distinctive. It validates historical precedents, assigning value to past forms of city planning and architecture. It is touchy since it is instantly taken as a pejorative term intended as a stab at a city that lacks authenticity and is marked by a bland characterlessness. But it goes deeper than that because in fact the non-place has established a new sort of authenticity especially evident in Dubai. It is a city that is unencumbered by vernacular architecture or traditional design practices that might have been deployed to mediate the inhospitable climate or make reference to the locality beyond the most general assertion of a port city. The new authenticity is at once controlled and irrepressible, scripted and disorientating, unique and derivative, amusing and depressing.
It is a city that is dependent on the port yet completely freed from the landscape by the brute force of wealth that can even buy out nature with air conditioning, terraforming, and by sustaining a massive system of desalinization and irrigation. The result is that it can repel most of the impulse criticisms that have their basis in a loss or degradation of some sort of underlying authenticity. Mall culture, airports, Starbucks, the Gap and so on, may seem strange and vacuous in New York, Paris or Cairo but in Dubai these types of non-places and Junkspaces are all that there appears to be.
One might attempt to criticize the barrage of surface appearances, turning perhaps to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle to find strategies to understand and resist this hyper-consumerism. The notion of spectacle implies a hierarchy: There is the show that distracts us and there is the world of genuine experience that the spectacle obscures. The spectacle is a constructed reality of staged experiences and scripted events which we resist because of its inauthentic feel. Debord gives us hope that we can find a different path through this landscape and maybe catch a glimpse of “real life” — of the world that has been synthesized into images. But in Dubai, where everything has been newly constructed and “shopping is the only activity,” Debord’s game of breaking through appearances fails to produce the desired results. The search for deviation and unpredictability leads us through the gritty neighborhoods across the river, to the gold souk and the camel market, through nightclubs and hotel bars, past prostitutes and Eurotrash. The problem is less about finding new ways to circumvent the spectacle and more about the failure of the concept of “spectacle” to characterize the emerging contemporary city. Susan Sontag has pointed out the “breathtaking provincialism” of deeming reality spectacle, but in Dubai we run the risk of the doing the opposite. We cannot allege that the plastic world of Dubai is any less real than the “gritty” or “historic” even as it destabilizes our understanding of authenticity.
Airport as Model
One of the most wonderful things about Dubai is that all of the developments are so literal and self-explanatory. One can understand the entire logic of a place from its title: Dubai Internet City, Media City, Knowledge Village — the latter if for research and innovation. This approach takes the logic of the penultimate non-place, the airport, and applies it to the slippery sectors of idea industries. The concept of airport immediately encompasses all of its uses, this we generally take for granted. It is a zone that, in addition to the air traffic bringing people and cargo into the country, is the centralized location for a whole range of related activities including security, customs, border control, airline services and sales, innumerable restaurants and vast expanses of duty-free shopping.
Places like Dubai Media City mimic this logic by creating one site of infrastructure for all media business, TV, radio, print to be housed in one “free zone.” These free zones have their own media laws and subject to nominal censorship. They permit one hundred percent foreign ownership (elsewhere businesses are required to be fifty-one percent owned by a UAE national) and offer a simplified process to apply for licenses, visas and work permits. These infrastructural free zones manifest themselves not only as Junkspace architecture but also create a political Junkspace where the freedom of commerce even outranks many established laws, from ownership to immigration.
Even when the oil well runs dry — in ten years according to the Economist — Dubai would like to maintain its strong and tax-free economy. One strategy is to attract hordes of tourists by establishing Dubai as a major destination. Unfortunately, the trend of the non-place is not conducive to tourism, so Dubai has begun countering with places overwrought with experience.
“Experience” is the calling card for American architecture and planning firm the Jerde Partnership. They have made a name for themselves by orchestrating condensed urban experiences within the fabric of the city. These sterilized environments include the “Universal City Walk” in Los Angeles and the “Fremont Street Experience” in Las Vegas. Their philosophy is “to make places that provide people with memorable experiences.” They have branded themselves “Experience Architects” who do not engage simply in architecture; no, no, “We call it placemaking.”
It is not difficult to discern that Jerde’s main priority is profitability. They are actually kind of defensive about it in their PR: “Often dismissed by critics as ‘commercial,’ Jerde places are widely embraced by the public and ultimately transform the economic and social landscape of neighborhoods, cities and regions.” Their plans typically create a concentrated zone of street life that encourages pedestrian traffic, density, and interaction by planting commercial activity. Of course, it would be naïve to ask for anything more than a tertiary respect for urban experience with no profit; instead we are asked to celebrate the safe bustle that is spawned by the bastard child of a downtown and a mall. The City Walk in LA, for instance, recreates many of LA’s landmarks as storefronts condensed onto one street. The street is brightly lit and well patrolled and many shoppers claim that they prefer it to the “real thing.” What begins as a surrogate, condensing the experience of past architecture, over time establishes itself as a new and distinct form. It is an architecture that creates an urban environment for cities that have become alienated from traditional urban experience — a safe and controlled petri dish for cultivating street life.
Dubai worked briefly with Jerde to plan Dubai Festival City, a project that seems to have been moved to the back burner in light of newer more robust planned cities like the Dubai Waterfront, the Lost City, and International City. Jerde is now relegated to second to last on a long list of architects. Yet the project still conveys their message. Speaking of its “essence” the PR material claims: “Respectful of the past and derived from the present, Dubai Festival City represents the vision of the future and aims to create a ‘sense of place’ for the emirate’s residents and visitors.”
In America, Jerde was bent on creating the idealized American condition. But Dubai constructs cities that are based on the fantastic, the foreign and the exotic. The difference is that the “experiences” that are being created in Dubai are not only for tourists but include large-scale accommodations for residents. Unlike the projects of Jerde, Dubai’s developments are not attractions subsumed into the larger urban fabric — they are the fabric.
In its compulsion to urgently and conspicuously manifest itself, Dubai is challenging the notions of what a city is. It teaches us about growth and planning mutated by hyper-consumption. Is among cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing all of which show us the new parameters for the global city. It redefines authenticity by short-circuiting attacks on its proposed reality. We watch as the city sprouts up and the only criticism that can be attempted is one that questions to what degree Dubai has exploited its freedom from history and culture. Did they go as far as they could?
Dubai’s idealized past is instinctively reconstructed in “traditional” wind tower houses and indiscriminately reinterpreted in leisure projects such as the Madinat Jumeirah; meanwhile, shopping malls and towers compete for spots at the top of lists that carry titles like “world’s largest” or “world’s tallest.” The sheer size and arrangement of completed and proposed icons are intended to entertain and “enhance” life. Real estate developers seek to entice prospective buyers with pledges of “fine living” and a “high-quality lifestyle.” Accumulated capital can be translated into a chosen style of life represented by an image — a developer’s promise to capture “the very essence of Spanish ease” is translated into sterile renderings that feature red roof tiles, wrought iron railings, the requisite Mercedes in the garage, and no annoying neighbors. The world of the spectacle seeks to replace the real world of everyday life. We can now trade the dust and sweat of the market stalls for a shopping tour in Souk Madinat Jumeirah’s air-conditioned comfort, thus ensuring not only the continued growth of Dubai’s economy but also the maintenance of the UAE’s prominent position on lists ranking countries in terms of electricity consumption per capita. While other Gulf states and neighboring emirates also compete to impress, Dubai’s rapid success in constructing an image of desirability and orchestrating media campaigns that span from CNN to Newsweek continues to ensure dominance, at least in the short-term.
And what of architecture? Although certainly not restricted to the Gulf region, the transformation of purposeful elements from regional vernacular buildings into decorative devices is ubiquitous in Dubai. The most commonly used image is that of a barjeel (wind tower). The wind tower and the mashribiya (the wooden lattice screen employed to ensure privacy while providing sufficient airflow and views from private spaces) were key components of passive cooling strategies employed in the region prior to the prevalence of electricity. Ignoring the potential for adaptation and contemporary applications, designers have reduced these elements to embellishments that adorn high-rise office towers, museums, gas stations, and residences. This superficial approach is often claimed to make the building “regional.” A related tendency has been to conceive of the entire building as a representation of the “heritage” of the Gulf region. The UAE is populated with structures faintly suggestive of scale-less sails, waves, sand dunes, and bloated falcons.
The tendency to reduce architecture to a collection of fragmented images is evident across a broad spectrum of building types. Those who wish to claim that David Beckham is their neighbor on the touted Palm Island Jumeirah can choose from a number of pre-designed/pre-themed plans and elevations that can be combined to create a dream home (for example an Italianate floor plan combined with American Ranch-style facade, or perhaps a floor plan inspired by Southeast Asia that is corseted in Victorian gabled elevations). Those with citizenship but without the financial means to reside on an island that can be seen from space can also approach an engineer or builder and have much the same experience, and perhaps an even greater choice. No longer restricted by the Palm Island–approved palate, the homeowner can choose one of the stock plans that can be dressed to accommodate any desire. Each morning’s newspapers bring full-page advertisements announcing new and ever more glorious projects: a high-rise residential tower seemingly situated on an open site with uninterrupted views and no neighbors to peer into the bedroom or a lakefront office development surrounded by green lawns populated by kite-flying children. Looking around at the current property market in Dubai, one realizes that these are indeed unique investment opportunities as there are currently few existing projects offering uninterrupted views from an affordable sixth-floor flat or offices that are adjacent to a park.
The extreme rate of development and the particular nature of the situation in Dubai make it difficult to formulate a reasoned critique of the built environment. Criticism that remains at the level of lamentation and focuses on the loss of a supposed “identity” is overly reductive. Conversely, criticism that seeks to make sense out of Dubai’s mythical development and the potential consequences is a challenge due to the policies related to land ownership and development practices. Unfortunately no venues for sustained critique of the built environment exist at a local or regional level. Newspapers have no sections devoted to debates focused on architecture and planning and magazines designed to pose as serious journals offer little more than press releases printed as articles.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of discussing the consequences of the current situation is the relative age of Dubai’s urban cores, which are still quite young and underdeveloped. If population projections prove accurate, then there is the promise of much greater density and the demand for more comprehensive planning strategies. Of course, this will bring about the need to deal with challenges such as increased traffic, increased demand on utilities and services, and appropriate housing options for all inhabitants regardless of socioeconomic standing. While architects devote time and energy to high-profile projects, the lack of attention to the problems associated with providing space for a large, low income workforce results in overcrowding and substandard conditions. If Dubai is able to move beyond the current fascination with the image of architecture and confront the real challenges of building an urban center in an arid region, then there may be the possibility of being ranked at the top of lists that focus on quality rather than quantity.
Dubai’s ubiquitous advertising billboards are stage sets that promote the desired personality of an enviable promised land, a place of opportunities where dreams can come true. The embodiment of Guy Debord’s seminal study, The Society of the Spectacle, the city is defined by fantastic dreamscapes that rise from the shifting sands of the desert and are continually remodeled in line with the visions of its chief architects. Its visual communications media — fascinating case studies in cultural production or construction — scream their messages to the city’s residents in superlative slogans. They instill in the people’s psyche an emotional impulse, a brand that goes beyond the product — the city and the lifestyle it promises. Through their individual designs (using symbols, colors, typography, and visual messages), they collectively define the city’s global sense of place, its investment in its perceived image. Dubai boasts about its future creating greater and greater distance from its past. It responds to its changing demographics and, therefore, to its need to align itself with the global community of affluent societies. The Dubai brand becomes the means to create a coherent culture that unifies, and defines, the city’s residents — people with otherwise little common cultural or linguistic heritage.
That Dubai has chosen this straightforward, American-style marketing strategy for its image development comes as no surprise for a city with global aspirations. The Dubai brand is built upon a simple narrative and a universal, emotional concept. Its value system is one that can be appropriated with ease. Dubai today is the Middle East’s most successful and liberal business model. The city prides itself on being a shopping destination — even hosting an annual Shopping Festival — and is developing ever-larger theme parks that transform entertainment into a commodity, sedating its growing population of young, affluent professionals.
What defines Dubai’s character? Is the city simply ruthless, extravagant, and full of the entrepreneurial ambition of youth? Or does it strike a balance between progression and tradition?
A critical examination of Dubai’s environmental graphics and its monumental advertising billboards offers a telling picture of visual landmarks that define and promote the city’s image. Dubai is usually presented as a concentration of architectural developments and myriad construction sites. But for me, the landscape — and the population’s collective consciousness — is defined by its peculiar penchant for megalomaniac graphics and quirky typographic messages.
A long parade of logo — symbols representing individual corporate tribes — declare their allegiance to the king of the pack, the government-owned umbrella “company,” Dubai Holding. One billboard extends for about a kilometer, stating its motto, in bold red: “For the good of tomorrow.” The “tribes” belonging to this mega multinational company are an unlikely mix of entertainment, technology, media, health, charity, education, business, and real estate developers. Dubai Holding’s logo is loaded with optimism, and portrays the ruthless and adventurous city at its best. The logo’s ability to blend into and subvert pre-existing identities can be interpreted as a fair representation of the city’s character and its political aspiration to assimilate itself into the world of tomorrow. The swoosh that dots the “i” of Dubai is a universal mark, here standing for “good” and “go ahead” and “the right choice.” Its red color is energetic and memorable; its tick-like angularity resembles the sharpness and hardness of diamonds; and its placement over the word “Dubai” gives the impression of a gem’s sparkle under the light. Dubai Inc is branded as a commercial “gem” proudly shining under the blazing sun of the Arabian Gulf.
Other government-sanctioned projects, advertising and PR companies — of which Dubai boasts a plentiful supply — have relied on a convincing mix of minimalist, international, and business-like visual styles, and the sober colors of navy blue and silver, and diamond-shaped symbols alluding to the Islamic art tradition. Dubai Properties’ logo, for example, references wealth and success (diamonds), as well as Arabic calligraphy (the oblong-shaped dot often placed on top or below some of the letters of the Arabic alphabet). The Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) branding, meanwhile, is a strange mix of Wall Street aesthetics and an arabesque motif, constructed within yet another diamond-shaped symbol.
Humongous billboards, spread all along Sheikh Zayed Road, promote Dubai’s ambitious building projects and compound the image of a city obsessed with grandeur and wealth. The billboard for Burj Dubai, predicted to be the tallest development in the world, defiantly declares the project “the most prestigious square kilometer on the planet,” where “history” is re-invented and “rising,” as if by sheer miracle, from the flat, desert floor. The billboard announces an idealized business dreamscape of the third millennium, in all its glory and fanfare, its skyscrapers reaching towards the sun, like steel-and-glass plant-forms of a futuristic world. Slogans occupy more than half of the billboard’s space, taking a pronounced precedence over the image, and allowing only a small and thin tip of the highest tower to break out of its physical confines.
This “gem” of the desert, however, has not totally abandoned its historical origins: just as desert dwellers obsessed over water and greenery, Dubai’s new identity is tied to the sea and futuristic, artificial lakes and rivers. The branding of Business Bay — a business park located along the waterfront of a man-made creek — can be read as an expression of cultural heritage. The archetypal Islamic architectural element of bringing water (pools and fountains) inside the home or palace is the ultimate manifestation of luxury in the arid desert environment. In the new, grandiose Dubai, the traditional pool becomes a whole bay or creek.
Dubai’s projects are a never-ending reinvention of reality; land is replaced by water and water by land. The city’s fixation on the forestation of the desert has gone beyond the usual planting and diligent maintenance of trees and plants. Employing that hackneyed Arabian emblem, the palm tree, the emirate has created tree-shaped islands, large enough to be seen from outer space. The logo employed by development company Nakheel for the projects is elegant and natural: Its choice of color invokes the pleasant calming colors of nature (blue for the expansive sea and green for the fresh and clean air and flora); its shape of waves and leaves are those of the Arabian garden. These islands represent the poetic luxury of seclusion, the escape from the straining reality of modern life; they are protected from the sea by a ring of “water homes” arranged to form the shape of a line of calligraphic poetry written by the emirate’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The three Palm Islands — plus The World, a fourth group of islands fashioned in the shape of the continents — physically and metaphorically do, as the slogan goes, “put Dubai on the map.”
Dubai Inc’s defiant, proud posturing and its extravagant impulses are expressed through its plethora of shopping malls as well as its architectural follies. Brimming with youth and vitality, and in daring pink, a celebratory image of Burjuman mall promises consumers “luxurious shopping and incredible rewards;” whole skyscrapers along Sheikh Zayed Road announce the juicy, sexy messages of cosmetic product advertising.
This reference to luxury is taken to an even higher level of sophistication, craft, and attention-to-detail in the Disney-like new “shopping city,” Madinat Jumeirah. A pastiche of traditional architecture, at (of course) a much larger and grander scale than those of the existing souks and modest Arabian houses of the “old” Dubai, Madinat Jumeirah announces itself with glittering gold and blue mosaics of fancy Arabic calligraphy. An intimidating fortress gate with symmetrical decorative towers reminds consumers of the privilege of admittance to this ultimate shopping and entertainment paradise. Madinat Jumeirah’s logo is a playful dance of letters that twirl in a circular disk, like a delicious meal offered on a golden plate rimmed with diamonds, representing the complex’s luxurious retail experience. Meanwhile, the geometrical logo of the Souk Madinat Jumeirah conveys the opposite: a structured order resembling an architectural map of the Arabian house, arranged around an inner “secret” courtyard. The two logos stand as testimony to the nature of the visitor’s experience of this “city” where one is lost among shops and goods of all kinds, where luxury is expressed through every retail outlet’s brand identity, and where the diversity is held together only by the overall feel of well-crafted design. Even the most mundane traffic and parking signs are mounted onto elaborately carved, painted and branded wooden poles. After all, the alleys and inner courtyards of this contemporary souk are defined by an organized chaos and curbed sensuality.
Every aspect of visual representation in Dubai has a claim on luxury, richness, and abundance; the emirate’s brand identity is a strange medley of Wall Street and Disneyland, of American and Arabian symbolism. Dubai represents itself as the ambassador of the future Arabian umma, making its daring and bold steps towards a self-conscious new world order, defined as much by marketing as by reality.
Even when you don’t see me smile, in fact I am smiling.
When journalist Paul William Roberts interviewed Saddam Hussein in his Baghdad office back in the mid 90s, he went out of his way to comment on the furniture. Saddam, he explains, was “sitting behind the kind of gilt-shanked baroque desk that looks like it will start cantering about the room whinnying at any moment. It looked less like an office than an exhibit. The Baroque Room: You will notice the Gothic touches coming in during this period, but the overall effect is still one of appalling vulgarity and parvenu ostentation. If you want people to think you’re working, pal, I thought, then put something on the desk. There was the kind of telephone Mae West would have favored: big, white, lots of gold.”1
Strange as it seems, Roberts had decided to drop a tab of ecstasy before walking into the palace to interview the head of state. Usually, I would term such a gesture a worthy experiment in political journalism, but in the case of Paul William Roberts, the action does little more than underline the sense of playground exhilaration that the Arab world induces in him. As demonstrated in his book as a whole, Roberts is the kind of writer who believes that criticizing western foreign policy gives him carte blanche to portray any Arab male as a cultural clone of Saddam himself, as some self-centered, uncultured buffoon. More precisely, what characterizes Roberts’s Saddam, whether in terms of the office furniture or his tastes in cinema (“I like vrr much Gudfadder moofy”), is his childlike willingness to ape the West. Baroque furniture becomes a sign of that pure stream of culture — good or bad, high or low — that is supposedly emanating from the West to the rest, much like “Gudfadder moofy,” or junk food and conceptual art.
Seeing as the baroque is always a case of generosity gone mad, crème brûlée with extra sugar and cream, it functions all too well as a sign of cultural corruption or degeneration. Baroque furniture, even more than jewelry or flowers, is something that symbolizes ornamentation in and of itself, and the overwhelming, syrupy profusion of bright color seems to discourage any sober or impartial reading and leads instead to all sorts of exercises in cheap, sneering snobbery.
Baroque has no qualms with the functional: Although you do find the odd gratuitous pillar and quasi-Hellenic portal and such, what is striking about the baroque is its easy combination with the serviceable and everyday. Notice, for example, the dashboard coverings for Kleenex boxes, equipped with tubby little cherubs blowing slender golden trumpets. Pompous and preposterous if you’re not acquainted well enough, in point of fact the baroque never shies away from the most profane of purposes.
In rhetorics, for example, a “baroquisme” is someone making a simple point in an elaborate way, using superfluous ornaments that dazzle — typically kicking off with a starting point that is simple enough, then culminating in a fireworks of confusingly seductive analogies. According to my Gradus “dictionary of literary procedures,” a baroquisme is akin to an “asianisme,” an “underdeveloped and hardly rational literary method” dependent on “gratuitous hypotheses,” widely used in “Arab literature.”
When Saddam’s gothic showroom was bombed, raided, and looted by marines in crew cuts and muesli camouflage some six years after Roberts’s experiment in psychedelic news narrative, the BBC was just as eager to pounce on the Hussein family furniture. “Large bedrooms with hotel-style beds and imitation French baroque furniture lie empty, covered with a film of dust. Other articles and bloggers equally referred not only to the furniture style itself, but to the dust covering the furnishings. Portentous omens peering at us through the billowing sands of history.
And this is the third point of baroque: Aside from being ornamental and embarrassing, it is always allegorical in that pretentious, ominous, biblical bedrock sort of way. For Walter Benjamin, the baroque reflected a mode of fabled, prehistoric understanding of divine communication. Because the earliest rude world was too crude and uncivilized and people could not therefore correctly grasp and understand the teachings of wisdom and heavenly things, wise men had to conceal and bury what they had discovered in order to cultivate the fear of God, morality, and good conduct, in rhymes and fables to which the common people are disposed to listen. And for Benjamin, it was indeed a common practice of the literature of the baroque to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal, and to take the repetition of stereotypes for a process of intensification, in the unremitting expectation of a miracle.
Initially, the baroque was a public relations campaign on behalf of the pope, designed to woo the masses in a context of religious tensions within Christianity, in the wake of the division between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In the 1550s, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on the Counter-Reformation, a program of renewal which resorted to an art of magnificent display that was both doctrinally correct and visually and emotionally appealing. As the century progressed, the style did make inroads into the Protestant countries, but was simply appropriated by the adversary for his own ends and under his own aesthetic premises.
Today, it seems that what we generically call an international appearance of “baroque furniture” is actually a blend of Louis XIV, rococo, American colonial, Queen Anne, gothic — and an occasional smattering of Ming dynasty. Aside from the actual trappings and design, the very choreography, the mise-en-scène of such furniture is equally hybrid and unpredictable, blending interior traditions that are hard to pinpoint. In Tehran, one important feature is the placing of a generous number of chairs in a circle, one that is used almost exclusively to host ones family and friends, which lends the effect of a painstakingly arranged furniture showroom, particularly when the chairs still sport the original plastic wrapping. So the guests — sipping hot tea and discussing the merits of Isfahan over Shiraz, and slandering the government, and wondering aloud when Hamid is finally going to rehab — can convene in a pleasant circular setting of golden loops and crimson curves.
Iran aside, the striking predominance of baroque furniture is noticeable in parts of Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Indian Subcontinent and the Arab world. The style has made such impressive inroads into even the most culturally conservative milieux that I personally know of several Mideast individuals who think baroque is a Syrian invention.
And indeed, at what point is a cultural phenomenon delocalized and entirely appropriated? To take a rather underestimated example, beer was invented by Egyptians during the Pharaonic era, along with the very material — glass — from which it is now consumed. This obviously does not mean Bavarians have to learn Pharaonic drinking songs for the annual Oktoberfest to avoid accusations of cultural alienation. But when it comes to the baroque outside the West (as is the case with art biennials, blue jeans, designer footwear and more), the original, colonial point of reference, and the notion of non-Westerners being endearing lowlifes imitating something that will never be theirs, is tenacious indeed.
Around the time Paul William Roberts was busy with Saddam Hussein and his Mae West telephone, Indian writer and architect Gautam Bhatia published the book Punjabi Baroque in which the new schools of architecture in Indian cities are referred to with terms such as “Chandni Chowk Chippendale,” “Tamil Tiffany,” “Marwari mannerism,” “Bania gothic,” and “Anglo-Indian rococo.” Despite offering an approach that is ostensibly more meticulous, comprehensive and subtle than comparable studies that came before, the bottom line of Gautam Bhatia’s argument, from what I gather, is that Subcontinental baroque is a top-down architecture of resilience preserving the lifestyle of the wealthy against the poor, in a desperate attempt to preserve an illusion of colonial grandeur.
But Punjabi baroque, to borrow Bhatia’s term, can hardly be reduced to an exclusivist mark of social standing. To stick to the Tehrani example, if there are many common denominators that cut across social class, but also gender and ethnicity — like, for example, classical poetry and any type of junk food soaked in sweet ketchup — even these are subject to styles, interpretations, and modes of consumption that differ from one another. One of the few phenomena that truly do unite the city as a whole is indeed the fascination for rococo armchairs with crimson padding and gold trimmings shaped into teeny-tiny crests and purls. The majority of villas, apartments, and even slum dwellings I’ve visited are a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Louis XIV. Interestingly, the one Tehran apartment I know that is absolutely and perfectly free of any baroquisms whatsoever is that of Farhad Moshiri, an artist whose favored subject matter, as it happens, is the way in which the baroque has made its way into so many spheres of everyday life.
Class lines aside, even political boundaries are forgotten under the sheltering radiance of petite leaves and feathers of plaster and gold. Hossein Rahati, a baroque furniture dealer who started his career in the 1970s (and a close friend of my family ever since), claims he never once reconsidered his Elahie furniture assortment. He now sells precisely the same style of furniture to millionaire clergymen that he was selling to the pre-revolutionary royal family. For the Pahlavi monarchists and their entourage, the porno-aesthetic overkill of rococo signified modernization and westernization at all costs. While for the elite that followed, intent as it was on homegrown authenticity, I would imagine the very same French furniture signifies, quite simply, upward mobility, professionalism, and quite possibly, a touch of Emirati glamour. As a friend of mine would put it, a postmodern context spawns postmodern furniture; accept the expected.
To claim that baroque is nothing more than a sign of westernization, or of nouveau riche ostentation, is like saying that gangster hip-hop is arrogant (they’re worse than whites), that Monopoly turns kids into capitalists, or that Dubai is ugly and faceless. On the one hand, the problem here is sweeping and dramatic and, dare I say, global; a problem of language in general, of the dearth of shared criteria, seeing that the trilogy of the good, the beautiful, and the true has become as questionable in cultural analysis as it is in urban studies or art history. But on the other hand, the promise of the baroque is a simple one. Speaking as a former academic, I can say that baroque embodies the advantage of snakeskin boots and a Beckham Mohican over a black turtleneck and a pair of corduroys. To go without any sort of high modernist codex that translates into clear-cut professional command means you’re perpetually underestimated. It gives you a terrific sense of freedom: Nothing to lose, everything to gain.
1. Paul William Roberts, The Demonic Comedy: The Baghdad of Saddam Hussein (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997)
Ripe with possibility, sweetened by kitsch, the United Arab Emirates should be an ideal muse for artists of the post-ironic kind. However, most local and ex-pat practitioners — perhaps inspired by palace and museum collections of Orientalist art — tend to hark back to romanticized, pastoral scenes of dunes, camels, wizened old faces, and shiny-nosed, glossy-eyed horses. Even the flashiest of urban malls feature lines of “galleries” peddling tourist-oriented nostalgia.
Dubai, despite its rampant development and global aspirations, has no public arts space; it does, unusually for the UAE, support a clutch of private galleries that mostly exhibit contemporary Arab and Iranian artists. Abu Dhabi has its Cultural Foundation, but the galleries tend to lack a clear curatorial policy, showing amateur local craft one week and Andy Warhol prints the next. Sharjah bears the mantle of being the most culturally minded of the seven emirates: Its heritage and arts area includes the Art Museum, home to the Sharjah Biennial. In 2003, this artists’ gathering, under the direction of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, took a swift left turn, away from regional painting and into the rarefied milieu of Documentas, Manifestas, and other pageants of international contemporary art.
But for a small set of Emirati experimentalists, finally, the world had decided to join their party. “Our group of artists said ‘This is our Biennial!’” exclaimed installation artist Mohammad Kazem at the time. Kazem and fellow members of the Group of Five — Hassan Sharif, Hossein Sharif, Abdallah Al Saadi, and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim — plus young video artist Khalil Abdulwahed Abdulrahman, held their own against the habitual biennialists.
The Biennial and the teaching and practices of Hassan Sharif, Kazem et al, are now influencing a new generation of artists. Huda Saeed, for example, plays on the aesthetics of the UAE’s pastoral past and its shopping-malled present; Sharif describes her installations as “sarcastic to the bone.” Nuha Hassan, a recent graphic design graduate, dwells on the Emirates’ hierarchical “multiculturalism.” For this year’s Sharjah Biennial, she is reworking previous performance The Fan on a grander scale: Unraveling a sixty-meter roll of cloth from its base in a nearby tailor shop, she plans to cover participants standing outside the Sharjah Art Museum in the material, creating a series of ghostly, indistinct, kind of anybody-everybody profiles.
Despite making some of the most compelling work in the Emirates, this clutch of artists remains somewhat anonymous — neither the glorified art marts nor the white cubes tend to display their non-commercial work. As Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim has said, “In our own society, art is still young; few people could communicate with it. [It doesn’t] go beyond a natural scene, silent nature, a facial drawing in the classical manner. And any other production or creation…creates a shock to the naïve viewer.”
In an interview with Gerhard Haupt and Pat Binder of web journal Universes in Universe last year, Hassan Sharif was more direct: “We are not arrested or censured; we are respected, but our art is misunderstood and that’s why we’re not properly supported.” Sharif acts as the father of the local, as he puts it, “pluralist” art movement; he was awarded a prize at the 2003 Sharjah Biennial but has yet to have a major solo show.
In direct contrast to the shiny new Dubai, defined by its panache for positive PR, Sharif’s work is gloriously messy, asking questions rather than delivering neat answers. He describes his work as “one ongoing experiment.” Studying art in London in the late 1970s, he cofounded the Emirates Fine Art Society in 1980 and returned to Dubai in 1984, establishing his Group of Five shortly afterwards. Before shows in the Sharjah Art Museum, Sharif staged exhibitions with fellow poets and artists in souks and other public places.
Continually in progress, his current work revisits packaging materials that he collected from the streets but he now focuses on the brand names. Recent installations are a study of the relationships between commodity and community; these brands, as they go in and out of shops and houses, form a universal connection in UAE society.
Local theorist Talal Moualla notes Sharif’s “extraordinary condensed language that relates his open challenge to the art scene, the viewer’s culture and meaning structure in his visual language.” Sharif himself writes at length about the need for a truly local art movement, one that takes in international influences but makes them their own.
It’s Mohammad Kazem who has really taken up Sharif’s challenge. He came to wider attention during the 2003 Biennial, when images from a performance, Autobiography, were used on promotional posters. Selected from a series of over forty photos, these images depicted Kazem standing next to flags that developers had placed around Mamzar (an area between Dubai and Sharjah), marking out future roads and buildings. In each image, Kazem has his back to the camera, forcing the viewer to look out on his vista, a view continually on the brink of change, and reflect with him on what was there before. Asked to describe his practice, Kazem states, “We as artists try to find concepts that fit with this changing world”; his body of work forms an analysis of the artist’s (and local’s) place in today’s UAE.
This enquiry also forms a central tenet in Khalil Abdulwahed’s work. Like Kazem, he turned away from painting to focus on other media, and began working in video during a workshop he attended in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, in 2002 as part of a long-term exchange program organized by the Arctic Foundation. The young artist, who’s also employed by the fledging, government-backed Dubai Cultural Council, marked his switch from painting to video by attaching a paintbrush to a camera, and “painting” a pile of sand; the resulting DVD, exhibited at the 2003 Sharjah Biennial, is swirling, disorientating, yet delicately abstract.
In a recent series of three works looking at road trips, a video studies the mutations in the fog on a journey from Dubai to Al Ain. “Is the desert just hot, dry, dead?” asks Abdulwahed. “It’s life, but not seen as such now. I looked at the movement of the sand, the details, it’s dancing, alive.” Not that this is misty-eyed nostalgia: “[The development] is a positive thing — it encourages me to work. You see something like [vast theme park development] Dubailand…” He tails off before reconfirming his allegiance: “You have to live your moment, go with it. We are the first generation that grew up with this city, so we’re making sense of it as we go along.”
Similarly, Sharif points out that Kazem’s work is “more of a ‘longing’ for the future than for the past”; “longing” here can be interpreted as exploratory rather than melancholic. Kazem often uses Global Positioning System (GPS) statistics, playing with the notion of exact geographical and social place; in several recent installations he has set the numbers and letters in large, three-dimensional displays, often lit up for further gravity, on the gallery floor. Meanwhile, accompanying videos or actions undo the science, and play on the indeterminate shifting sands of time and place. In documentation accompanying Directions (2000), Kazem throws wooden boards inscribed with GPS numbers into the sea, exploring the “inter-relationships between identity, alienation and geography.” He lets these specific points float out as jetsam — possibly to wash up on distant shores or, presumably, on a man-made island in the making.
Kazem’s most recent project homes in on his immediate environment. Over the past few years, he’s photographed and videotaped the building of the Shangri La Hotel on Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road from the window of his apartment block opposite. Successive pictures show the building taking shape from afar, while other photos and video capture the daily lives of the South Asian laborers. Most recently, he’s moved in on the hotel itself, capturing the elegant yet characterless interiors.
In August 2004, Kazem had an exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum with Ebtissam Abdulaziz, an upcoming artist who works in “system art” as well as installation and photography. For Number and Lifetime Abdulaziz photographed the hands of a diverse group of friends and passers-by, including laborers, aiming to show the “effects of everyday life on every cell in the human body.” Richly detailed, the images became autobiographical statements, describing the life dealt to each person.
In an essay that accompanied the Emirates Fine Art Society exhibition Interchange, in February at the Sharjah Art Museum, Sharif questions whether life is becoming “a walking, talking, living commercial,” describing the exhibition theme as “a cultural duty that will allow us to know who we are, and prevent us from losing our identity.” In effect, he makes a plea for a closing of the gap between artists and audiences, and for art to play a more central role in the UAE’s development. In a land dominated by a self-censoring, anesthetizing local media, their analytical, exploratory voices are exceptional.
But there’s some way to go. When I ask Kazem what his family and friends make of his work, he chuckles: “Well, our group [of artists], we’re kind of like immigrants here too.”
It’s 4 a.m. and Serhat Köksal and I are standing in a bar off Istiklal in downtown Istanbul. In the background, or rather in the foreground, is a petrifying trip-hop remix of “Riders on the Storm.” I feel like going home, or talking to the captivating Hamburg filmmaker at the other end of the bar. Or perhaps pursuing the conversation I was having with a Bidoun colleague of mine, though I can see she’s now drunk as a hatter, screaming at the bartenders and calling them “sluts.”
“You know those western foundations for the arts, right? Would you work with those foundations over here?”
“Mmh, yes, I think so, I think I would. Why?”
A conversation ensues that I can just barely follow, on capitalist philanthropy, on collusion with big money, but also on tourism, exoticism, and ethnic marketing, or what Serhat terms “ethnic paranoia.”
“So would you work with ethnic marketers?”
“Oh, well, that’s — well, if you can get something really good out of it, you know? Like tactically?”
Köksal believes in perseverance and propaganda. And counter-propaganda. He’s a musician who doesn’t shy away from art and other visual traditions to make his point. Although at times it might seem the other way around, he is first and foremost a performer, and the most prominent element of his work are his gigs, where the music is an experimental, improvised blend of electronics, Turkish folk, noisecore, and mainstream pop. At times, it’s a taxing wall of static, at others a lullaby with a searing keyboard in the background, or it’s simply a remix of, say, Turkish 1980s icon Ajda Pekkan’s “Petr Oil.” The visuals are a VJ’s collage of newsreels, sixties and seventies Turkish cinema, and meticulously slapdash compositions of visual scraps.
But Köksal also works with photocopied zines, hand-cut stickers with self-designed icons and misappropriated political slogans, DVDs, CD-ROMs, flyers, and posters. The actual method of accumulation and dissemination of all this material, at times deliberately breaking the rules of copyright and authorship, is key to the way 2/5 BZ functions, intellectually and strategically. Those who have worked as a curator know that, when it comes to the most interesting people off the beaten track, you have to beg and plead until you get two low-res JPEGs and, if you’re lucky, a photocopy of a review in Finnish. But when approached by Bidoun, Serhat handed over several renditions of enormous wads of reviews, previews, interviews, video CDs, DVDs, CDs, posters, stickers, and copies of his own fanzine, carefully monitoring where they eventually landed. Many a listener and even the occasional journalist believe that 2/5 BZ is actually a group, while Serhat is actually a one-man propaganda machine.
His first fanzines and stickers came out in 1990, and he started making music in 1986, focusing on what he terms “social issues regarding Turkey.” John Peel took to Serhat’s music in 1994 and was already playing it on BBC while Istanbul radio DJs were still complaining about the low-fi sound. Köksal never considered himself an artist until one day, in 2002, he heard a poster of his had been included in a show by Erden Kosova and Vasif Kortun — some two years before. This was also about the time when Köksal started getting invited to art festivals as well as squats, and has now played in fifty-five cities in ten countries.
“Now,” he chortles, brushing the peanut crumbs off his pants, “when I get a call from a squat, I have to say sorry, can’t do the gig, going to the Sharjah Biennial that day.”
Besides using Turkish movie material in his stage sets, Köksal has conducted extensive research on Abdurrahman Palay, the actor whose voice was most prominently used to dub movies and TV productions throughout the sixties and seventies. The voiceovers, Köksal argues, have entered the Turkish subconscious, and are a prime example of cultural influence that is all the more pervasive in that it is systematically underestimated. What makes Palay all the more iconic is that he had a trademark of occasionally beginning words with “n”, as in, say, Nurkey or Nistanbul.
I first met Serhat Köksal in Dubai, where he was playing in a Filipino heavy metal bar in the York Hotel. There were five people in the audience, four of whom were regulars, sitting at a table and headbanging into their beer mugs. We talked, and he eventually made the soundtrack for a documentary film I directed with Solmaz Shahbazi. Köksal never shies away from voicing second thoughts. “I have an idea about people like you; many years they lived, studied in Europa and, many years later, they come for a Tehran discovery — it’s the same old story.” Luckily, he knows that his anti-exoticism is a trend in itself. “Now even curators have joined this fashion — they want to clear their own history with non-Orientalist eastern artists.”
Köksal is still waiting for an answer. I look him over and try to think of a way to change the subject. I remember my colleague telling me that she’d always imagined him as a frail, pasty DJ, so his burly but lovable teddy bear stature had thrown her off guard when she met him. “He makes you want to climb into his lap and ask him to hurt all the bad people in your life and then eat peanut butter from a spoon with him.” I considered that for a moment.
In the background, we could still hear the said colleague of mine, enthusiastically calling the bartender a slut and a harlot. Serhat sighs.
“Slogans are walls that prevent misunderstanding,” I mumble, remembering some quote I saw in Serhat’s promo package.
We watch my colleague for a while. I try to order some cashew nuts in Turkish. The bartender brings me a napkin and a pitcher of water.
At the age of twenty, Ekrem Bora, alias Eko Fresh, who was born in provincial Mönchengladbach to a Turkish immigrant family, has grand schemes for the future: He wants to be nothing short of König von Deutschland, or at the very least, the king of German hip-hop. “If you don’t know him yet, you’d better get used to it, he’ll be the king of Germany,” sings his partner Valezka on the Eko Fresh EP King of Germany, released in 2003. And chances are he’ll succeed — unless his plans are thwarted by his big mouth.
After the release of the King of Germany EP, produced with help from well-known Turkish-German rapper Kool Savas, Eko Fresh decided to go at it alone, releasing his first solo album the same year. On that record, Eko adopted an unabashedly more commercial style; “The World’s Greatest,” a hit by rhythm and blues superstar R. Kelly, was the inspiration for the song “I’m young and I need the money” from Eko Fresh’s eponymous debut album. In interviews, the rapper admits that he hopes to become the German Puff Daddy. No small feat. While he topped the charts with “I’m young and I need the money,” he ultimately lost the respect of the German hip-hop scene; critical of his new rhythm and blues direction, they have distanced themselves from hyper-ambitious Eko Fresh.
As a result, Eko Fresh broke with friend and mentor Kool Savas, founding his own label, German Dream, in 2004. The exact circumstances surrounding the split remain unknown — though fans, friends, and German rap critics continue to indulge in endless guessing games and speculation. Imagine rappers on German Geraldo Rivera. In late 2004, the conflict broke into public sight, finding its way into the rappers’ art: On the track “The Reckoning,” Eko presented his version of the break in the classic “battle” tradition. Neither Kool Savas nor the Berlin rapper Fler from the notorious Aggro Berlin clique were spared. In short, they were brutalized.
With this, the games began. The much-offended Fler countered with the track “Hollywood Turk,” calling Fresh “the embarrassment of the year,” and rapping “I know Turks that are ashamed of you.” Bushido, a Berlin rapper with a hooligan attitude, entered the fray with “Flerraeter,” while the latest contribution is the battle track “The Verdict” by Eko’s former friend Kool Savas. The beef between the rappers continues to draw in wider circles, providing endless topics for discussion within the German hip hop scene, where the events are hyped ever further via hundreds of Internet forums and websites. Meanwhile, the music press and television are (gratefully) exploiting and encouraging the battle, creating a guaranteed public space for the bizarre rock soap opera at hand.
Some malicious rumors have it that the whole drama is a publicity stunt designed to inflate record sales — not a true battle at all. After all, there is hardly a more effective means of building up a rapper’s image than a feud. That rule of thumb holds for European “new blood” such as Eko Fresh as much as it did for US rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, who battled it out at the beginning of the nineties, first verbally, then with well-known deadly consequences. It was arguably their violent, widely reported deaths that turned them into the iconic references they are today, ensuring a respectable turnover for their music and merchandising articles a decade on. Another very publicity-savvy drama is currently going on between Ja Rule’s Murder Inc crew and Eminem’s Shady posse, whose battle, with the involvement of the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission, has also turned to physical violence.
While the story of Eko Fresh has only just begun (he is twenty years old, after all), the battle is hardly expected to come to a bloody conclusion in the tradition of Tupac, et al — despite the associated big talk being thrown around left and right. For the time being, however, Fresh and his German Dream mates remain among the most popular and successful Turks in Germany, if not the most polemical.
The last time I was in Dubai, a friend told me that 50 Cent had done a concert there a few weeks earlier. This came as a surprise, seeing that the last time hip-hop made a fantastic voyage to the desert, it came in the form of, well, Coolio. Fitty in Dubai?? Um okay, gangsta… how thug of you. But that’s not the point. The point is, how come all the good music shit is getting to Dubai now that I haven’t lived there for a decade? Don’t be fooled, oh new generation of Dubaians with your pretend angst nurtured in the finest beach clubs; the music game wasn’t always peaches and cream — or dates and laban, for that matter. Buried somewhere underneath the gleaming and endless CD racks of Dubai’s countless new Virgin Megastores and Tower Records, lie the fossilized remains of tiny one-man stores with names like MusicMaster and Abdul Ali Sound Place that back in the day peddled bootlegged audio gems to us culture-starved kiddies, unwittingly upping our quality of life. So before the Miami-esque gloss completely erases the past, I submit to you my memoirs of copping the hot shit in Dubai, pre-1995.
We never had any “official” recordings out there; but there was a huge bootleg cassette industry run by a company called Thomsun Original. We never knew who this mysterious Mr. Thomsun was or why the bootlegs deserved the title “Original,” but many credit him with saving our childhoods with the sweet sounds of western music. Their seven dirham (about two US dollars) bootleg cassettes all had simple one-sheet card inserts, that were light blue all over with a smaller version of the actual album cover on the front, and their own typography and design everywhere else. None of the music was censored, but the fine people at Thomsun Original did misspell a lot of album names. I remember they (presumably mistakenly) renamed Run DMC’s Tougher than Leather album to Together than Leather and Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday for some reason was flipped to Black Tuesday. The designers over at Thomsun were, evidently, insane in the membrane. I guess the market must have been booming though, because before we knew it another bootlegger was on the scene, and check the audacity: They called themselves Thames Original.
Besides the gentlemanly named Thomsun and Thames, there were a variety of companies that produced ten dirham (about three US dollars, you math whiz) hard-case, mixed-tape cassettes that came with lyric sheets and a crazy musical concept like “US Rap Attack” or “MC Hammer vs Vanilla Ice!” with some third grader collage cover art, scissor marks still visible. Given the whopping price (give me a break, I was eight), and the fact that the ridiculously sized cover would never fit into any standard cassette rack, this variety of cassette always took a back seat to Thomsun’s sleek and cheap alternative.
Another fun fact to keep in mind about the music buying process in old Dubai was that when you walked into the store, you never really knew what you were going to buy. Why? Well, early on we had no Billboard magazine, no MTV, no real radio stations — sorry 92FM, you know I love you, but you only played the news and Phil Collins. Nothing. So we really had no reference points to indicate what was cool, other than that mini-pic of the album cover, and perhaps an Indian man’s rousing testimonial: “Yes, I don’t know, but must be good. RAP! Sorry, okay.” To play it safe, I would only buy tapes with black people on the cover, but that wasn’t foolproof either; I owned an album by “FatherDom” (who to this day no one but me has ever heard of), but no KRS-One or NWA. (Sorry hip-hop gods, do you need my membership card back now?)
When we were in our teens, the CD market opened up and the little music stores around town were getting authentic albums on their racks courtesy of a semi-authentic outfit known as Stallions. But now, anything with a “Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics” sticker was barred from entering the country. Luckily, the nice guy at my favorite music store took note of my penchant for potty-mouthed rap music, and would sell me stuff under the table. He sold me Dubai’s first two copies of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (one of which I gave to our fearless editor Lisa). Anyone who wants to challenge that last sentence can holler at me… but just remember, when you diss Dre you diss yourself. The censorship didn’t stop there however. Album covers were still subject to scrutiny and would be “modified” if any imagery clashed with Islamic values. Janet Jackson, for instance, was suddenly wearing a drawn-on white shirt instead of a gropey man’s hands on the cover of her IF album. Of course there was no rhyme or reason to what imagery was and wasn’t censored: Dr. Dre’s giant marijuana leaf CD from The Chronic was okayed, while the well-endowed baby from Nirvana’s Nevermind was forced to don imaginary blue swim trunks.
I could go on and on. Well actually, I couldn’t as my memory fails me now, due no doubt to time and possibly my habitual listenings of the aforementioned Dre album. So do I really have a point? No. Am I just a bitter old-school Dubai kid that hates that these new-school kids have it so easy? Possibly. Do I deserve a trophy? Yes, please.
1. The Passion of the Christ
2. Spiderman II
4. The Last Samurai
5. Awkal Al Limbi III
6. The Day After Tomorrow
7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
9. Around the World in 80 Days
10. King Arthur
It’s accepted wisdom among left-leaning, Starbucks-dodging world-cinema buffs that the homegrown product offers the most authentic cultural experience. The favored ethnofilm would have battled against the might of the Hollywood-dominated machine from script to screen. Winning a place against the odds at a film festival, the plucky picture might then claw its way on to a limited circuit in London, New York, Paris, and other chain coffeehouse capitals; very occasionally, it might even score the odd screening on its home turf. But what about the films that the masses actually do get to see? Maybe B-grade action and Playstation-esque sequels say as much about a place; perhaps it’s the booming voice of the Dolby system that speaks the loudest.
The UAE hosts a film market that’s growing at an unusually rapid rate, last year accounting for some 65% of all box office takings in the Middle East. Hindi, Malayalam, and Tamil productions arrive in the country’s aged Indian cinemas a couple of weeks after their launch at home, and are popular with Emiratis as well as the dominant South Asian community. But it’s Hollywood films that have soared over the past few years. Columbia TriStar’s business in the Emirates, says regional boss Mark Braddell, increased by over 80% in 2003, and a further 30% in 2004, largely thanks to such “product” as Spiderman II. Saudi Arabia, of course, has no cinemas and Kuwait has the toughest and most unpredictable censors in the Arab world. The Iranian box office, thanks to government “protection,” is one of the few countries in the world where local films dominate, as is Egypt, the tired old powerhouse of Arab film production. The Lebanese still consume the widest variety of cinema, but it’s the Emiratis and their fellow expats who visit (and pay) the most, attracted by shiny, new multiplexes in every sparkling mall.
In many of its preferences, the UAE is no different to any other unmediated territory lacking the local film clout to challenge the Holly/Bollywood juggernaut. Star worshippers in a land overpopulated by celebrity! magazines, cinema regulars lap up the latest fluff; their picture houses occasionally even serve as a dumping ground for B-grade action that is straight-to-video elsewhere. This cynicism does belie the efforts of cinephiles to buck the system: Local filmmakers ply their wares at the annual Emirates Film Competition; 2004’s inaugural Dubai International Film Festival had many sold-out screenings; quality pictures such as Super Size Me, Before Sunset, Hero, and Dear Frankie are slated to have their turn at the multiplex over the next few months. Distributors, some now relocating to Dubai from their traditional center, Beirut, have begun pushing the boundaries in their selections for theatrical as well as a burgeoning DVD market.
The UAE’s most popular film ever is of course Titanic, a statistic that tells us more about the universal appeal of the sumptuous poor-boy-meets-rich-girl disaster-fairytale, the lowest common denominator of filmmaking, than it does about the many lands that the blockbuster conquered. But last year’s UAE box office comes with enough of its own quirks and tales of the Orient to warm the heart of any anthropologist — even the “retail anthropologists” that find their natural home in the UAE. (After all, this is “the place where malls go on holiday,” as British travel writer AA Gill memorably quipped.)
Globally, 2004 threw up two film market idiosyncrasies: Michael Moore’s Palme D’Or-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson’s biblical blood-and-gore number, The Passion of the Christ. Both fell foul of the nervy US studios, but went on to become unlikely blockbusters. Bizarrely, Passion scored better in the UAE, with its population of around four million, predominantly Muslim, than it did in Croatia and Hungary, slipping into the global territory breakdown just below Belgium. Passion also has the odd statistic of being the only foreign-language picture — if we take “foreign” to mean non-English, Arabic, or Hindi — to register a place in the UAE box office top ten. Filmed in Aramaic and Latin, the two hour–plus Christian epic made $1.4 million dollars for Gibson in the UAE, was the year’s number one, and became the country’s second highest-grosser of all time.
Gibson, through his distribution deals, had expressly forbidden any cuts; the UAE censors bowed to the Aussie evangelical’s wishes and passed it, despite having a few months earlier rendered Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty incomprehensible by cutting all signs of Morgan Freeman’s God — a factoid probably not mentioned to the legendary Freeman when he graced the Dubai Film Festival.
There are no statistics breaking down cinema audiences by ethnicity, but some of the enthusiasm for Passion could be accounted for by enthusiastic expat Christians (mainly from the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka) embracing a faith experience rare in the UAE. But Emirates cinema audiences are disproportionately young Emirati lads, and Passion screenings attracted them and, say the distributors, an unusually high number of Emirati women. Was the enthusiasm down to the hyped violence? Interest in Jesus, the Muslim prophet? Possibly, but it was also overwhelming curiosity about “the other” being seen on screens for the first time. Some distributors added that, for some, going to see the film was also something of an anti-Israel stunt, following media puff about the film’s Jewish “villains.” Incidentally, DVD sales were very poor: Presumably, it’s one thing to happen across a Christian epic at the cinema, but quite another to own the film in your own home.
As for the award-winning film that ultimately failed in the electioneering game — beaten at the polls with the help of Gibson-loving God-botherers — Moore’s left-lite documentary was always going to do well in Bush-septic Al Jazeera territory. Playing for seven weeks, on a par with the latest Harry Potter (number seven on the 2004 UAE chart), Fahrenheit 9/11 came to rest at number fifteen, one above its box office ranking in the US. Worldwide, the film became the most successful documentary ever to play the cinemas; in the UAE, it was also the first. Escaping soaring summer temperatures, audiences were unusually interactive — whistling and applauding anti-Bush sentiments on the big screen. Up and coming distributor Gianluca Chacra, who picked up the film at script stage thinking it might repeat the success of the Bowling for Columbine on DVD — he was unable to get cinemas to screen Moore’s previous film — found himself propelled into the big league.
Chacra also found himself thrown into the middle of a media storm — one of those cyclones of paranoia whipped up by the special relationship between the Middle East and the US. Looking to prolong the Moore story with a new angle, a journalist from the trade paper Screen International put in a call to Chacra as he launched Fahrenheit 9/11 across the Middle East — everywhere, that is, except Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He happened to mention that he’d had a call from Lebanese student supporters of Hezbollah, asking if there was anything they could do to support the film, to which he’d replied that they should just watch it. Being a former Beiruti, Chacra noted that their support was “significant in the market… and quite natural.”
Cue a hysterical response from the right and even moderate-leaning US media, who jumped at the chance to accuse Moore of garnering “terrorist” support. Pro–“war on terror” groups such as Move America Forward went as far as to charge Americans who chose to actually see the film with promoting the Hezbollah agenda. Former New York Times correspondent Clifford D May, now president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, opined, “Michael Moore is the Heartthrob of Hezbollah… [He] fuels the fires of suspicion, prejudice and hatred that burn in the fabled ‘Arab street.’”
Michael Moore’s people kicked into gear, asking Chacra to release a statement denying any relations with Hezbollah and citing examples of “pro-American” (read Hollywood) films he handles. Never has the gap between the “US street,” so reliant on media hearsay and the fear factor for its impressions of the Middle East, and Arabs well-versed in the lingua franca of the all-action all-American blockbuster, appeared so great.
Perhaps life in the UAE has its fair share of fantasy already, but the UAE chart is marked in its difference from the rest of the world by the absence of animation — the world number one Shrek II only made it in at number 14, with the likes of Shark Tale even further down the list. Cinema-going in the UAE has yet to become a family outing. Meanwhile, the predominantly young, male multiplex audience, with its healthy appetite for stars and tribal action, propelled critically panned behemoths Troy and Alexander way up the list, not to mention Tom Cruise beating the Japanese at their own game in The Last Samurai (world box office ranking: 111; UAE ranking: 4). Key local distributor Salim Ramia, of Gulf Film, notes the UAE audience’s enthusiasm for action-adventures told with big screen brush-strokes of “honor” and “passion.” A visiting film anthropologist with a fondness for exotica might like to dwell on the Emirates’s recent history of dramatic inter-tribal disputes; we could also put the UAE cinema audience’s affection for epic dramas down to easy-digested pure entertainment, while noting that the biggest distributor of these Hollywood films also happens to own most of the cinemas.
Apart from these minor box office quirks, the only local oddity is that of the presence of an Arab film in the top ten. Unfortunately, for our Starbucks dodgers, Awkal Al Limbi is no plucky art-house number but the third outing for Mohamed Saad’s working class loser-hero Al Limbi, and representative of a popular yet asinine breed of Egyptian escapist blockbuster comedies. Al Ahram critic Mohamed El-Assyouti, like many despairing Arab film critics forced to write about populist cinema, was dismissive. “The only real fun is being had by the beneficiaries of all that box office money,” he sniffed.
And in the UAE, those box office dirhams continue to pile up. At the end of this year, two new megaplex cinemas are due to open in Dubai. The first, at the Mall of the Emirates, a 2-million-square-foot complex housing “the world’s first alpine-themed, all-inclusive indoor ski resort,” is a mere fourteen-screener. The second, part of the Ibn Battuta Shopping Mall, includes twenty-one screens plus an IMAX cinema. Chairman of development company Nakheel, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, explained the inspiration behind the latter’s “authentic” wind towers, Persian domes and so on: “We have named the mall after the Arab hero which will… generate interest among the tourists who will find the mall exotic, entertaining, educational, and at the same time enable them to experience a themed, shopping experience.” At present, all the screens, like other cinemas in the UAE, will be dedicated to the all-conquering blockbuster; after all, the developer couldn’t have better summed up Hollywood’s intentions when it came to creating Alexander, Troy and other “Arabian” action heroes for the silver screen.
Hany Abu-Assad’s latest film Paradise Now made its debut in February at The Berlinale, the annual festival of international film in Berlin. A French-German-Dutch coproduction, the controversial picture recounts twenty-seven hours in the lives of Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), two childhood friends turned would-be suicide bombers, as they prepare to carry out a mission in Tel Aviv. Abu-Assad certainly gave the critics something to write about both in terms of film and politics; and at the awards ceremony, the Palestinian filmmaker went home with three prizes, including the Blue Angel for Best European Film.
After the film’s premiere in Berlin, the Israeli Film Fund offered support for distributing the film in Israel, despite having previously rejected the film on “political grounds” — an indication, said producer Amir Harel, of a new spirit of post-Arafat “tolerance.” Abu-Assad spoke to Alia Rayyan about the film, the controversy it has sparked and the role cinema can play in inspiring dialogue about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Alia Rayyan: The subject matter of the film has led many journalists and critics to write about the film purely in terms of its politics. What do you think about this?
Hany Abu-Assad: You have to separate two things: the making and the showing. When you’re making the film, it’s pure communication between you and the medium. So you don’t think about politics, you think about the scene, and how to make the story in a way that will stay and not be influenced by current politics. After you have finished the movie, the scene changes. The film has to be judged now and later. And everyone has the right to judge it, to read it, in any way they want. It’s not my problem anymore — it’s their problem. And after having done the movie, I enjoy talking about politics — I’m not avoiding any discussions.
AR: So do you still think that art can take on the role of the opposition?
HAA: No, not really, this is much too heavy [a role]. We’ve all been searching for an alternative for 6,000 years, no? Trying to find a social political system that brings justice. Perhaps this is art’s crisis today — that we know that art can’t do anything, that the political system, the issues, are bigger than you, bigger than life itself. For artists there are two ways to react: Either you think, I can’t do anything about it so I just do my work in terms of aesthetics, or you can think, If it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, then I’ll do something political, and maybe something will change, maybe I will be part of the change.
AR: Do you think Paradise Now can have impact on the understanding of the situation in Palestine/Israel?
HAA: I think about the film more as an historical document. The whole world is in crisis: After the French Revolution, they came up with the idea of liberal democracy, combined with capitalism, and promised freedom, equality, and fraternity. But, look around — we are so far from this. There’s still this elite that governs us consumers. The communist alternative failed and there seems to be no alternative except religion — especially for those that think they are losing out. Religion in general — and I make no distinction between Islam, Christianity, or Judaism — is the alternative when the current system is falling. First, they accept their bad living conditions as their destiny and God’s will, and secondly, they turn their defeat or failure on earth into a victory in heaven and transfer all their energy to the hereafter.
AR: This is one of the primary messages of the film.
HAA: Yes, one of them. But the film also looks at the Palestinian cause — this is what shapes my work as a filmmaker. It’s very easy to be a European filmmaker. My first feature film, Fourteenth Chick, was a European film, distributed by United International Pictures. Big distribution, a lot of noise, big stars. I could have grown to like this establishment, but it didn’t interest me. In my perspective, the Palestinian cause is a kind of symbol for the greater crisis we are living in this world. You have the strong and weak in conflict, with religion as an alternative.
AR: Let’s go back to the making of the film — you shot in Nablus, despite having to face curfews and military attacks?
HAA: Sure. We faced a lot of problems, including not being able to repeat shots as many times as we would’ve wanted. But that became the art of the film — and you always have to make compromises when you’re filming, wherever you are. Ours were only a bit more extreme. But I wanted to be close to reality, and Nablus is part of the film. You see, it was very important that we didn’t just go there, film, and leave: It needed much more understanding and time. For example, the actors lived in Nablus before we started to shoot — Kais and Ali even had to work for several weeks in that garage to get into their world, to feel it. We had to shoot some of the last parts in Nazareth — there were a lot of attacks in the night, arrests, and fights with the resistance people.
AR: What was it like for the international crew?
HAA: It was difficult. There were two kinds of reactions among the foreigners: Some decided to go back, so they thought their lives were more important than the cause, which is totally fine, and others decided to stay, so apparently they thought that this film is bigger than their lives.
AR: So you had to get new crew in, in the middle of the shooting?
HAA: Yes. After thirty days on the shoot, six people went back and new ones came out.
AR: What was the biggest problem you faced when filming?
HAA: To balance it — it was, and is, too emotional for everyone. Anyhow, I tried to find a balance between reality and fiction, between propaganda and condemnation, between occupation and resistance — the line in between is actually very, very thin.
AR: And also between the two sides of yourself perhaps — as someone who lives both inside and outside the territory?
HAA: This is not really my discussion — there’s always people wanting to break us up into groups. But I think that we’re all facing the same situation if you are Palestinian — it doesn’t matter who you are. Either you accept your “inferior position,” or you have to fight. That’s one point. Concerning my work or my position in society — I don’t live in a refugee camp, although I’m on their side but I’m in a much more superior situation. However, whenever I fight for them, it’s me who ends up stronger, more famous, and richer — and nothing has been changed for them. It’s hypocritical. My fight changes nothing for them.
February saw Tehran under several feet of snow, adding an interesting dimension to the city’s already legendary traffic chaos. As visitors to the annual Fajr Film Festival battled their way between downtown screenings and filmmakers’ parties in the northern suburbs, they could easily relate to Dr. Alam, the cynical, weary hero of Reza Mirkarimi’s Too Faraway, Too Close, winner of the Crystal Simorgh for Best Film in the international festival’s Iranian cinema competition.
Mirkarimi sends his urbane subject on a trip through spectacular desert scenery in search of his ill son, his familial priorities, and himself; other directors similarly had their protagonists meeting their fates or remedying their woes by heading out of the pollution for the pure open road and perceived wisdom of country folk. Appropriately, the film’s cinematographer, Hamid Khozouie Abianeh, took the top lensing prize. For the famously critical local critic Kamyar Mohsenin, the film was a rare “bold cinema experience”: he described the film to Bidoun as “an existential approach to finding the meaning of life after confronting the confusing concept of death.” But for this reviewer, as with too many other films in this year’s homegrown crop, Too Faraway, Too Close ultimately disappoints, spinning the doctor’s denouement into a sentimental finale.
A winner at Cannes in 2000 for Under the Moonlight, Mirkarimi was one of a set of well-known directors that generally failed to live up to their established reputations. Former international festival darling Majid Majidi inevitably indulged in spiritual matters in his beautifully shot The Weeping Willow, the tale of a blind man who, by virtue of a miracle operation in Paris, is given the gift of sight, only to squander his life and long-suffering wife in self-pity. Predictably, given the nature of this onerous morality tale, he ends up struck down once more. Even more predictably, Majidi was awarded with the Best Director gong at the Awards ceremony.
Other established directors debuting new films in their hometown included Rasoul Sadre Ameli, of box office success I’m Taraneh, 15 fame; Kamal Tabrizi, whose controversial comedy The Lizard was a runaway hit in 2003; the reliable Azizollah Hamidnejhad, following last year’s Tear of the Cold with Stony Blossoms, another tale of an outsider trying to navigate the ways of a village in mine-ridden border country; and Tahmineh Milani, who premiered Extra Woman, one of a series of heavy-handed, commercial films that typically come to a violent end, complete with multiple murders and suicides.
Sadre Ameli’s I Saw Your Father Last Night, Aida, was the third film in the director’s vaguely feminist exploration of teen angst, with classrooms full of girls in sneakers, fresh from their nose-job operations. Despite its urban, contemporary veneer, the film meandered and failed to convince. A Piece of Bread, Kamal Tabrizi’s composed, mystical tale of a misjudged simpleton (played well by Reza Kianian, in what is becoming a bit of a signature role), fared better but could also do with a more stringent edit.
Other award-winners included Café Transit, Kambuzia Partovi’s story of a widow — brilliantly underplayed by Fereshteeh Sadr Orafaie — trying to make a success of her roadstop diner, despite the best efforts of her late husband’s family, and Kianoosh Ayari’s Wake Up Arezu!, a disturbing, brave but awkward, fictional account of the Bam earthquake, shot in the devastated city just ten days after it was struck. Tunisian director Nacer Khamir, by virtue of his Iranian producer and locations, snuck in his latest chunk of sumptuous exotica, Bab’Aziz, and took home the Best Film in the Spiritual Cinema competition.
And so it was something of a relief to come across a small DV-shot gem that relied on character and ensemble play rather than spectacle and location. Bizhan Mirbaqeri’s first feature, We Are All Fine, explores the effect on one extended family of losing a son to the West. Having emigrated several years previously, Jamshid failed to keep up his letters and phone calls, or send for his wife and daughter. One day out of the blue, a mystery friend returns from abroad with a request from Jamshid that his family make a home video for him. (So far, so contrived; but Mirbaqeri’s light touch and the excellent performances pull the conceit off.) Cue each member of the family recording and re-recording their messages; the experience draws out all the tensions in the delicately balanced household, spinning their various relationships into an emotional vortex.
Despite the originality of We Are All Fine, Fajr generally plays it safe, the selection process opaque and a little unpredictable. So it’s easy to see why alternative film screenings have become something of a diversion for both visitors and the local film community. This year’s hot ticket was actress Niki Karimi’s debut, One Night, a funky urban tale of a girl who spends a night hitching rides through an eerily deserted Tehran. Both Iron Island, by Mohammad Rasoul and renowned director Rakshan Bani-Etemad’s Glameh, the reworking of a previous short, were excellent, yet screenings were confined to the festival market. Starring the legendary Ali Nassirian, the former is set on an abandoned tanker in the Gulf that’s become its own self-contained community, taken over by a Captain who rents rooms to poor families. Nassirian’s character is slowly revealed to be anything but the benevolent patriarch initially supposed, in a kind of allegory for the disappointments of the years since the revolution.
February 10–20, 2005
From Fajr, the international Iranophiles decamped to Germany for a somewhat mixed year at the Berlinale, Berlin’s annual film bash. Journalists keen to inject some drama into the proceedings homed in on two very different offerings from the Middle East: Massaker, included in the Panorama section, and Hani Abu Assad’s feted Paradise Now. Playing in competition, the Palestinian director’s portrait of two suicide bombers garnered more column inches than any other film, and went on to take four prizes, including the Audience Award and Best European Film; the director described his success to Bidoun as “a fine combination of recognition, political backing, and financial support.” While it did have its shortcomings, Paradise Now is a milestone in cinema from the Arab world.
Massaker, a documentary by Monika Bergmann, Lokman Slim and Hermann Theissen, which took home the International Film Critics Association prize, is also groundbreaking work. This taut investigation looks into the psyche of six of the perpetrators of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, when an unknown number of unarmed Palestinian civilians living in Lebanon were killed over a period of two days. Massaker focuses on the rank and file members of the Lebanese Forces, the Christian militia who perpetrated the action with logistical support from the occupying Israeli army, exploring the links between the personal and political. The subjects are filmed individually, in stark and harshly lit rooms. By unflinchingly engaging with the actual killers, rather than the leaders or organizers, the film brings the horrifying details into sharp relief. There’s no cathartic sentimental grief here, no attempt at harnessing historical tragedy for a specific political position; rather, Bergmann, et al, have engineered a face-off with the unspeakable. Giving us the testimonial of the perpetrators rather than the victims, Massaker somehow manages to portray the reality of the atrocity without justifying its occurrence; the film makes for highly uncomfortable viewing.
Bergmann, Slim, and Theissen hail from backgrounds in publishing and philosophy, journalism and film, respectively, but theirs is a fruitful collaboration. The camerawork is tight, investigative, and claustrophobic, insistently interrogating the bodies of the anonymous perpetrators while they speak candidly about the experience. Alternately horrifying and darkly fascinating, the film manages to straddle the thin line between investigation and voyeurism. Eschewing the traditional authoritative voiceover, the filmmakers provide political, historical, or psychological context and background through the interviews themselves. Thus, we’re never allowed to assume a specific vantage point, and the truth is questioned continually. Ingeniously, Massaker makes us, the viewers, accomplices on one level or another.
Both Massaker and Paradise Now can be seen as part of a trend in analyzing politically motivated violence through pushing the audience to “imagine the unimaginable”; perhaps this is in part a response to the continual bloody images of twenty-four-hour news cycle. Directors seem to be relying on suggestion in order to conjure up the appropriate images in the audience’s collective memory, whether working in documentary or fiction.
Hani Abu Assad’s subtle approach to the thorniest of current issues won him a standing ovation at Paradise Now’s world premiere, paeans of praise from the critics, and distribution deals in Europe and the US. The film narrates the story of three days in the lives of two young men from Nablus who’ve been chosen for a suicide-bombing mission to Tel Aviv. Shot in Nablus in the summer of 2004, the movie was made in a city occupied and under curfew — certainly one reason why it conveys the proximity of events so well. Khaled (Ali Suleiman) and Said (Kais Nashif) have temporary jobs as car mechanics when they meet Suha (Lubna Azabal), a well-off educated returnee with a Moroccan accent, who works for a human rights organization.
Young theater actor Kais Nashif is impressive in his cinematic debut. Trapped in a web spun from the threads of his narrow, lifeless existence, the unspoken farewells to his family, and his own inability to show his feelings, Said’s iron mask — in part attributed to being the son of a collaborator — rarely seems to fall. Generally, Hani Abu Assad outlines rather than defines his characters, and his young cast shines as a result.
The cinematography comes into its own as Said and Khaled prepare for their mission in the underground halls of an old tile factory. The ceremony — the rituals of washing, shaving, praying, dressing, eating their last supper — is shown in detail; the scenes seem to mark both the allure and the delusion of the situation. Winningly, the director adds a shot or two of black humor: The process of videotaping Khaled’s martyrdom statement, for example, turns into slapstick when the camera jams and he’s forced to repeat his declaration.
At other times, Abu Assad’s approach seems unnecessarily obvious. Said’s (slow motion) hesitation when he catches sight of an Israeli child as he waits at an Israeli bus stop, for example, stinks of attempting to present Palestinians in an acceptably humane guise for western audiences. From Abu Assad’s previous work, this critic would have expected a more radical narrative: Perhaps its restraint is due in part to the clout exercised by the film’s French, Dutch, and German producers, or is simply indicative of the conditions under which it was shot. Nevertheless, Hani Abu Assad has smartly succeeded in bringing a controversial aspect of Palestinian reality onto the big screen.
Emirates Film Competition
Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Film Competition (EFC) is an annual experiment in bringing Emirati reality to the cinema: Students and young filmmakers compete for prizes with short films that reflect local themes. Now in its fourth year, the festival is certainly growing — with around 140 homegrown films plus sidebars of another 100 international films. Festival director Masoud Amralla Al Ali treats his mainly Emirati audience to the most diverse selection of artistic short filmmaking from around the globe. The Arabic Panorama lacked the controversy and big names of previous years but there were some real finds — in particular Moroccan Laila Marrakchi’s 200 Dirhams and Egyptian Tamer Al Said’s On a Monday. And the work of the young Amman Filmmakers Cooperative showed how much could be done with original storylines.
Among the students, there were well-shot efforts, such as Jassim Mohammed Al Salty’s portrait of a fish market, and great ideas, such as Nada Salem’s world of dodgy DVD sellers, Pirates of Karama. But the young filmmakers — especially the women who shined in the first and second sessions of the festival — have yet to make good on their early promise. Among the student offerings, there was plenty of quantity but little quality; good editing, acting, and direction did exist — but just rarely in the same film. The head of the jury, Moroccan producer-director Mohammed Asli, advised the young directors to seek inspiration in their own cultures, rather than attempting to create gangsta or Egyptian drama rip-offs.
Still, there are some older filmmakers that get stronger each year. Waleed Al Shehhi’s Signs of the Dead showed that the director is fast developing a distinctive, intense style that maximizes the natural drama of the desert; fellow Ras Al Khaimah director Abdullah Hassan Ahmed is another serious filmmaker showing huge promise; scriptwriter Ibrahim Al Mulla and director Omar Ibrahim produced a polished tale of writer’s block in An Ordinary Day; and Saleh Mohamed Al Marzouqi had a fresh approach in his animation The Arrest Night of Al Nbata, a kind of Emirates-style South Park.
For these young filmmakers, the EFC acts as a kind of intensive, annual bout of film school. And in this year’s compelling, at times abstruse Poetic Cinema program, Amralla pushed his students to the limit. But they came, and stayed, even packing the cinema for their own films.
And herein lies a problem: With local audiences willing to overlook proletarian approaches for the rare pleasure of seeing themselves on the silver screen, and as yet no graduate film courses, and few honest critics, how are local filmmakers to learn to up their game? Hani Al Shaibani, who works for the Dubai Police but is better known in film circles for his award-winning Jawhara, closed the EFC for the first time with an Emirati feature, Dream. The story of a young crew’s attempts to make a film, layered with the action of the film itself, it was a good effort in producing something close to home. Judged by international standards, it fell a little flat and failed to take advantage of some spectacular desert scenery; but the standing-room-only audience loved every minute, laughing at local in-jokes and whistling and cheering in recognition of themselves.
Bidoun: First of all I’d like to ask you about the theme you have given to the biennial you are curating, that of ‘‘belonging.” Could you tell me about this idea and how you are putting it into practice in the biennial?
Jack Persekian: The theme came out of my investigations into the issue of identity, partly due to the place I live, a place that is quite problematic — Jerusalem — a place that has been involved in years of war and conflict. It is about the different forces that are at play for a person who has taken the place as their home. The whole notion of “home” versus “homelessness” in relation to refugees — this is the idea on one level, and being part of a fast-moving world, and because the whole economic necessity of requiring people to move from one place to another is urgent. There are places people do not necessarily consider to be part of their formal identity, they are places that they move to and eventually settle in just to make a living. With that you end up as a person in the world being in more than one place, trying to weave yourself and your identity. Eventually the question is always there — who am I? Where do I belong? This is reflected in the art world, as I have seen in many of the artists that I have worked with. It is quite an important question they are all being asked to address, issues of nation and home.
Bidoun: This idea of “home” existing simultaneously alongside a sense of “homelessness,” or a double identity, particularly when talking of issues of immigration, do you think this is a new idea, or something that has historical context, but has been given a new focus with the rise of globalization as an a dominant issue in biennials?
JP: It is not only immigration. I think many of the artists sense some kind of alienation. They feel that they are somehow living on the periphery of society. They are critical of many things, critical of the overwhelming financial and political power. The most important issue is the move from artists being relegated to the role of the person who is concerned with aesthetics and form and shape, to being more socially conscious of the pressing issues, of being more involved in society and wanting to address that; playing more the role of a critic, intellectual, and thinker, the person who challenges dogmas and who answers questions that have been swept under the rug. They are more conscious of society. I see that as what the artist’s role has become.
Bidoun: I have read in official text on the biennial that you like to think that the biennial could use art to “overlap with history.” Could you explain what you mean by this?
JP: History, in my opinion, has been somehow written by people in power, and subsequently this delineated that history. A lot of people read history, and eventually the whole conscience of society has history constructed on their behalf. There is a hiding of the truth of what really has happened; truth is quite an elusive thing, and this changes what reality is. Artists can somehow intervene and address history and take in many levels. This is why I thought the word “overlap” is an appropriate description of how artists’ trajectories come in at tangents. This develops a weave, which for me creates an interesting history when I reflect upon it. It is no longer a linear construct, but more layered.
Bidoun: How will this be put into practice within the actual biennial? Are there specific examples of artists that you think are offering this?
JP: Take the whole issue of perceptions and stereotypes. For example, artists for many years, beginning with the whole Orientalism thing, have been portrayed in a certain way by the West. For the biennial we have artists like Olaf Nicolai, which flips this and brings quite a stereotypical image of Italy — such as the hanging clothes lines like they have across balconies there — and transports that to be installed in Sharjah. It’s a reversal of a stereotype, by taking a preconceived notion of Italy in the West and relocating it within Sharjah. This is an interesting example for me.
Bidoun: Could you say a little bit about what your process was for selecting artists, in light of the theme you have given for the show? Did the artists come out of the theme or did the theme come out of the artists?
JP: I invited Ken Lum and Tirdad Zolghadr, who was initially to do a symposium, then I decided he could have curatorial input into the show. The three of us formed a team, bringing our own experiences, and worked in close collaboration on the whole show, giving a much wider perspective than if I had been working alone. Part of the curatorial process was to try to have artists react to the theme and to the location. We tried as much as possible to get artists to come for a period of time and work in Sharjah and produce work especially addressing this context. We thought that this engagement would really affect the whole biennial as a hypothetical intellectual discourse on the theme, but in real space.
Bidoun: Very often with biennials, many of the artists that are selected have an emphasis on social representation, and employ an ethnographic framing of subject matter. Very often lens-based media such as video or photography are used, particularly since Documenta XI. We’ve reached a specific point where lens-based media, due to its visual immediacy, has become the most common effect for documenting social reality. I recently heard Nicolas Bourriaud, speaking specifically about practitioners such as Anri Sala or Emily Jacir, describe video as having become like a form of Esperanto — an easily understandable and a globally common language. I wish to ask whether this was an issue and whether there are also artists you are presenting that are offering alternative methods for dealing with important subject matter.
JP: I understand what you mean, and I think I can take it a bit further. It is the language that is now becoming very common. It is the medium that the media uses, which has taken over the world. We are relegated to people who are getting most of our information from television. So yes, it is about speaking a common language, it is an Esperanto in a way. But yet, in the show you will see artists who are still challenging and are still working and utilizing different ways and means to engage with context and environment. The actual notion of representation is what the show is about. Again I go back to Olaf Nicolai as an example. His whole approach of deciding on a venue in between the two museums, that particular street, and the whole transformation of that place from Italy to Sharjah; all that is about a certain action that is not trying to capitalize on lens-based art and its immediacy. It’s more about working conceptually on things and transforming those into experiences.
Bidoun: To what extent do you hope the biennial will reflect arts practice from the Middle East and the Arab peninsula?
JP: There are several artists participating in the biennial from this region. Yet in doing this I’m being aware of this as not about solely showcasing Arab artists. I’m perhaps the person most involved in that, but this is not about Arab representation. It’s about being an international show, about bringing in people from all over the world, bringing artists, trying as much as possible to create a platform for the exchange of ideas and experiences that take place in between these people no matter where they are coming from. I’ve always stopped myself from saying I want to give preferential treatment to any artists coming from any particular place. This is something I’m very much aware of.
Bidoun: The biennial experience, generally speaking, is very much a particular kind of experience. It’s very different from what you get in regular rolling programs in museums and galleries. They have almost become by definition a kind of overkill, offering a psycho-geography of global proportions. How do you think you position Sharjah in relation to these ideas of biennial experience and in relation to other biennials?
JP: It’s important to remember that Sharjah has the only contemporary art biennial of its kind in the whole Arab world. It’s not like there is an overkill here, even though there are so many around the world. Having something there for the people and the audience from the region is a unique opportunity. It is one of a kind and when we ask people about the biennial, their exposure to art events is almost nonexistent. In that sense it is not in any way to be looked at locally like other biennials in certain parts of the world, where they have competition. This is quite unique for a deprived audience, and I think there needs to be more effort put into biennials to make this whole practice more accessible to people. Biennials for me work on two main levels. One, to provide a platform for artists, intellectuals, critics, and writers, to come and engage and interact and provide means and resources and opportunities for them to do what they want to do — a creative engagement. On another level, it’s so much about taking it out to the public and about engaging people.
Bidoun: Could you describe what strategy you are taking in terms of engaging with Sharjah citizens?
JP: Sure, I can give you a few facts. We are trying to be systematic and scientific about it. We have prolonged the duration of the show, so now it is two months long. It is for free — anybody can come. There is an education program; we have a team now whose main job is to bring in, hopefully, each and every child in the Emirates to the show. This is by firstly organizing it with the Ministry of Education and in coordination with all the schools and universities to organize a visit to the biennial. So, basically, as much effort as we are putting into getting artists and art professionals to come, is going into getting people from the Emirates to come to Sharjah. We are also engaging a whole new promotion and marketing strategy in order to bring the biennial to the people, to make it understandable, and to be enticed to come and see it. Lots of promotion! We think it is such an important thing, something that is really lacking in the whole Arab world and needs to be taken to the doorstep of every person.
Bidoun: When I talked earlier about a biennial being a kind of overkill, I meant in terms of visitor experience, because of the sheer amount of work and information that someone may take in. How have you been able to balance creating a biennial that presents a critical mass for curators, artists and writers, but at the same time make it coherent and accessible for an uninitiated audience?
JP: It is through the effort of three curators. Through the several meetings we had and through our discussions we had about the artists, we decided right from the beginning that we would not have as many artists as the last biennial, and we would concentrate more on a project that draws on that particular environment. It’s so much about when you have an audience, it not about them seeing something that has been parachuted in, but about developing a real sense of engagement over time.
Bidoun: Some of these people that are involved here such as Okwui Enwezor and Jean Fisher, who I understand is writing a catalogue text, are very much involved in a postcolonial discourse. Do you think this is the major issue within the Middle East? And do you think it will be the main issue for the foreseeable future?
JP: I think it is an issue that is addressed by several of the artists and intellectuals I am working with in the circles of art. I don’t really know when we are going to move beyond this in the sense of coming to terms with ramifications in society, where we are at and who we are now. In a way it’s not over yet to us. Where I come from there is so much at issue with the materialized creation of Israel, the situation for the Palestinians, and the situation we are at now. Maybe in the West they are over it, but here it is still there. It has evolved and transformed itself into new shapes.
Bidoun: To what extent do you think the biennial will impact upon Sharjah as a cultural capital in the Middle East?
JP: Sharjah has been recognized by UNESCO as a cultural capital in the Middle East, like Cairo. If you see how much the government in Sharjah spends on cultural events, artistic activities, symposia etcetera in terms on GNP in comparison with other governments it is immense, there is no comparison. It is amazing how much investment for culture there is in Sharjah. It is definitely an established cultural capital. It is the only contemporary art exhibition of its scale and recognition internationally in the region.
Bidoun: Do you think other nations and cities will respond to it? Will it develop a bit of creative friction in the region?
JP: I think so. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year more contemporary art events come up somewhere else. To me this would be very interesting. It would provide more possibilities for artists and art professionals to do what they do. The West has the means and the venues and the possibilities, which attracts those intellectuals. The more we have in the Middle East, places like Sharjah that provide possibilities, the more we have lively, intellectual, critical discourse. This surely reflects on society and education, and politics even.
Edited by Gilane Tawadros
Artistic practice is one thing; subsequent interpretation and documentation are quite different matters. A wary acknowledgement of practices of inclusion and exclusion, based on often unexamined politics in art history and art criticism, is fundamental to the texts and artistic projects in the anthology Changing States. The book chronicles ten years of activities within the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA).
Trying to assess whether this impressive volume is successful or not, I stumble on the question of identifying the book’s genre more precisely. Is it best described as an introduction to the inIVA, a program catalogue, or a report targeting cultural policymakers? In the end, I have come to look upon it as a piece of cultural policymaking in its own right, a monumental documentary of texts and visuals, on individuals, deeds, and ideals pertaining to the inIVA project.
Under the heading “Archive,” there are a number of substantial texts coauthored by David A. Bailey, Ian Baucom, Sonia Boyce, Richard Dyer, Kobena Mercer, Gerardo Mosquera, Niru Ratnam, Irit Rogoff, and Alia Syed. They locate the inIVA within the setting of 1980s Britain, and the significant national as well as the international impact of associated artists and theorists. The texts center on, as Niru Ratnam quotes Griselda Pollock putting it, “how we might go about writing art history and art criticism… in a way that ‘differences the canon.’” Dyer asserts that only the last two or three years brought a sea change, opening new forums for artists and criticism. Instead of midway through the collection, these texts could have been placed in the beginning; they would have turned the contributions to address which “states” are in fact changing, to indicate a timeframe for this change, finally allowing us to interpret the outcome. What may be reluctance to hardwiring the project within a thematic of identity, representation, and cultural canonization, can be mistaken for avoidance of these very issues.
Nevertheless, the problematic of representation permeates the publication. Chapter headers run like a charter of established key words within the discourse of alter-modernity: Global, Identity, Archive, Modern, Making, Metropolis, Site, Nation, Translation, and Performance. Several of the contributions could have fit just as well in several of these chapters. But, of course, it is only to be expected that categories are a bit random, more directed to a thematic organization of the material than contributing to its historical contextualization.
It seems neither just nor warranted to foreground individual texts from this collection. The point is the groundbreaking nature of the event-scene as a whole, its very plurality; highlights from exhibitions, panel talks, excerpts from larger publications, and so on are throughout. In terms of reader-address or theoretical clarity, the contributions are simply too heterogeneous to be compared to each other; rather, they have complementary roles. Nevertheless, it is the plain text-work that stands out as the most memorable contribution. The remarks on translation, including the untranslatable, and on the time-space of modernity, are highly relevant to the field of contemporary artistic practice and visual culture studies. In the aftermath of the linguistic turn in cultural studies, as Sarat Maharaj puts it, what happens with “the translation of image to image, image to sound, or image to word?” And, as Stuart Hall asks, “What is this ‘new’ discovery that all of a sudden there are more than one set of modernities?” This at least redirects me to the question of inIVA’s relation to the rest of the visual arts field during these ten years. Is it a precursor or parallel (unacknowledged) universe — now that its horizon seems to converge with the mainstream art scene?
Oddly enough, all of the essays are of the same modest length. This is as comfortable as it is worrying in terms of content. The reader goes speedily from the first page to the last via sometimes extremely compressed and dense texts. Nevertheless, the texts are well edited, the images are wonderful, and the layout is impeccable. All the references to representation in the Venice Biennial, touring exhibitions, publications by key contributors, and so on, suggest a happy end.
Actually, the book’s end is a happy invention. Two sections follow the thematically organized and illustrated “catalogue” main section: a timeline (compiled by Ariede Migliavacca) written in micro-script, as if to underline the density of the information, and an impressive glossary (by Melanie Keen). Since the reference material is taken from events in inIVA history, this timeline-cum-glossary in effect maps inIVA. This subtle analysis tracks, records, and also reformulates the meaning of words like “Britishness,” “Canon,” and “Democracy,” in their trajectories from everyday speech to cultural policy. The first catalogue section may be cross-read with the chronological timeline and the mock-encyclopedic glossary, thereby disassembling and reassembling the discourse of/on inIVA. One can’t help but wonder when “differencing of the canon” became a practice in self-monumentalism.
Cairo: City of Sand
By Maria Golia
Reaktion Book, 2004
Egyptians generally perceive themselves as more cultured than their Gulf neighbors, whose joy and astonishment at the oil boom of the 1970s they did not share. Egyptian sentiments may be understood by imagining how Cinderella would have felt if the prince married one of her ugly sisters. The coup de grace is having to work for them, to bear the brunt of their childishly cruel experiments with newfound power and wealth. Unsurprisingly, the reports of Egyptian workers regarding Gulf employers are lurid and legion. The grudge runs so deep that whenever Cairo suffers a heat wave, people complain that it comes from the Gulf, or as popularly expressed, “from one of the mouths of hell to the east.”
The Egyptian relationship with the Saudis is one of exceptional tensions and constraints, in which profiteering, religion, cultural variants, and sour grapes all play a part; their attachment draws its breath from tenderly incubated enmities lying beneath a coverlet of regional cooperation. Although the antagonism is officially downplayed as quarrels among cousins, annual family reunions suggest otherwise. Since Egypt is not subject to the fierce religious restrictions enforced by Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries, each year during the holy month of Ramadan, thousands of Gulf tourists flock to Cairo like migratory birds, their women fully veiled and gloved with beaked masks, the men in flowing white galabiyyas and kufiyyas. And in the summer, to cool down, they come again, so that June through August is known as the Arab Season, a time when Gulf pockets are plucked like ripe fruits and the humiliation of formerly Gulf-employed menial workers (often cab drivers) is assuaged.
Although visitors from some Gulf countries are treated with respect, in the eyes of the average Cairene, the Saudis and Kuwaitis are many karmic lives short of redemption. The Kuwaits are considered arrogant and held responsible for the decline in tourism related to the war waged to protect their so-called democracy. Blame is laid at the Saudi door for untoward religious proselytizing. Some say they’re making a bid to re-establish the caliphate, and that, susceptible to Saudi-influenced religious rhetoric, more girls are taking the veil.
The Saudi’s religious pretensions (or ambitions, as they may be) are undermined by the fact that Gulf guests crowd the casinos, restaurants, and bars of Cairo’s five-star hotels. Gulf visitors are not your typical tourists. The closest many get to the Pyramids are the belly-dancing joints on the Pyramids Road where they carouse and stuff the dancers’ sequined bodices with dollars until dawn. It is known, though not much discussed, that some Gulf Arabs acquire Egyptian women during their vacations, usually young ones by means of the urfi, a private Islamic marriage contract, which is one of convenience for the male, dissolved immediately upon his request. Then there are proofs of a darker connivance, of the prostitution of underage girls and boys. For worldly-wise Cairenes, this can only amount to one appraisal, that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue — and for the Gulf Arabs, it’s affordable.
There’s a joke about Saudi King Fahd discovering Aladdin’s lamp. He rubs it and a genie appears who asks what the king desires. The king rolls his eyes and says, “Get lost Genie, I have everything.” Hence the colloquial expression describing Arab affluence, “they live above the genies” (3ayish foq il-ginn), despite the fact that many Gulf visitors have hard earned, modest means like any other tourists. This perception of unassailable wealth is magnified by the fact that Gulf Arabs appear to live above the law as well as the jinn. While Cairenes can look forward to the firm hand of a militaristic autocracy for offenses both real and imagined, Saudi nationals flaunt their connections, as in the notorious case of Prince Turk bin Abdel Aziz and his wife, Princess Hind Shams al-Fassi. The princess was convicted of grand theft in February 2001 for neglecting to pay for a million dollar’s worth of jewels. Sentenced in absentia to three years jail with hard labor, she has yet to be apprehended despite the fact that her address is quite well-known. Along with a small army of bodyguards, the al-Turk family occupies the top three floors of the Ramsis Hilton, a dingy postmodern castle-keep overlooking the Nile in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
When Cairenes refer to offensive Gulf visitors or residents as arabs, it is to distance themselves from something they look down upon, the same way African-Americans may refer disparagingly to unappreciated members of the community as “nigger.” Egyptians use the term arab without a trace of irony, because they consider themselves apart, rooted in a rich heritage they share willingly enough with their various Gulf guests, safe in the knowledge that it belongs to them alone, indeed, is the one thing that no one can take away.
From Cairo: City of Sand, Maria Golia, Reaktion Book, London 2004
Silk Road Gallery
February 8–23, 2005
The women sit on the floor like trees rooted in the ground. A Qur’an and prayer mat lie in front of the artist’s sister, covered in a multicolored flower shroud, prayer beads in hand. Another of the artist’s sisters sits stoically with two fingers of her right hand sheathed in her left fist. Unlike his sisters, the artist depicts his mother with a hint of movement; her body graciously sways to one side. Each woman appears against a backdrop of Qur’anic calligraphy, photos of a pilgrim at a shrine, and religious banners. The iconography forming the mother’s background is subdued, almost ghostlike, as if the artist wanted to invest her with an ethereal presence. The religious imagery is an extension of their bodies, both protecting and empowering them.
In contrast, the artist depicts himself in the clouds, almost levitating. He awkwardly balances a flower pot of forget-me-nots over an old, studded suitcase in one hand, and the picture of his grandfather in another. Signs of an idyllic nature bloom in the background, his smiling children safely ensconced in the greens, the sky overhead, waterfalls to his side; he appears to be in a conceptual heaven.
Tehran-based artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh had previously used members of his family as models (Old Paintings). In his latest exhibition at Silk Road Gallery he has come up with a new twist. Attached to each work is a tag that carries the label “Terrorist” and bears such information as name, nationality, religion, age, distinctive traits, and personal history of the four characters portrayed.
Hassanzadeh first gained international recognition with War (1998), a grim and trenchant “diary” of the eight year Iran-Iraq conflict. In Ashura (2000), an interpretation of the most revered Shia religious ceremony, the artist depicted chador-clad women engulfed by calligraphic forms and religious iconography. Chador (2001) and Prostitutes (2002) continued his exploration of sociological themes particular to Iran’s hyper-gendered urban landscape. The latter used police mug shots and the serigraphy technique to pay tribute to the 16 prostitutes killed by a serial killer in Mashhad, a religious capital of Iran.
The artist’s critical treatment of sacred themes initially set him apart from state artists who readily accepted and glorified them. He moved further away from both state and Iranian high society artists with his work on women. Increasingly, his art came to address an outside observer. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Prostitutes, where he sides with a dominant western view of eastern backwardness.
But this was an uneasy relationship. The artist’s search for an “indigenous” solution resulted in Pahlavans (2003), silkscreen reproductions of old photographs of traditional wrestlers who, according to the artist, “took care of the vulnerable people in society and were deeply respected.”
In 2001, Hassanzadeh began working on a series of portraits of western women that he tentatively called Occidentalist. He returned to the work in progress two years later, this time using the serigraphy technique rather than paint. By representing western women’s exposed bodies the artist attempted to return the gaze. Though this collection was never shown publicly, with the Occidentalist, the occident saw its body through an Oriental lens.
Hassanzadeh’s Terrorist women stare back with a placid patience. They are neither sad nor happy, deviant nor pliant, calm nor angry, sane nor mad. They are independent of their beholder, while they defy interpretation. The image of the artist, however, is different. His bulging eyes are recalcitrant and directed toward the spectator.
The six-piece silkscreen exhibit is impressive in its execution and final effect. The difficulty of working with the medium on such a scale is akin to muscle-flexing (the artist had to work and rework the stencil with lapidary exactitude). At the same time, it compellingly co-opts a medium often used in government-sponsored posters and affiches. Further, the portraits eerily resemble images of Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists posted on the Internet.
Standing before the Terrorist, the (western) spectator is dwarfed by the size of the works, unable to interpret the enigmatic look on the subjects’ faces. The imaginary landscape, rife with culture-specific symbolism, points to an unknown world with sinister implications. The image of the artist at once fascinates and overwhelms the viewer’s gaze. In the end, Terrorist is arguably a continuation of the Occidentalist project, exposing the potential for violence embedded within the western representational model.
January 30–May 16, 2005
Terrorism today seems a performative event staged in the mass media, a dynamic arguably manifest as far back as the early 1970s with the ascendance of the leftist paramilitary West German Red Army Fraction (RAF) as they began their very public armed offensive against authoritarian state structures.
At the recent Imagination of Terror exhibition at Kunst-Werke, curators brought together work by fifty-five artists of three generations, all of whom have dealt with the iconic RAF debacle in some manner, or in some cases, with questions of terrorism at large. The show addresses both public and private perceptions of the RAF, how the media has often defined our collective perceptions of the RAF (included are countless examples of media representations of the terrorists), as well as the attitude of the art world toward contemporary history and political discussions. Needless to say, the show has managed to attract a fair amount of controversy — particularly from a host of German politicians who argued that it serves to glorify the notorious guerrillas.
Marcel Odenbach is among those who witnessed the beginnings of the RAF phenomenon as an adolescent. In arguably one of the most important exponents of early video art, Odenbach takes the televised footage from the night of the rescue of the Lufthansa airplane Landshut in Mogadishu as his point of departure, addressing the tension that resulted from the ensuing television coverage. Remaining within the confines of the medium (video was at that time related to television, not cinema), we can see the artist trying to calm himself down by playing card games. Very much in the spirit of the times, Klaus vom Bruch merged television reports of the legendary Schleyer kidnapping with his own alternative television program (Das Schleyerband, 1977–78).
Over the years, history evaporates into a small number of emblematic images; the most commanding memories of the RAF seem to be the figures of the terrorists themselves, while the victims seem to be of lesser interest. In 1989, Gerhard Richter published his Atlas — Tafeln 470–474 and 475–479. Over several years of research, he assembled photographs of RAF founder Andreas Baader and sympathetic journalist Ulrike Meinhof from publications and archives, photographing them in a way that rendered the images almost unrecognizable. The negation of photographic presence opens a space for personal retrospection, but at the same time, evokes the fragility of subjective remembrance. In this vein, Michaela Mélian’s drawings of emblematic places in RAF history are sewn into paper with black thread. In spite of her violent attempt to fix the motive, the carrier and the material remain separated. The paper could tear, the lines could be blown away at any moment.
Some artists are too young to remember the first phase of the RAF presence. Apart from diffuse atmospheric memories, the RAF is nothing more than a symbol. It is this distance, however, that may allow them to disrupt the frozen consensus of media reality from an idiosyncratic and naïve perspective. In oversized drawings, Korpys/Löffler analyze photographs of the RAF apartment hideouts, offering a stylistic analysis of the furnishing, focusing on the relationship between the bourgeois façade and the revolutionary quest. The artists commissioned architects to design a prototypical apartment for terrorists, with a bourgeois entrance for potential visits by neighbors or the police. Johannes Wohnseifer translates a random biographic detail — he grew up near an iconic kidnapping locus — into a sculpture of constructivist-minimalist bent, one which emphasizes the aesthetic component of the conflict, transfiguring the historical data into pure abstraction (spindy, 1995). The difficulty of a personal approach to the history of the RAF is also the subject matter of Sue de Beer; in her video installation Hans & Grete (2002/03) a teenager imagines himself in the role of Meinhof, who apparently enjoys a US cult status not unlike that of Che Guevara.
The exhibition’s weaknesses are also its strengths. Almost all of the works lose out to the overwhelming impact of the media images. And the search for a personal view of the RAF, aiming to escape the truth claims of the media, mostly produces a cryptic form of subjectivity, while a great deal of historiographic explanation becomes necessary to render the works accessible. Indeed, the exhibition features extensive historic material, including an enormous media timeline in the central hall. Still, by avoiding the sensational, the artworks help dismantle the reductionist spectacle of the myth that the RAF has become, perhaps encouraging audiences to adopt novel approaches to what is often presented as monolithic.
Video Art Monthly
Shirana Shahbaz: Graceland i
Silk Road Gallery
A small group of smokers puffing away on the pavement by the door was the only outward indication that something was going on. But in the basement below, a busy crowd lined the whitewashed concrete space of Tarahan-Azad Gallery’s monthly video art installment.
Two projectors screened back-to-back videos, their sound spilling over into each other. Sousan Bayani’s camera floated over faces of crying babies. Simin Keramati zoomed in on a human eye, Bam’s citadel dancing across its pupil. Rosita Sharaf Jahan’s Stairs of Escape was heavy with portent. The camera followed a chadori-clad woman up metal stairs in magnifying jump-cuts, all this accentuated by an ominous bass. It was clear the actress had donned the chador just for the day, which added a sense of theatre to a film that bombarded its audience with symbolism.
With many Tehran exhibitions embracing big themes head on — suicide, the subjection of women, death, war — Amirali Ghasemi’s Video Diary, filmed over a year, was a relief. Road-trip postcards, coffee-shop ice creams, Tehran street lights, and bare flesh draped in sarongs folded into each other on a quartered screen. Intelligently edited and underscored by a pulsating soundtrack, it didn’t batter you round the head with metaphor.
Khosro Khosravi’s The Port, shot from a single perspective, captured a day in the life of a wooden jetty on the Caspian Sea where people sat and stared out into the haze. Peacefully beautiful, if repetitive, the catalogue for the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA) traveling exhibition Beams of Blue; Iranian video art 2004 describes the piece as a video “painting.” This seems less odd when you consider Khosravi is indeed a painter. In fact over half the artists at the Tarahan-Azad Gallery exhibition are painters, who move into video periodically, often for commissions. This may account for the overwhelming two-dimensionality of pieces that casually appropriate the label “video art,” or “video installation,” while ignoring the potential of video technology, or even controlling the context in which it is shown. Forced to slink across the projector’s beam to reach the cakes by the kitchen, it was ironic that our shadows accounted for the only interaction between the “video installation” and the exhibition space.
Aside from painters, many other Iranian video artists are filmmakers experimenting with a fashionable new form. Old narrative habits appear to die hard, however, and this muddy middle ground makes for difficult watching. Video has only been around for five or six years in Iran but with the notable exceptions of artists such as Mania Akbari, or Neda Razavipur, few seem to be thinking outside the box. Perhaps to blame is the complete absence of teaching or even visiting video artists. Shirin Neshat’s latest work Mahdokht, screened at the TMCA’s Persian Garden, became a site of pilgrimage for young Iranian artists, so rare is the phenomenon of seasoned video artists showing their work here. Video art is a fairly recent western import, and if it is to find a new expression in Iran, it needs to be approached as a medium in itself and not simply a sexy extension of the paint brush or the short film.
While Tarahan-Azad Gallery’s videos merged into a blur, in another small but better appointed white space across town in exclusive Farmanieh, the Silk Road Gallery was hosting photographer Shirana Shahbazi’s first solo exhibition in Tehran.
Shahbazi’s exhibition arrived as a breath of fresh air in an art scene groaning with heavy symbolism. Eagerly promoted by the Swiss Embassy, who sponsored the exhibition, most of the gallery’s clientele left the jam-packed opening empty handed (not least because this Citibank Prize winner’s price tag made no allowances for Tehran).
Shahbazi’s exhibition pooled work from previous series and included landscapes, lily pads, Shanghai at night, and snow-covered American clapboard houses. But her new grouping broke up previous associations. On one wall a still life of lipstick-red apples hung above a snowy landscape beside a green American football field, while twilight faded around a pine tree on its right flank. In the ensuing roundtable discussion at the House of Artists, Shahbazi was asked to explain the relationship between the images. We settled back waiting for the usual stream of guffle peppered with references to western philosophers. Instead she said, “It’s up to you what you take from it. You see what you see.” Some wrote off her photos as weak, simple compositions — photos that anyone could have taken. But refreshingly, Shahbazi’s everyday photos refused to conform to the endless quest of photographers for something visually important, or spectacular.
Mixing photo portraits with a photograph of a nineteenth-century portrait in oils, high-rises, and plastic high-rise models, her work questioned the ethics of representation — if that’s not too weighty a phrase for a photographer who invites her audience not to intellectualize. Though an anathema to those hooked on cosmetic complexity, her work suggested a return to the undervalued act of simply looking.
Royal Academy of Arts
January 22–April 12, 2005
Sir Joshua Reynolds keeps unusual company these days. His bronze straddles the gracious courtyard of Burlington House, home to London’s Royal Academy. Palette in one hand, paintbrush delicately poised in the other, Reynolds epitomizes the eighteenth- century English aesthetic. Flanking him, however, are draped two duplicate posters, each depicting a gigantic black demon of medieval Central Asian provenance. The creatures crouch cross-legged, their leering expressions at once menacing and comically protective of their English charge.
This witty triptych perfectly introduces Turks, one of the most compelling London exhibitions in years. Many of the 350 items, gleaned from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, Sakip Sabanci Museum and similar sources, attest to Turkey’s centuries-old love-hate relationship with the West. Anatolia’s Hellenic heritage clearly charmed the hardy Turkish invaders, who soon made it their own. Centuries later, Sultan Mehmet II hired the Venetian oil master, Gentile Bellini, to paint his portrait. And here it hangs, alongside a similar depiction of the sumptuously robed, rose-sniffing conqueror of Constantinople by a local talent, Shiblizade Ahmed.
Celebrating such coexistence tallies nicely with last December’s decision to start Turkey on the long road to European Union membership. Turks is the Royal Academy’s first exhibition of mainly Islamic art for seventy years. And Turkish commercial sponsors, like Aygaz, GarantiBank, Corus, Akkők Group, and Lassa Tyres, are eagerly supporting this “overture to Europe.”
Mostly, though, Turks suggests a sensibility that looks not westward, but eastward. That is, back to their nomadic heartland in western China. Hence early Uighur Bbuddhas and Ming dynasty bowls in Chinese ringzhi (mythological fungus) pattern, overlaid with Qur’anic inscriptions. A twelfth-century life-size statue of a courtly guard, and paintings of mounted warriors from fifteenth-century Tabriz, Iran, both retain Turco-Mongol features.
Undeniably this assault on the senses from so many corners has confused certain viewers. What does this have to do with Turkey, they ask? Why do we have to wait until Gallery Seven (of eleven) before we meet the Ottomans we all know?
The answer lies in the subtitle to the exhibition: “A Journey of a Thousand Years: 600–1600,” indicating a journey in space as well as time. Today’s Turkish Republic contains only about half of the world’s 155 million speakers of Turkic dialects. Turkish dynasties governed the largest Muslim realm in history, and in turn drank deep from the wellspring of Islamic creativity.
Consider incense holders from Syria, sandalwood boxes from Samarkand, Ottoman courtly carpets and caftans, or fabulous Qur’ans from all points along the Silk Road. Other surprises include Suleyman the Magnificent’s sword, damascened in gold, and his grandiose tugra (calligraphic signature). Turks also boasts the first known example of a picture formed from Arabic letters. Curiously contemporary in appearance, this lion portrait of 1458 denotes the Qur’anic verse “God is the best guardian, and he is the most merciful of the merciful.”
Over time Turks had adopted faiths such as Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Nestorian Christianity, before (for the most part) accepting Islam. Successive Turkish empires — Seljuk, Timurid, Ilkhanid, and Ottoman — incorporated fellow Muslim Persians and Arabs as well as Greeks, Slavs, Jews, Zoroastrians, Magyars, and Armenians.
Magpie-like, Turks incorporated all these influences. Yet the Royal Academy also honors more obscure pagan origins: in the appropriately dimly lit introductory galleries lies a primitive stone plinth bearing the runic legend of Uden, an eighth-century warrior from Kyrgyzstan, for example.
For true Turkish whimsy, visit the gallery dedicated to Muhammad Siyah Qalam (the Black Pen) and his school. Many of these sketches have never been seen in public before. They show demons trying to budge a stubborn donkey, hewing a tree, playing (and cheating at) tug-of-war, strumming lutes or slaying terrifying dragons. Throughout, there is an easy, confident approach to perspective and individuated expression that European contemporaries were still laboring to master.
Turks is exhaustive, and potentially exhausting. Accompanying illustrated talks and study days investigate everything from how Ottoman marching music inspired Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, to the current Turkic political renaissance and the mercantile dash for oil.
One abiding memory is the exhibition’s commentary on a thirteenth-century volume of Rumi poems. A Turkish Sufi master who wrote in Persian in the formerly Greek city of Konya (Iconium), Rumi called for “fellowship and unity between all humanity, while Anatolia was itself in political upheaval.” Turks makes the same plea in a similarly fractured world.
Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
March 3–April 16, 2005
He’s produced living rooms in solid gold, packaged veils for sale “as seen on TV,” and brought the imaginary spoils of the US-Iraq war to a Chelsea gallery. Artist Farhad Moshiri has now turned his hand to curating, here taking on the notion of the “ethnic artist.” Glitzy, tawdry, and highly relevant, the show poses critical questions through an ambitious claim to have “turned the art market on its head.”
The work on view is largely coherent, original, and visually compelling; it is also wholeheartedly spectacular and unashamedly seductive. The eight artists in the show demonstrate a range of approaches to themes, materials, and representations from Iran’s popular culture. The gallery entrance frames a pair of cowboy boots and a biker jacket straight from a Wild West flick set in ancient Persia: Designers/artists Michael and Hushi have created a wearable collage that recycles both Tehran and Las Vegas. From the opening line, Welcome is a play with the cowboys and Indians game of “otherness” in art, via visual strategies that blur distinctions between high and low, East and West.
Moshiri extends his native Iranian hospitality to the viewer, but continuously reminds us that it’s pure spectacle. Sofreh, a collaboration with Shirine Aliabadi, fills the center of the gallery with an imaginary Persian meal; each of the gilt-edged plates is printed with a different iconic image, from actors and athletes to advertising slogans and greeting cards. It’s an apt metaphor for an exhibition that illuminates consumerist ploys, brilliant (and unintended) humor, sentimental urges, and a decorative flamboyance that is by no means exclusive to Iranian society. Moshiri could have strengthened his statement by including artists from other regions, and he is quick to admit being daunted by the practical aspects of such a project.
The main attraction of the banquet is Moshiri’s own work, which dominates the exhibition as he plays gleefully with the idea of curatorial license. This may be an advantage — where else would we find avant-garde maverick Fereydoun Ave cheek-by-jowl with a vernacular photographer from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Square? The grouping is unexpected but not that arbitrary: Ave’s collages of wrestlers, roses and Cy Twombly–esque splashes of paint reference the same local notions of heroism and masculinity as the poignant studio portraits of Bahram Afandizadeh and Mehdi Hosseinzadeh.
But while the contemporary stylistic devices of Ave, Moshiri, or Aliabadi put the “kitschy” appeal of the work in quotation marks, local craftsmen/artists Afandizadeh and Hosseinzadeh are practicing their craft in earnest. Placing them in the same show runs the risk of presenting the latter artists as naïve and their work as only valuable in terms of kitsch. And what is a celebration of “Orientalist kitsch” but a compounding of western condescension towards “other” cultures? Negar Azimi’s catalogue essay makes an important point in referencing the local meanings and histories that vernacular photography represents, but she too recognizes the pitfalls: “Where does his craft end and your Art begin?”
The art world is often quick to neglect local histories, and playing cheeky with Orientalism has its dangers. How obvious must a critique be, and can it play the game without complicating the issues? Moshiri has considered the consequences of taking sides: In an interview with the editor-in-chief of Bidoun included in the catalogue, he demands an answer to “the valid criticism of perpetuating cultural clustering.” His own answer, it seems, is provided a few pages back in Tirdad Zolghadr’s contribution to the catalogue. “Strategic essentialism,” Zolghadr believes, “remains the most efficient key to penetrating the Center of the Real.” Luckily, Moshiri’s show is more communicative than Zolghadr’s essays are accessible. It appears that the authors believe in addressing the center-periphery problem from within the art market, following the tendencies of “contemporary” or “internationalist” art in order to subvert its models of supply and demand.
Michael and Hushi’s cowboy boots, then, are a highly appropriate symbol of challenging the western art world from within. The western tradition of staging so-called primitive cultures has a long history; a need for defining the other that has doubtless evolved since the days of parading “authentic” Sioux Indians at the World’s Fair, but continues as a staged phenomenon of exotic display. The questions that Moshiri raises are important ones, but remain unanswered, localized and slightly glossed over by the sheer spectacle. It should not however, be overlooked that Welcome is a valuable experiment in testing the boundaries of “selling” and “exhibiting,” “kitsch” and “art,” “self” and “other” — concepts I gingerly place in quotations, for as the exhibition demonstrates, they are by no means mutually exclusive.
First Balkan Biennial of Contemporary Art
State Museum of Contemporary Art
December 17, 2004–February 13, 2005
Over the last two years, the better-known contemporary art shows on the Balkans included: In Search of Balkania, Graz, 2002; Blood and Honey — Future’s in the Balkans, Klosterneubyrg/Vienna, 2003; and In the Gorges of the Balkans, Kassel, 2003. While Cosmopolis 1 was not the best, nor the most interesting among them, it had a number of redeeming qualities one must stress. First of all, the exhibition did not concentrate on the ordeal of the war and postwar in ex-Yugoslavia, nor did it focus on the Balkan history of hatred and trauma. It had much less blood in it, avoiding many Balkan clichés and age-old mythologies — what I would call “the Balkan blues” — which in turn made it easier to reflect on whether there really is a relevant artistic agenda in the region today. Finally, although the chief curator, Magda Carneci (Bucharest/Paris), is Balkan-born, she invited ten other curators to select and coordinate artists from their own home countries, leaving the event less suspect in terms of imposed identity and such.
Nevertheless, the event does lay claim to being the First Balkan Biennial of Contemporary Art, although it would be unfortunate if it adhered to a strictly regionalized format, either in terms of geography and artist selection, or in terms of some common agenda ascribed to artistic production in the region. Despite the shortcomings of the region-based biennial format, the only regionally defined biennial that seems to avoid these pitfalls at the moment is the Baltic Biennial, which has an approximate 50:50 ratio of from-the-region vs from-out-of-region artists.
It seems that the greatest curatorial challenge here is to first define a relevant agenda, and only then to invite the artists in a concerted effort to link a given region to other art centers, concerns, and even to other regions. Why not, for example, link the Balkans to the Near East or Middle East, rather than to try and fight the Balkans’ way into the mainstream European art world? The “Balkan way” involves stigmas and stereotypes that are all too tempting to use and abuse as convenient labels, and finally, for career benefits. If given a choice, no one in the art scenes of the region would accept the stigma of being strictly “Blood-and-Honey-Balkan.” And although everyone seems to agree that, in the present environment, it is hard to find an alternative to the instrumentalization of clichés, clearly the reworking of this marginal European region into an axis of broader relations is the more challenging and productive option.
In any event, the above aspects made this show less “Balkan” than other comparable large shows. Organizers were less concerned with a common Balkan identity than with current realities — realities marked by many promises and few clear objectives, diverse and shifting (if more stable than they ever were in the past fifteen years). For example, one might consider the eccentric political status of most Balkan nations. Until recently, Greece was the only EU member-state in the region, but also the most self-contained one: For a long time, I didn’t know any Greek artists, nor did I know anyone who did. Cosmopolis is not only part of Greece’s desperate recent efforts to make use of its EU status, but also to reintegrate culturally within the region. Then we have Turkey, historically the Ottoman “backbone” of whatever Balkan identity there might be, and thus a possible link to the Middle East. And yet the country is struggling for EU membership. The question remains whether Bosnia will survive with the help of the international community, and so on and so forth.
To come back to the exhibition itself, there are, I would say, three works that capture the essence of the show. Mircea Cantor’s (Bucharest/Paris) video The Landscape is Changing (2003) shows an informal demonstration of young people on the streets of Tirana. Instead of slogans, they’re holding mirrors on sticks, reflecting the surrounding physical reality in a distorted yet very amusing way. Flutura & Besnik Haxhillari’s (Tirana/Montreal) contribution, meanwhile, is nothing but a large, standard suitcase on wheels, but one that is made of transparent Plexiglas. This way, the authorities may rest assured that these two migrants have nothing to hide.
Finally, Danica Dakic’s (Sarajevo/Dusseldorf) cycle La Grande Galerie: Roma — Enclave Preoce, Kosovo (2004) consists of carefully composed photographs of local Roma characters in front of a mixed backdrop of landscapes and canonical paintings from the Louvre Museum, reminiscent of a famous work by Georges de La Tour. The irony of these beautiful prints is simple: The artist, who was once a refugee, is photographing people who have been vilified for supposedly collaborating with the Serbs in Kosovo, on behalf of the Kosovo Albanian ethnic population, which was itself repressed by the Serbian ethnic population in Kosovo, which in turn is ethnically linked to the Serbian ethnic population in Bosnia, which itself once repressed the Muslim Bosnian population, which happens to correspond to the artist’s background, and so on. Deeply theatrical in atmosphere, Dakic’s prints convey a sense of roles that are obviously changing.
Well, you know, it is the Balkans after all. Here, as the saying goes, it is not important if I am not doing well, the most important thing is that my neighbor is not doing well. Dakic seems to reverse this traditional “wisdom” of the region and I will follow suit by not mentioning my own work in this show, although I would very much like to.
Emily Jacir: Accumulations
Alexander and Bonin
February 26–April 9, 2005
Full disclosure: I’ve saved every email I’ve ever received (4,952 of them, stored in folders), and I have on occasion read others’ mail (no password-stealing, just a few sidelong glances at Kinko’s or on an airplane). So I was favorably predisposed to Emily Jacir’s first solo exhibition at Alexander and Bonin, accumulations. The young Palestinian-American artist apparently saves her email too, and for Inbox (2004–’05), the centerpiece of the show, faithfully reproduced forty-five of them in oil paint on wooden panels. Although the look is neo-conceptualist cool, the content is by turns vitriolic, amusing, heartrending; I read every word, and imagine many a less snoopy viewer did also.
The messages in Inbox, like cyberspace itself, speak of dislocation and displacement, but a connective tissue, however fragile, emerges: This work, like several of Jacir’s projects, was created in part by others. For Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages That Were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948 (2002), the artist opened her New York studio and invited volunteers to assist her in completing the work of sewing the names of those 418 villages on a burlap tent of the sort distributed by the Red Cross. Jacir’s handmade, collaborative aesthetic allows her to avoid the heavy-handedness to which other work that addresses the Palestinian diaspora (Rashid Masharawi, Mona Hatoum) occasionally falls victim. I missed this sense of community in the exhibition’s other work, a thirty-eight minute video installation titled Ramallah/New York (2004), which features footage of various workaday places in each city — bars, hair salons, travel agencies, shawarma shops. That it’s not always possible to determine which city is on which screen (they alternate back and forth, left and right) may testify to global movement and exchange, but a sense of fluidity is compromised by the two channels, frequent intercuts, and overlapping dialogue. Then again, perhaps this is Jacir’s point: Ramallah and New York are that far apart.
What effect art can have in and on this broken world is a question that threads through Inbox. “I have not made one piece of art,” a friend worries, and another person inquires, “I noticed for the past month and a half that you’ve been very busy with public demonstrations and political manifestations. Are you doing art?” The query is misguided; political commitment is not separable from art-making for Jacir. Her best-known work is Where We Come From (2001–03), a multimedia installation for which she asked twenty-seven Palestinians, “If I could do anything for you anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” Fulfilling the wishes — visit my mother’s grave, play soccer with the first boy you meet in Haifa, go on a date with a woman I’ve only spoken to on the phone — to the best of her abilities, she documented her activities in photos, text, and DVD. Granting many of these requests would likely be impossible today; perhaps the Internet’s de-territorialized ethereality is a last site of resistance, at least for now. One postscript to an email reads, “I hope they’re not spying on my or your emails. Tell me if I shouldn’t write this stuff to you.”
What other city in the world would have the audacity to celebrate commerce as culture quite so blatantly? Only Dubai plc, a concept built on an empty strip of desert in the Gulf where ambition and chutzpah is tempered by a disarmingly febrile nightlife — all this in a region not known for its sense of humor or penchant for international coital exchange. But a sense of humor is probably what’s best prescribed for the emirate’s annual monthlong carnival of shopping and promotional record-breaking activity.
Hot on the heels of last year’s purchas-athon — which pulled in 3.1 million visitors, forty percent of them tourists, spending 1.6 billion dollars — this January’s carnival of crazyfun employed a bevy of PR agents to rope in not only the entirety of the city’s majority Subcontinent population but a fair number of Indian tourists and Gulf visitors as well. With the hypnotic visage of Bollywood deity Amitabh Bachchan on buses, billboards, and probably the butts of the city’s broads peddling incredible prizes in gold instead of cash, the prospect must have seemed irresistible. “In India they’re into winning and shopping for gold, so we highlight that aspect. For Europe we highlight the beaches and the Global Village. Without us spending a dollar, we have visitors from Australia just through word of mouth,” says Saeed Nabouda, head of the organizing committee. The Dubai Shopping Festival, or DSF, as it is known — so cozy, so familiar — offers you more lottery tickets the more you buy, a promotion which the government encourages all businesses in the city to take part in. Cue riotous scenes in Carrefour, and the exchanging of wads of cash at the airport’s excess baggage counter as tourists check in with televisions, stereos, fridges, and — bizarrely — boxes of frozen chickens, among other bargains.
A main attraction is the Global Village. According to its creators, the Global Village has a vision “to create a must-see cultural landmark on the agenda of the visitor and resident of Dubai.” So it’s another shopping mall. But as a mega-mart with a cultural theme, it lies at the heart of Dubai’s mission to portray consumption as positively avant-garde. Different countries of the world are represented by pavilions, each designed in some quintessential national style. The stalls are staffed by, as it were, women in clogs and pigtails for Holland, ponchos for Peru, or latex and zippers for Russia. Nations are defined through their tat, and it’s always interesting to see what takes precedence: dirt-cheap silver khanjar and prohibitively expensive “therapeutic” honey in the popular Yemen pavilion; organic coffee and Aboriginal tourist art in Australia; trashy, made-in-China baby clothes from Nepal. And there’s always something for the post-ironic kitschophile, such as suicide bomber dolls from the Palestine pavilion, or fake Louis Vuitton bags from Russia. You get the picture.
Yet, despite the easy cynicism, the Global Village has succeeded in stirring up a passion that’s better left unchallenged. Members of all of Dubai’s myriad nationalities head there with a determination to find ethnic bargains that could give their expat living rooms the upper edge and break the monotony of the same three-piece suites and colonial chaise lounges from Ikea. It’s been so successful that the government of Dubai has extended its presence for over a month after the festivities are officially over.
And sneer as much as you like. By the end of this year, Dubai will have the largest mall outside North America (Mall of the Emirates), featuring a huge artificial ski slope, with more to follow in 2006–’07; the whole DSF carbuncle is set only for greater things. “Look at the size, the feeling of the upcoming shopping malls,” says Nabouda, who describes himself as one-hundred percent “Dubai product.” “Soon Dubai will be a shoppers paradise because you don’t just consume.”
Klartext!: The Status of the Political in Contemporary Art and Culture
January 14–16, 2005
The ascendance of the political in contemporary art over the last ten years is evidenced from Documentas to biennales the world over, from Manifestas to thematic “international” shows in museums and galleries. Inside the elite art system, questions of representation, the new global order, colonial and neocolonial practices and their consequences, shifting identities related to migrant movements, and the location of an irritated subject in aggressive capitalistic systems are presented to a more or less engaged audience. One nonetheless finds that the gesture of the political is at times stronger than the actual content.
In a world where capitalism has radically infiltrated most corners of the planet, where Castro’s Cuba lives under a paradoxical form of communism in which prostitution becomes of tool for survival, alternatives are difficult to find. On one hand, issues of aesthetics and theory are occasionally discussed inside the exclusive art system, from show to show and panel to panel. Yet the impact on society at larges seems to be rather small. One can’t help but wonder whether all of this talking takes place in order to sustain the art system and its practitioners. The art system represents capitalistic structures, reproducing tough market politics and functioning under funding conditions that focus largely on product and efficiency — which is exactly what we saw at the recent Klartext! conference in Berlin, where one statement may have followed the next, but little substantive discussion took place. Although this is a critique of the form, a number of urgent and important statements were made during the course of the three-day conference, a number of them highlighted below.
The author and curator Marius Babias emphasized the problem of anesthetizing the political, providing numerous examples of the strategic use of politics in the arts. Importantly, he critiqued the art world’s tendency to distance itself from social problems — as if it isn’t sexy enough to deal with the failures of European social politics at a time when the welfare state is being dismantled and aggressive migration policies are being implemented. These are policies connected to a brutal colonial history that, as a first step, argued Babias, should be reflected upon by European cultural practitioners in a form that refuses didactic moralizing. Such initiatives could take us closer to developing to developing archiving strategies that, ultimately, can help rethink the writing of collective histories.
Brian Holmes’s remarkable lecture on “Transparency & Exodus” put forward substantial thoughts on “the political process in mediated democracies,” where “choices of involvement and experiences of confrontation” are related to the crisis of experience of the subject. Here, the western political subject enters a state of emergency, confronted with its own material existence. In such a state the “deepest commonality between experimental art and activism, the notion of process, as a value in and of itself” becomes urgent. Holmes’s citation of Vaclav Havel’s significant 1978 essay on the “Power of the Powerless” was wholly pertinent as it speaks of the subtly manipulated subject in consumer societies.
Indeed, the notion of process-oriented exhibitions or activities is undeniably a form of resistance toward a system consumed with production and efficiency; it creates a space for audiences to interact and integrate their perceptive experiences. Although such process-oriented works include a specific fragility, they offer audiences the possibility of awareness and responsibility.
The Bernadette Corporation discussed the crisis of “the lack of experience” in contemporary art, a disease that arguably affects the whole of society, finally influencing political art. In such a situation, the collective taste, the gestures and codes of western individual subjects, the satiated children of freedom and neoliberalism, become signs of a confrontation with emptiness.
Anita di Bianco and the Beaver 16 Group she is affiliated with proposed a counter model in their practice: an anti-systemic anarchic structured space with political focus, largely based on Naomi Klein’s notion of learning from others while rejecting the post-Fordist concept of the expert.
The possibilities of action rather than mere critique were most clearly articulated in a closing panel that included Jacques Rancière, Chantal Mouffe, Irit Rogoff, and Roger Burgle. Here, panelists discussed the possibility of creating a space for a community that resists the separation between art and politics. To achieve such a community, however, it may be necessary to investigate forms of oppression, articulate critique, and offer visions without moralizing — all strategies that make it possible to transform the symbolic order. In the end, exhibitions have great potential to create a frame of action as alternative public spaces for research, debate, and more radical questions — empowering both artist and public.
Klartext!, if anything, offered us ideas: To clearly take responsibility and to engage in process by using exodus as a form; to reject the complete integration of capitalism and engage and identify with the question of art; to question the logic of projects supported by cultural politics and funding structures; to emphasize continuity rather than spectacle and therefore to create a frame of artistic activity which provokes action; to understand the space of the listeners/audience as a political space; to see the audience as singularities, than individualities, an ontological community; to create the possibility to engage.
Klartext! and the Appearance of the Real (3 Notes)
Discourse and the fiction of the real
Whenever one speaks publicly, whenever an utterance is enunciated, there is a danger. Terms like politics, aesthetics, art — terms inscribed, described, negotiated, discussed, and exploited — are statements involved in a circulation of meaning whose parameters are set by the organization of their appearance. These moments are moments of discourse, where meaning is inscribed upon a body politic. Conferences, where discourse is identified as such, are a highly potent form of “collective memory” (as described by Simon Sheikh) — moments where a “public is produced.” Although there seems to be public hunger for an engagement with these specific themes, a utopian fallacy underlies these efforts, this utopianism mystifies rather than clarifies, subsuming an engaged encounter with the suspended promise of solutions and redemptive answers.
In light of Jacques Rancière’s statement at the closing panel of Klartext! that “the real is fiction” and that, furthermore, we are constantly involved in a “consensus of the real,” the utopian impulse can be seen as a desire for escape — a placative moment in the process of appropriation.
In three days packed with panels, presentations and workshops, curators, philosophers, and thinkers, the likes of Chantal Mouffe, Rancière, Simon Sheikh, Irit Rogoff, and Marion Van Osten presented engaged expositions of the theoretical underpinnings of the messy business of dealing with politics and art. Examples of specific practices were presented by the likes of Yes Men, Oliver Ressler, the Bernadette Corporation, and Deborah Kelly. From the outset, a clear separation between practitioners and theoreticians was established, a subtle form of exclusion — as if theory does not constitute a practice or that the works presented are not necessarily enactments of discourse — as if both are not ultimately forms of fiction.
Cynicism, self-interest and activism
The insistence on presenting activism in the guise of art is a form of reappropriating it within the hegemony of the cultural sign. From Ressler’s literal documentation of interaction between activists and the authorities (from, in his own words, “the viewpoint of the activists”) to the ironic but ultimately limited work of Deborah Kelly (where the “normalization of process,” of gender, of race is tackled in a clichéd form and thus functions as a way out of a severe and engaged discussion), art is used to make politics. This practice could be dangerous because it assumes that, as Rancière warns, there is no “specificity to artistic praxis,” a conceptual move that mystifies while claiming to clarify. By hiding the specificity of art praxis, we hide the genealogy of this discourse. By claiming to speak the politics of the world, discourse hides its own politics. The abundance of fashionable activism, an indulgence that was obvious at Klartext!, makes one question the vested interest in a politics of play, an emphasis on pleasure, desire, transience, and impermanence as political tools. These are values that are transferred to the field of critique — becoming critical standards for the evaluation (exclusion of specific practices) of art.
Brian Holmes’s notion of “Exodus,” a strategy through which practictioners of a specific discourse evacuate the space reserved for them by the system they function within to discover a new positionality — a new subjectivity, a new organization of ontologies — becomes significant here. If one is to exit, it might be necessary to lose belief. A radical form of self-interest and cynicism (distasteful and unfashionable words) might be a strategic form of interfacing with the “real.”
Questions: problematics of the fetish
Is it the wish for some kind of interrogation or reorganization of activity that fuels the fetishization of gesture that one frequently finds in works that claim resistance? Or is it a nostalgia for the unrestrained, an interest in constructing a heroic self-image?
The question (as expressed in the press release) might not really be “identifying whether we are involved in the politicization of art or… an aestheticization of political themes and contents,” but rather that of interest and power relations that govern the very framing of both the political and art, and by extension the intensified fetishization of specific moments. It might be able to investigate the specificities of practice and discourse. Although the “criticality” that Rogoff espouses assumes an unstable political subject, it refuses to discuss the weight and history of consensus within the perception of what is framed as art as a force stabilizing that subject — one more element in the constant appropriation of process into the affirmative support of hegemony. Are we thus condemned to obsess over fetish, endlessly re-enacting karate kicks as we walk out of a Bruce Lee film?
Can’t tell your Turkman from your Kurd, your fatwa from your fatoush? The makers of the Iraq Smart Card have just the thing for you — whether you’re a military man, a (tragically) misguided backpacker, or a stringer seeking the next big thing. Complete with invaluable Arabic phrases like “drop your weapons,” “lie on your stomach,” “surrender,” the Smart Card has you covered in every conceivable jam. Contents include a section devoted to personal space, Iraqis do not share an American concept of “personal space” in public situations; honor and shame, constructive criticism can be taken as an insult; helpful dos and don’ts, Don’t show women attention by addressing, touching, or staring at them. Ouch. Move over Ralph Patai, this is Cultural Intelligence for the rest of us, the pocket-size Dummy’s Guide to the Arabs, anthropology lite.
From the country that brought you the pyramids, things-Sphinx, and falafel comes City Stars, Egypt’s homage to mall culture and monumentalism at large. Now, anyone who has been to Egypt knows that the Egyptians hardly compete with the khaleejees in the realm of rabid commercialism. Cairo has never been a clutch shopping destination beyond classic gallabeya style — not quite the place to pick up your Manolos, JChoo, or otherwise. But with City Stars, Egypt is one step closer to the consumerist vision of euphoria pioneered by America and company.
The first phase of the ambitious mega-project was inaugurated in October, marked by the opening of the Stars Center commercial centre, the Intercontinental Heliopolis Hotel, as well as the residential and administrative towers which represent 66 percent of the project. The Stars Center will include a Monoprix-BHV market, an indoor amusement park named the Magic Galaxy, a sixteen screen cinema complex, a replica of Cairo’s Khan Al-Khalili bazaar and an international fair ground covering an area of 20,000 square meters. Move over Vegas, City Stars also boasts two (nearly real-size) pyramids.
International chains within the complex include Benetton (the original, not the Egyptian version), Timberland, Guess, and Virgin. This is to say nothing of the introduction of mall-food culture: Cilantro, Costa, Cinnabon, and Chili’s count among the culinary delights within its hyper air-conditioned confines.
Nevertheless, the going has not been so easy. Countless store openings have been delayed as products remain stuck in the country’s famously impossible customs. And the reception has not been uniformly positive among residents in neighboring Nasr City and Heliopolis. A recent article in Cairo’s Al-Ahram Weekly noted prevailing rumors surrounding the cause of a February water shortage; residents blamed the colossal mall and adjoining hotel complex. Wrote the Weekly: “Residents believe the gigantic buildings ‘swallowed’ their share of water.”
An inauspicious launch to the cultural revolution perhaps, but as retail anthropologists, we’ll stick this one out.
I wouldn’t necessarily call Jehane Noujaim a master chef. But you might have noticed that this has never been top priority in Bidoun’s cooking section. But what Jehane may lack in culinary prowess she makes up for tenfold in something most of us know nothing about: presentation. Despite having just arrived in New York on a red-eye flight from LA that morning, despite having lived out of a suitcase for over a month and coming home to a refrigerator full of condiments, Ketuta and I were welcomed so graciously we failed to leave until well past midnight. Must be something about the Southern hospitality on her mother’s side. The filmmaker’s (Control Room, Startup.com) mother hails from the United States, while her father is from Egypt.
Jehane shared three delicious and easy recipes from both sides of her family, showing us what it takes to be a host. Recipes can guide one through a dish step by step, but there is no step-by-step guide to grace.
Teta’s Rice Salad
½ cup of rice
5 tomatoes, diced
5 cucumbers, diced
½ cup of kalamata olives
¼ cup pine nuts
4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 small red onion, grated
Juice of 1 lemon
Soak pine nuts in warm water until puffy.
Boil rice for 10 minutes. Strain and mix with pine nuts.
Add grated onion, lemon juice, salt, and olive oil.
Mix together with vegetables, add salt to taste, and serve.
Fatma’s Babaganoush Recipe
1 head of garlic
1 bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
1 bunch of parsley, finely chopped
1 bunch of scallions, finely chopped
½ bunch of mint, finely chopped
1 cup of olive oil
½ tablespoon of cumin
1 tablespoon paprika
Pinch of cinnamon
¾ cup of tahini
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut eggplants in half, coat in olive oil. Bake in oven, cut side down, for 45 to 60 minutes (until soft and squishy inside).
Chop tip off garlic head, wrap in foil with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and bake with eggplants.
Peel and mash skinned eggplants.
Pop garlic pieces out of skins, dice, and add to the bowl of mashed eggplant.
Add cilantro, mint, scallions, and ¾ of a bunch of parsley to eggplants.
Add spices. Be bold.
Add olive oil and tahini to the mixture. Blend together well and sprinkle with the remaining parsley for presentation. Serve with warm pita bread.
Grandma Jane’s Midwestern Apple Crunch
(or Mom’s Harankash Crunch when you are in Cairo)
8 Granny Smith apples
1 cup of flour
1 cup of oatmeal
1 cup of sugar (or adjust for however sweet you like it)
2 sticks of butter
1 cup of pecans, chopped
1 tablespoon of cinnamon
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Peel the apples with a vegetable peeler and slice them about half an inch thick.
Butter the baking dish, place apples in the pan, and then mix the rest of the ingredients until it forms a crumble.
Cover the apples with the crumble mixture, sprinkle with a bit more sugar and bake for 45 minutes.
Add raspberries or other colorful fruit on top for presentation.
In the world of American politics, we rarely expect our leaders to take on the sufferings of others in distant corners of the map. After all, the state of the economy, foreign policy, and beyond are often much more immediate, concretely relevant matters. Perhaps we just don’t have faith, perhaps it is what history has taught us, perhaps we simply don’t care. Whichever way, it came as a surprise when the current president of the United States and his then-contender decided to do just that during last fall’s presidential debates — privilege the fate of a people in a little known region in western Sudan called Darfur, for whom fate had dealt an undeniably tough hand. There he was on primetime television, casually offering up the term “genocide” in the manner that one would talk about the arrest of Martha Stewart (tragic) or scold your girlfriend for breaking her Atkins routine. What had changed to bring about such a reversal in norms?
Samantha Power, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, chronicles the historic American allergy to uttering the word genocide — to acknowledge that the systematic extermination of human life is taking place — particularly when it does not happen to coincide with the strategic interests of America or its allies. From the Armenian genocide (in which, Power writes, America had the ability to intervene) to the Holocaust to Iraq and Rwanda, the American government as well as assorted others have consistently tiptoed around the term, more often than not, avoiding its necessary implications, legal and moral.
Doubtless many activists and concerned citizens at large walked away from the television that evening feeling vindicated; the historic mention on such a stage was surely a victory. Right, high-fives all around at the local chapter of Amnesty International. Finally, the suffering of a people far away, on a dark continent no less, had managed to penetrate the power halls of Washington politics. But was it a victory?
That fated fall evening serves as an indication of a remarkably novel trend in American foreign policy. Whatever one thinks of the current American administration, it happens to privilege the language of human rights to an extent that no other administration has in history. Suddenly, what had once been footnotes in the political lexicon — mere afterthoughts to history — have been afforded a platform. Foreign (always foreign) locales and names like Darfur, Chemical Ali, and Nobel-winner Shirin Ebadi have entered the collective vocabulary as this administration has increasingly put the potent mix of democracy, human dignity, and finally, human rights, at the top of its foreign policy agenda. Never mind the business of making distinctions between them all. Mere details.
But before we proclaim the End of History, the glib appropriation of what is often referred to as “rights talk” raises several questions, particularly because what has happened in Darfur since the presidential debate (read precious little) arguably exists as manifestation of a perhaps more alarming trend: Putting a premium on rhetoric without associated action, using a language that smacks of fetishism.
The Bush administration is not the first to use the language of rights. It was during the end of the Vietnam War that human rights most visibly entered the American foreign policy calculus (by now the comparisons between the recent Iraqi elections and the irrational exuberance surrounding 1967’s South Vietnamese elections have been recounted to death). Former president Jimmy Carter elevated the status of human rights, however unsuccessfully, introducing a cabinet level post in its name and revealing a warm and fuzzy side to American politics. And this is to say nothing of the marriage of Cold War interests and human rights; the tune of “I am the friend of my enemy’s enemy” reverberated throughout the African continent and beyond as countries coming to terms with independence were branded either freedom fighters (hence the human-rights references) or red terrorists with what seemed the arbitrariness of a flip of a coin.
Perhaps what is so remarkable about the current brand of human-rights talk, at this particular time in history, is its categorical nature. This is not human-rights lite. Instead, it’s heavy-handed speak that resides at the top of political agendas — at national security briefings, cabinet meetings, and the like. But what ramifications will this appropriation of rights as language have for the field, much less the populations for whom America purports to speak.
9/11 marked the crucial turning point in giving form to the ideological nature of the current American administration, one that presents itself as diabolically opposed to the forces of Evil and, in equally Manichean manner, assumes the task of the modern-day mission civilisatrice. Suddenly, the world is marked by a “dark threat,” with “no place for human dignity” and characterized by “joyless conformity.” In the speech from which these quotations emanated, an address to graduates of West Point, President Bush went on to use the words “freedom” and “free” as if he owned the rights to them — no less than thirty times in the span of a single speech. Finally, someone had taken former President Carter’s soft-on-rights approach and armed it with teeth, sugarcoating militaristic tendencies with the language of the contemporary crusade.
In Iraq, human rights have evolved into a clutch legitimizing factor in dethroning Saddam. Following the missing WMD debacle, rights jumped to the fore as a reference point in dismissing Saddam as a maniacal fraud who terrorized his own population. Again, the irony of seizing upon this après le fait is not lost on all, and likely brought to us by those very verbal acrobats who likened the defense of Kuwait in 1991 to a fight for democracy.
The Bush administration’s position on human rights is perhaps best evidenced in the thirty-one-page National Security Strategy report that President Bush submitted to the US Congress at the end of September of 2002. The document’s emphasis on pre-emptive military action and its disdain for the rule of international law have made it the object of much interest (understatement). But also noteworthy is the language used to articulate the notion of rights. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth has noted the document’s emphasis on a vague notion of “human dignity,” rather than direct reference to the concrete language of “rights.” Roth has argued that the verbal slippage, which seems innocent enough, creates loopholes from which the US may evade international obligations linked to the legal conception of rights. But isn’t “human dignity” enough? No, say Roth and others, not only does it sidestep international law, but it also smells of paternalism, rendering disempowered “victims” those it applies to.
So why the language of ambiguity? This is likely where the well-documented double standards begin. Suddenly, America’s marriage of convenience to a number of states with sub-par human rights records merits scrutiny. With Pakistan’s post-9/11 strategic partnership with the US in its war on terror came the easing of diplomatic and economic sanctions, the resumption of arms sales and the promise of massive financial bounties. The same treatment applied to Saudi Arabia, from which the US receives upwards of twenty percent of its oil imports. Egypt, which famously receives aid only second in line to Israel, is called upon to “show the way toward democracy in the Middle East” — so says the President during his second inaugural address. Forget the fact that activists continue to be held in Egyptian prisons without trial, that the country remains under emergency law, and that President Hosni Mubarak has been ruling uncontested for two decades and a half. His February announcement that he would amend the constitution to allow for direct, multiparty elections seemed to excite western analysts and the New York Times more than it did most Egyptians — a people accustomed to pomp with little delivery.
In a recent New Yorker piece, Jane Mayer further chronicled the unholy relationship between America and some of its allies, extraditing terrorist suspects to foreign states for brutal interrogation. This “extraordinary rendition” policy allows the US to put the onus of abuse on its “strategic partners,” as if to say, We don’t carry out torture, but you can, thank you very much. Egypt sits on top of the list of recipients, while Morocco, Syria, and Jordan also figure heavily. Other strategic partners are notorious human-rights abusers; Uzbekistan, Russia, China, and Venezuela merit the raise of an eyebrow when President Bush speaks of the import of human dignity, what have you. But perhaps these are just details amidst a state of never-ending code oranges, occasional code reds.
And all of this is to say nothing of the ironies of suspending international law at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Afghanistan’s Bagram. Alberto Gonzales, the man who has taken over former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s coveted job, was central in laying the legal foundation of the Bush Administration’s infamous detention and interrogation policies. Fetishism is about the cult of worship. But worship does not necessarily imply actualization. The appearance of it all, its monumental iconography, is often quite enough.
But what of keeping up appearances? Having decided that the democracy deficit was the root of all terrorism, and that democracy = human rights, the unequivocal target of the bulk of the administration’s liberalizing rhetoric has been the Arab world — making it particularly revealing to look at as a case study. The release of the United Nations Arab Human Development Report in 2003 has served as a center point in the crafting of a discourse surrounding reform in the Arab world. Compiled by leading Arab thinkers, the report pinpoints poor governance as the primary source of the region’s woes. Since its release, it has famously received over a million hits on the Internet.
Particularly since the onset of the occupation of Iraq, Washington has begun to elbow its friends in the Middle East. An elbow and a wink, as if to say, Hey, we can’t be talking about the need for democracy in this part of the world when you let your political opposition waste away in maximum security prisons. Lighten up a bit, will you? The Millennium Challenge Account, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), and the White House’s Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative make up an all-star entourage of prodding tools.
At times the prodding is more unambiguous than not. When Tunisian president Zine el Abidine ben Ali visited the White House in February of 2004, he was met with explicit reference to his country’s human-rights policies. “I look forward to talking to you about the need to have a press corps that is vibrant and free, as well as an open political process. There’s a lot we can talk about,” Bush told a stunned ben Ali in front of reporters.
Do such rapprochements yield results? Cut to elections in historically election-less Saudi, the birth of National Human Rights Council as well as cabinet restructuring in Egypt, electoral reform in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen, the drafting of a new constitution (by committee) in Qatar, and a new parliament in Bahrain. In the meantime, from the March 2004 gathering on Arab reform in Alexandria to the Arab League or the Doha Conference on Democracy and Reform in the Arab World, there has been no dearth of conferences and hyperbolic declarations on the sufficiently vague notion of reform. What’s next? Clerics and Co. in Iran dissolve the Islamic Republic and call for teary-eyed reconciliation on the White House lawn, Amrika zende bash as their anthem? Not likely. This may be democracy, but it is democracy at gunpoint after all.
Indeed, while talk has been high on the agenda, some are quick to point out that the constitution of the aforementioned reform get-togethers are marked by tightly controlled participant lists, while final declarations and goals remain lofty — high on ambitious ideas and low on creating a space for concrete change. Others point to the token nature of such initiatives. In Saudi Arabia, for example, many offer that the recent elections were for largely ceremonial municipal councils and, in practice, won’t yield much authority at all to elected representatives.
And while populations push given little openings, their governments push back, as if to say, We will only go so far. American gesture arguably begets reciprocal Arab gesture. The arrest of Ayman Nour earlier this year, an opposition member of the Egyptian parliament and the head of a new political party called El Ghad, or Tomorrow, serves as case in point. Perhaps it was the draft constitution that Nour presented to the People’s Assembly that rubbed state security the wrong way; the draft called for fully democratic presidential elections within a parliamentary republic, thereby curtailing the president’s substantial powers and destabilizing the very basis of President Mubarak’s tenure. Meanwhile, say its detractors, Egypt’s National Human Rights Council has yet to do anything substantive in nature. Its annual report, scheduled to come out in December of 2004, has been delayed again and again.
The question remains, how token is token? However cosmetic these top-down gestures have been, it’s hard to deny that some space has been created for critical discussion and dialogue where there previously was none. Countless western commentators have fixated on the protests last February in which Egyptians gathered downtown, many wearing yellow stickers with the Arabic word for “enough” pasted over their mouths. Their beef? Mubarak’s plan to run for a record fifth term. And at the start of this year, the newly formed independent Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper openly asked readers what they thought of Mubarak in a two-page “man on the street” spread. Seems harmless enough, but in the context of Egypt, it’s no small feat. In January, on King Abdullah’s order, a group of senior Saudi officials met with a visiting delegation from Human Rights Watch, the first time a western human rights group was granted entry to the country. And then there is Lebanon’s Quiet Revolution following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on the Beirut corniche in February. Pundits like Thomas Friedman, whose utterings on the region are read in Biblical fashion in some circles, have gone as far as to proclaim a “Baghdad Spring,” referring to a succession of auspicious reforms in the region. These movements are “very unusual,” notes Friedman in a February 20, 2005, editorial, “like watching camels fly.”
Camels aside, are said reforms wholly attributable to President Bush’s heavy hand in the region, is democracy his gift to mankind? Friedman, Bush, and others run the risk of silencing history, labeling historic elections in Iraq point zero and ignoring the homegrown grassroots movements that have been working in these countries over the course of the last two decades. What of important reforms in Morocco initiated under King Mohammed VI — from alterations in family law to holding competitive multiparty parliamentary elections (deemed free and fair by the US government and the National Democratic Institute) and beyond? What of internal pushes for change (at great cost to the pushers) in Saudi and Bahrain going on since the mid-1990s, or most recently, the organic movement for sovereignty in Lebanon? The latter may have been a case in which Lebanese interests coincided with those of the Bush administration hoping to deprive Syria of its Lebanese/Hizbullah card in the negotiations over Golan with Israel. But hey, does the coincidence make it okay to take all the credit?
It is precisely the fact that the message of reform is marked by the gaffes of its bearer that the human-rights rubric has encountered incredulous masses. In more than one circle, human rights has become synonymous with neo-imperialistic scheming. In Iraq, Iran, and beyond, human rights have been pinpointed as tools of western interest, while many activists have gone as far as to distance themselves from the human rights field, disowning it completely. In Egypt, in the aftermath of the Queen Boat affair (in which gay men were systematically targeted by the state), many local human-rights activists were reluctant to associate with what they viewed as a western-centric notion of sexual rights. Meanwhile, supporters of the aforementioned imprisoned opposition member, Ayman Nour, practically begged the Americans to refrain from rendering him a martyr — realizing that to do so would kill their credibility completely. Needless to say, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s eventual championing of Nour’s cause by boycotting a trip to the region may have caused more harm than good.
Suddenly, human rights has become a term on the order of an expletive, while local human-rights movements have suffered from association with an allegedly American worldview, a top-down imposition that uses the language of rights in order to, say its detractors, impose narrow interests, or alternatively, impose its own views on freedom and such with little awareness of the particular cultural context onto which it is thrusting itself. How does one address the death penalty in a country in which sharia law is administered, or teach AIDS prevention strategies in a country in which abstinence is the rule of thumb?
Webster’s dictionary defines “fetish” in three ways. Though seemingly different enough, all three definitions capture the framework of the flirtation with the human-rights language that has been elaborated above:
1a: an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner; broadly: a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence
1b: an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion : PREPOSSESSION
1c: an object or bodily part whose real or fantasized presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression
2: a rite or cult of fetish worshipers
While Marx’s vision of fetishism was one in which citizens of the world worshipped commodities, bestowing supernatural value upon them in arbitrary manner, it takes on new resonance in this context: Rather than creating value where it did not exist in the Marxist sense, the current use of human rights language as championed by President Bush et al. has managed to suck all value out. This is Marx’s commodity fetishism in reverse. And on steroids, at that.
For Freud, the fetish is born of the male child’s horror at female castration. Confronted with the mother’s lack of a penis, the child represses this lack and finds an object to serve as substitute. The act involves not only finding the substitute object, but also a subsequent act of forgetting the act of substitution. The fetish is a creative denial, a sort of magical thinking that helps the fetishist ward off anxiety and restore a sense of well-being, all the while producing a kind of amnesia.
So is this a creative denial of the double standards or an ardent belief in freedom’s ring? Whatever it is that moves him to use the language of human rights, President Bush seems utterly intoxicated by it, sliced-bread style. But that’s the danger of falling in love. Love blinds us all. At this rate, the entire human-rights field may soon be rendered a limp stick — hijacked by political convenience and ideology, finally emptied of credibility, weight. As Michael Ignatieff has elaborated at length, human rights are rarely above politics. Nevertheless, here the field runs the risk of becoming an outright slave to it.
But then perhaps Bush’s better half, First Lady Laura Bush, summed it up best in the aftermath of Iraq’s debut elections, post-Saddam, capturing the upside of it all. “It was so moving for the President and me to watch people come out with purple fingers,” she beamed. If that’s not poetic justice, I’m not sure what is.