As one of the defining issues of our time, it’s no surprise that this year, the world of arts and culture was dominated by the issue of environmental sustainability. While the start of the year was marked by a nuanced exploration of art's relationship with climate change, over the summer, things escalated into a frenzy of activists gluing hands to frames and hurling food over masterpieces.
The actions of these environmental activists have sparked furious debates. The motives they express are myriad; but broadly, they’re presented as a form of anti-capitalist protest, designed to draw people’s attention to the entrenched global systems and frameworks propelling humanity towards an irreversible ecological tipping point.
Some see the actions as a form of performance art, engaging museums and artworks in new ways to express urgent ideas. Most, however, have run out of patience with a set of deliberately sensational and provocative acts, which are increasingly putting beloved works by the masters at risk.
The protesters argue that such perspectives are farcical; valuing paintings over the future of humanity. However, this is an oversimplification; as their critics usually say they do not take issue so much with their cause, but with their methods.
This debate comes at a time when the art world has turned inward and asked itself whether it was doing enough to combat climate change — the answer is, clearly, a resounding no. However, artists, curators and galleries alike are working to change this by measuring, studying and learning to mitigate the carbon footprint of the art industry.
On one hand, programming is increasingly becoming geared towards issues of sustainability — both Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and Hayy Jameel in Jeddah have hosted numerous shows about scarcity. Yet these institutions are also recognising that simply hosting exhibitions addressing the climate emergency is no longer enough — for the very act of mounting these shows, and moving the people and parts required, creates a massive carbon footprint.
Here in the UAE, Jameel Arts Centre, which in 2020 became the first institution in the Gulf to implement a carbon audit, hosted a further water usage survey this year. Both confirmed that the overwhelming majority of their emissions come from air conditioning and humidity control, which the centre has absorbed as part of a multifaceted attempt to address the climate emergency.
Similarly, Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi has introduced a policy where no more than half the material required for an exhibition, including the art itself, can be shipped in. Alserkal Avenue has also introduced solar panels and has piloted a scheme to reuse condensation from AC units in the common area washrooms.
These moves align with the efforts of the international Gallery Climate Coalition, a network of 800 members from 20 countries devoted to creating a road map for galleries to reduce their climate emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2030.
What is becoming most apparent is that while for many years, the West has been exporting and imposing its ideas on the rest of the world, here in the UAE, something fascinating is taking place. The country is beginning to reverse the tide by becoming a springboard for ideas from the region and the Global South, to be heard across the globe — as is evident from next year's Art Dubai programme.
No longer content to simply import models that do not fit the climates and landscapes they find themselves in, designers, architects and artists from these areas are coming to the UAE to share their thoughts on how best to adapt practices, materials and philosophies to suit their situations.
Drawing on older practices inherent in their various civilisations, they are pushing back at failing strategies with time-honoured approaches.
These ideas form the philosophical core not only at the coming Sharjah Architecture Triennial, but the UAE’s National Pavilion for next year’s International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale — both of which emphasise marrying traditional models of reuse and reappropriation with modern forms of technological innovation and collaboration.
Speaking with Sharjah Architecture Triennial's president Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi at an event this year, the triennial's curator Tosin Oshinowo said it was time to go beyond the buzzword of sustainability, and focus on renewal and regeneration. “If we go back to the simple principles of previous times, of being responsible to the environment, you start to see that before the last 400 years of man's mass development, man had been on this Earth and things functioned. We need to almost look back to look forward," she said.
Mirroring this, Faysal Tabbarah, the National Pavilion UAE's new curator for the International Architecture Exhibition at Venice Biennale 2023, said: "One of the primary aims of the project is to highlight this abundance of knowledge and find opportunities to integrate it with contemporary advances in technology, and by doing so, amplify the relevance of these practices at a time of increasing climate change.”
After all, few aspects of design have as immediate an impact on our ways of life, and subsequent footprints, than architecture. The spaces we live in determine how we live, and when it comes to designing a more sustainable future, any vision has to start there. Or, in Oshinowo's words: “Architecture has to be approachable, it needs to be a little bit more lifestyle driven."
The Arabian Peninsula is a region that historically always had to rely on making the most of very little; this philosophy is steeped in the very flora and fauna that somehow burst from its barren mountains and dunes. It is a mentality that for thousands of years fuelled and sustained the people of the region; and one that the rest of the world, steeped in the excesses of industrialisation and subsequent deindustrialisation, would do well to learn from.
The realms of art and design are where this spirit can be crystallised further into the concepts, philosophies and sparks of inspiration needed to propel this conversation forward. In order to meet the criteria laid down by the climate accords, and to tackle a global problem, archaic colonialist structures need to be deconstructed and rebuilt collectively by the entire world.
Along the way, we can only hope that the conversation also continues to broaden out to encompass the other elements of sustainability; including the social and economic dimensions too often left out of the conversation.
As one of the world’s cultural and economic centres, at the heart of the world, the UAE is in a very rare position of being able to host conversations by people from technical, geographic and philosophical boundaries, to generate the ideas of tomorrow. Such a space allows individuals to transcend their own intellectual and cultural boundaries, to become part of a more inclusive dialogue.
Fittingly, as the UAE gears up to host the monumental Cop28 event in 2023, we can expect the country’s arts and cultural spaces will continue hosting these conversations, and arriving at very real solutions, in the form of new ideas, partnerships and paradigms.