When Expo 2020 Dubai closes at the end of March next year, the new four-square-kilometre area will become District 2020, billed as a model global community that incorporates art throughout the mixed-use site. This makes Expo’s visual arts programme one of particular permanence: the artworks are cast in steel, welded on to plinths and, literally, set in stone.
One of the largest works on show will be a near five-metre-high sculpture by Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri, whose analyses of the Gulf’s past and future have made her an important Khaleeji chronicler. The work is part of her series focusing on the small drill bits – about the size of a hand – that bore into the sand or seabed to extract oil.
“I’ve made these sculptures before, but this is the best I’ve ever done,” says Al Qadiri of her new piece, Chimera. “The size, the iridescence of the oil – we were able to get it just right. The colour changes throughout the day based on the light, and the size means that you can only ever see a part of it.”
Al Qadiri enlarges the proportions of drill bits so that the sheer weirdness of their shapes comes into focus – the pearl-like nobbly bits that help to drill down, the nose-like cone that creates the hole in the ground, the tentacle-like sides that wick sand away. They appear prehistoric and futuristic, like ungainly sea monsters that have crawled on to the shore.
The work’s title might seem to reinforce its creature-like aspect, but it is taken from the industry name for the drill bit. The shape's evocative oddness comes ready-made, something that also must have struck designers there, since "chimera" is the word for a creature composed of different body parts. Al Qadiri coats the objects in a shiny, green-and-pink paintwork that imitates the iridescence of the drill bit’s prize: the oil.
The work connects the Gulf’s history of pearl diving to its present as an oil-rich economy. While pearl diving is often thought of as a “pre-history” distinct from today’s use of oil, Al Qadiri’s attention to the lived practice of the two industries draws out their similarities: men, such as her own Kuwaiti grandfather, diving down to the seabed to extract its wealth, much like these drills that now reach farther down in search of black oil.
“What is oil but trapped ancient sunlight, or the remains of ancient beings that have been compressed and transformed through time?” she asks. “My dream is to have the drill bits installed as public sculptures across all the Gulf countries. They are a self-portrait of this generation, which has exhaustively mined the seabed in order to extract its goods. I imagine these as bodies from a more sustainable future, almost as if I am commemorating this current moment by looking at it from the point of view of the future.”
As a public sculpture towering over the site, its colours make it seem altogether alien from the neutral tones of the built environment, and already the site's curator, Tarek Abou El Fetouh, says that construction workers and passers-by are stopping to contemplate the peculiar object.
Time and perception are the subjects of the exhibition, which the Egyptian-born curator put together by thinking through the ideas of Arab astronomer and mathematician Ibn Al Haytham’s Book of Optics, a tract written during the Islamic Golden Age. The treatise explains how objects are seen by the eyes and understood by the brain.
“The fact that this is the largest and most diverse World Expo ever makes it into an image of the world,” says Abou El Fetouh, who also co-curated the Sharjah Biennial in 2009 and Durub Al Tawaya in Abu Dhabi from 2013 to 2019. “In the Book of Optics, Ibn Al Haytham writes that the recognition of the full picture is formed in the imagination. It teaches us the power of imagination – which is necessary in any attempt not just to know something, but simply to see it.”
All but one of the 11 artworks are new commissions and they root their responses to this idea in the natural world – using earthy materials, reflecting on man's relation to the environment or utilising the light and shadows that make sundials of all public sculptures, particularly in the sun-streaked climate of the Gulf.
Ramallah artist Khalil Rabah installed a cone, a dome and a brass spindle on top of marble flooring, with an engraved diagram. The works are inspired by instruments invented during the time of Ibn Al Haytham that measure a site’s latitude by the sun and small objects. Rabah's sculptures will accurately show the latitude of where a visitor is standing at the Expo site in Jebel Ali.
“This is something quite important,” says Abou El Fetouh. “I wanted to underline that we are on one precise point on the planet.”
This idea is also behind Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s work. The Tunis-born artist, who lives in Berlin, recorded the shadow of a bicycle through the course of one specific day at the Expo site. The artist then cast her ghost-like version of a bicycle – made from the shadows of the sun and the moon – into steel contours, which will be embedded into the pavement.
Other artists considered the idea of travel and world-making. British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare will show one of his Wind Sculptures, in a new pattern, commissioned especially for Expo and hand-painted on to the work's enforced fibreglass. The sculpture mimics a large piece of fabric that appears to be blowing in the wind.
Other artists participating include Haegue Yang, Olafur Eliasson, Hamra Abbas and Abdullah Al Saadi. Meanwhile, works by UAE artists Afra Al Dhaheri and Asma Belhamar will be shown in a section curated by Munira Al Sayegh and Mohammed Al Olama.
For Abou El Fetouh, the theme distilled his ideas for the ambitious curatorial project, by which he hopes to expand visitors' parameters of thought to include past millennia, the future and the Earth's existence among the cosmos.
“There is a theory that the placement of the Pyramids of Egypt reflects the constellations in the sky,” he says. “The idea has been discredited, but I love it. Before there were cities and electric lights, our ancestors were able to look up and see the stars at any time. They thought of the world entirely differently than we do. I thought to myself, 'What if we bring back the stars into this site?'”