Expo 2020 Dubai runs on a note of spectacle – light shows, gargantuan screens and fantastical architecture. But it’s worth seeking out the public art programme that was commissioned for the event. The works are easy(ish) to find: most of them lie alongside one of the circuits surrounding Al Wasl Dome, recognisable by the fluttering cut-outs of birds above, and they’re all marked on Google Maps.
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The public art programme was put together by Tarek Abou El Fetouh, an Egyptian-born curator known in the Gulf for his work with the Sharjah Art Foundation and for organising Abu Dhabi Art’s performance programme Durub Al Tawaya.
Abou El Fetouh set the standards for the Expo programme concept intellectually high – tackling the idea of how one imagines the world in its entirety – and worked carefully and closely with local and international artists.
The resulting exhibition of contemporary art snakes through the site like a low, twangy bass line.
'A point in time' by Khalil Rabah
For A point in time (2021), Palestinian artist Khalil Rabah researched three objects invented by the 11th century Persian scholar Al Biruni to measure latitude. He enlarged them to life-size proportions – rescuing them from the dusty footnotes of history and turning them into playful forms that beckon the public’s engagement.
A small black circle embedded in the platform signals Dubai’s position in the map they create, and a rectangular window is cut out in the hollow brass-coloured cone; children have been spotted popping into the structure, hiding out in the achievements of Arab history.
It sounds corny to say that the Expo 2020 Dubai programme, as it developed from idea to actual installation, has come “down to earth” – but that is what it has done, in artworks that draw their strength from interaction with the world around them.
'Garden' by Hamra Abbas
Hamra Abbas’s Garden (2021) is a near one-square-metre installation of inlaid marble. The design for the piece comprises personal memories and historical examples of gardens, in particular of the Mughal era. The inspiration for the marble inlay technique comes from South Asia, where it was brought to the Mughal court by Italian craftsmen.
Garden’s mountains, trees, river and greenery are global in specific ways: a cherry tree was inspired by one in Abbas’s garden when she lived in Boston; the banyan tree is from her home in Lahore. And the job of assembling the marble is a story of the world not in abstraction but in its real, politics-riven life.
The banyan’s soft pinkish marble comes from India, but Abbas was unable to source any new material because of the trade difficulties between India and Pakistan. This tree represents her entire reserve of the stone, depleted for Expo. The river in the composition, meanwhile, uses five tonnes of lapis lazuli, sourced from Afghanistan, with some negotiation.
'Terhal' by Abdullah Al Saadi
Abdullah Al Saadi, a reclusive, near legendary Emirati artist from Khor Fakkan, has three large maps on display. Al Saadi was part of the so-called Five who coalesced around Hassan Sharif, but he retreated from his relative fame and has rarely exhibited despite the high esteem in which he is held.
For his work Terhal (2021), Al Saadi took as his canvas enormous rocks the colour of sand in the rain, and painted diagrams of local villages on them, complete with houses, mosques, roads and rivers. To see these petroglyphic renderings among the built environment of Expo is a portal to the expanse of the UAE beyond its cities, which continue to be lived in despite the attention of the world elsewhere.
'Chimera' by Monira Al Qadiri
Monira Al Qadiri is showing Chimera (2021), the first in what she hopes will become a Gulf-wide series of public sculptures of enlarged drill bits. The bit branches off into five nobbled sections, each designed to wick away sand from the bottom of the ocean as it bores down towards the oil.
At Expo, the work’s iridescence, influenced by the time of day or the surrounding lights, becomes a game to play, as visitors crane their necks this way and that to watch the hues shift.
The inability to make sense of the entire object is perhaps a metaphor for perception: how can we see things that surpass our own vantage point, except through our imagination?
'Sonic Planetarium – Dripping Lunar Sextet' by Haegue Yang
Haegue Yang’s Sonic Planetarium – Dripping Lunar Sextet (2021) comprises six orbs inspired by planets in the solar system. Yang added tendrils of jingly-jangly bells on to them, giving the work the appearance of a band of diva-like comets, clamouring for attention as they sail through the sky.
Since her earliest works, one of the Korean artist’s greatest strengths has been her exploitation of all the senses – not only vision – to create meaning behind her pieces. In one early commission she used the scent of flowery perfume and gunpowder to suggest the assassination of German activist Petra Kelly by her lover (Lethal Love, 2008). Here, she uses sound. After Expo and its throngs of visitors end, the six spheres will become mobile, with users able to rotate them like whirlabouts in playgrounds, creating a ringing, clacking cacophony of the world.
'Distorted Familiarities' by Asma Belhamar
Exhibitions of public sculpture are rare but not unprecedented, and most of the works at some point reflect on the tricky medium itself: the work has to be accessible to a wide audience and endure past the elements and art's own faddishness. Asma Belhamar’s sculpture Distorted Familiarities (2021) takes on precisely the question of the longevity of Dubai's built environment.
Though a stand-alone work, Belhamar's sculpture could be read as part of a trio, tucked away near the park in a triptych about time, which would include Afra Al Dhaheri’s marble Pillow Fort Playground (2021), her attempt to render her childhood memories permanent, and Shaikha Al Mazrou's The Plinth (2021), a site for future artist commissions.
Al Dhaheri often works with more organic, supple material, such as hair or clay, and her trompe l'oeil rendition of something soft in a hard marble feels wonderfully close to Al Mazrou's signature visual language – flecked more with questions of memory, but a silent connection nonetheless. These three works’ air of monumentality, even of being old before their time, bends in their favour – they are betting on outlasting the spectacle.
Expo 2020 Dubai is on until March 31, 2022