Many things come to mind at the mention of Burj Al Arab – luxury, gold, "seven-star" hotel, tennis on a helipad. Contemporary art, however, may be low on that list.
But now, the Jumeirah Group-owned property is hoping to change that, inviting Galleria Continua from Italy to stage a solo exhibition of Turner Prize-winner Anish Kapoor, specifically works that have not been displayed before.
Tucked away among the retail outlets on the first floor, the gallery offers a respite from the surrounding golden interiors. The space has been fitted out like a white cube, except for one side with large windows looking out on to the waters of the Arabian Gulf.
On view are two of the British-Indian sculptor’s signature discs. Made of stainless steel, the pieces’ lacquered surfaces change colour as the viewer moves across them. Kapoor has been producing his discs since the mid-1990s as a way to play with perceptions, at times making the surfaces reflective or infusing them with gradations of colour.
In these two new works, completed in 2021, the titles express how their palettes change: Spanish Gold to Magenta Satin and Red Satin and Black Mist.
The show also includes a series of globe sculptures hollowed out with shapes (oval, triangle and square) in the centre. Made in 2017, the Alice collection, referencing Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, reflects a kaleidoscope effect when peering into the sculptural “rabbit hole”.
Finally, two alabaster pieces are also on view, interacting well with the natural light that streams from the windows. An untitled work from 2020 is simple in form: a square with a sunken centre. The artist has slowly whittled away at the material towards the middle so that natural light can filter through the concave shape, creating a diffused glow that almost appears artificial.
The gallery, which has outposts in seven cities around the world, including Rome, Paris, Beijing and Havana, has been participating in UAE art fairs such as Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art for more than a decade. This year, Galleria Continua’s booth at Abu Dhabi Art features works by Kapoor, Shilpa Gupta, Nikhil Chopra and JR.
The gallery has agreed to run the space at Burj Al Arab for six months, with the Kapoor exhibition running until January. “Art is a meeting point between different cultures,” says Lorenzo Fiaschi, co-founder of Galleria Continua. "Kapoor represents a universal speech about light, spirituality, reflections, colours. So I think it’s good to connect all these ideas here."
Fiaschi acknowledges the unusual new setting. “It’s not where we imagined we would be, especially with our style, but the manager of the Burj invited us to create something here and proposed us on an adventure,” he says.
He is referring to Ermanno Zanini, regional vice president and general manager of Burj Al Arab, who says that the lack of artistic engagement from the hotel was a “missed opportunity” he’s seeking to rectify.
Zanini, who has been with the hotel for six years, also oversees the Capri Palace in Italy, which was bought by Jumeirah in 2019. Working with the Capri Palace for almost two decades, he hopes to replicate some of the cultural initiatives from the enterprise in Italy to the UAE.
The hotel in Capri, for example, has an art collection and a gallery on its property with works by artists such as Keith Haring, Arnaldo Pomodoro and Allen Jones, and has commissioned a few local artists to produce site-specific works.
Whether the same initiatives could work in Dubai is something Zanini is still figuring out. The collaboration with Galleria Continua is the first step, but details on what’s next are still vague.
When it opened in 1999, Burj Al Arab embodied Dubai’s idea of luxury, from its opulent interiors, mostly painted in gold, its fountains, aquariums and high-ceiled atrium. For a moment in time, it was the main symbol for the emirate, and its “seven-star hotel” label helped to drive the narrative of Dubai as a shimmering city of wealth and opportunity.
Zanini acknowledges that notions of luxury have changed since then, but still calls the hotel “one of a kind”. The aim of this turn to art is to refresh Burj Al Arab’s image and perhaps make it appeal to a wider demographic of travellers who are not only after extravagance, but culture, too.
The Anish Kapoor pop-up exhibition will be on view at Burj Al Arab until January. To see the works, visitors have to make a booking on Galleria Continua’s website. The gallery is open every day from 11am to 1pm and 2pm to 8pm.