Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 November 2020

New art show in Abu Dhabi challenges the concept of a city

We visit a new exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat that features artists’ varied impressions of a metropolis

'Dipstick' (2003-09) by Jeff Koons. Courtesy Jeff Koons
'Dipstick' (2003-09) by Jeff Koons. Courtesy Jeff Koons

By putting on an ­exhibition called Popular Culture and the City, the curators at Manarat Al Saadiyat have given themselves a free pass. The title can mean pretty much anything you want it to – handy if you are going to present a selection of works that don’t always appear to have much in common.

Cities are, the catalogue notes, “the cradle of popular culture that originates in sound, imagery and movement, whether that is advertising, mass production of consumer goods, music, art, literature, food, technology or urban landscapes”. See what I mean? You might struggle to justify the inclusion of a ­Constable landscape, say, or one of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings but otherwise, most things qualify under that description. I’m being facetious, but the scope of this show is certainly broad.

The upside to this is that Popular Culture and the City, comprised of 24 artworks from the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi’s collection, is impressively varied, spanning decades and continents. We get a sense of how the term “city” can be ­interpreted in such wildly divergent ways – a vibrant squall for Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, who worked primarily in New York; something altogether darker and more oppressive for Palestinian artist Wafa Hourani.

The exhibition also cleverly illustrates how, for all these differences, humans are often confronted by the same concerns. Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car (2004), in which the Austrian artist has puffed-up with styrofoam and polyester a convertible Porsche, greets us at the entrance to the show. This bulging slob of a vehicle with its cartoonish folds of red “flesh” is an amusing, if slightly obvious, comment on greed.

Wurm’s sculpture is followed by a pair of Jacques Villegle’s trademark collages, created from layered scraps of advertising posters ripped from Paris billboards. The best of these is Carrefour Crimee Botzaris, 3 Juillet 1972 (1972). Shards of paper hustle for space on the canvas and words lose their meaning in the way that a face distorts in a broken mirror. Wurm and Villegle, not even working in the same century, are both critiquing consumer culture in strange but equally profound ways. It is a neat trick to display them together.

'Carrefour Crimee Botzaris, 3 juillet 1972' (1972) by Jacques Villegle. Photo by Francois Poivret. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Georges=Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, Paris
'Carrefour Crimee Botzaris, 3 juillet 1972' (1972) by Jacques Villegle. Photo by Francois Poivret

But there is a catch to all this. It is difficult, at times, to trace a coherent thread through Popular Culture and the City. The subject is simply too vast and, while there is some benefit in exploring how diverse cities around the world can be, it is not a strong enough theme to sustain a whole show. No surprise, then, that some of the juxtapositions left me scratching my head.

Wafa Hourani’s Qalandia 2047 (2009) is a beautiful model of the West Bank town, depicting in miniature the events of an accompanying timeline that runs from 1967 to 2087. As one entry reads: “2047: The Palestinians built a garden in the camp and called it the Flower Garden. It became a romantic meeting point for young and old lovers from the camp.” Qalandia 2047 is a delicate, very quiet artwork, more about hope and the resilience of community than it is about consumerism and the selfish excesses of urban life.

'Qalandia 2047' (2009) by Wafa Hourani
'Qalandia 2047' (2009) by Palestinian artist Wafa Hourani

So it’s odd that Qalandia 2047 is immediately followed by a brash Jeff Koons sculpture. Dipstick (2003-09) features two “rubber” rings, which are actually made of ­polychromed aluminium, attached to either end of a T-like iron structure. Depending on your opinion of Koons, you might think Dipstick is a sharp dig at ­consumerism and its slippery appeal or a massive joke at the expense of all of us. (I’d suggest the title of the piece is a fairly clear indicator.) Either way, it’s tricky to work out what exactly connects Koons and Hourani.

Similarly, Spoons (2008) by Emirati artist Hassan Sharif, a muddle of stainless steel spoons all mangled together and connected by a maze of copper pipes, is a sharp ­comment on how frenzied consumerism reduces the meaning of objects. Rokni Haerizadeh, an Iranian artist living in Dubai, meanwhile, is represented here by Rolling Stone (2009), a nine-part series of watercolour and ink works on paper, criticising the ways in which the Arab uprisings were reported by western media. Haerizadeh has doctored images from the news, replacing human heads with animal heads, as a way of reclaiming control of the narrative.

Spoons by Hasan Sharif
'Spoons' by the late Emirati artist Hasan Sharif

Koons and Sharif undoubtedly have ­something to say to each other, as do Hourani and Haerizadeh, but seeing all these works together feels scattershot.

The most invigorating section of the show arrives when the focus is on a single city. New York comes alive here through an extraordinary run of works by Haring, Basquiat and Frank Stella. You can feel the energy fizzing off the canvas of Haring’s Untitled (1987), a maze of shapes and colours like the flashing lights of a migraine. Basquiat’s Untitled (Car) (1980) is a smudge of reds and browns, dashed off by a man with no time to hang about. Stella’s La Penna di Hu (1984-1985) clubs together an assortment of materials, stacked on top of one another, spinning joyously off the wall.

These works prove that the best way to understand a city through its artists is to take a magnifying glass to a specific moment in time. To try and examine the concept of cities in an all-encompassing fashion, particularly in just 24 works, inevitably allows only for the sketchiest portrait. Again, the term “city” resists definition. For all the first-rate names on display here, this is something the show never quite manages to overcome.

Popular Culture and the City is at Manarat Al Saadiyat until October 5. For more information, visit www.manaratalsaadiyat.ae

Updated: July 23, 2019 12:23 PM

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