In 2015, Tarek Al-Ghoussein set out to photograph Abu Dhabi’s islands – all 215 of them.
His ongoing photographic project Odysseus, some images from which are currently on view at The Third Line in Dubai, documents the outlying islands off the coast of the UAE capital.
Images from the 30 or so islands he has visited so far speak of desolation. In the past, the artist has captured ghost towns such Al Mousnoua, for example, located just 10 minutes off the main Abu Dhabi coast.
These locations are not revealed in the visuals, which are kept free from any telling geographical features. Instead, the artist reflects on ideas of place with the use of wide shots, allowing the landscapes to stretch into near-mono-coloured textures.
At times, Al-Ghoussein inserts himself into the image. In Al Habel Al Abyad, the artist, dressed in black, curls up on the ground, mimicking the shape of car tyres lined across the frame. His interventions are reminders of the continuing, though at times strained, relationship between people and the environment.
Currently, a complete charting of the islands seems unlikely, with little existing information and restricted access, as well as requests for visits to authorities still awaiting approval. Over the years, Al-Ghoussein has worked with government entities such as the Environmental Agency – Abu Dhabi and the Department of Culture and Tourism to gain access, but other islands are privately owned and are more difficult to gain permissions for.
It is no surprise then that the project has expanded slowly over the years, with the total number of islands visited stagnant over the past three years.
Still, Al-Ghoussein's journey has not only uncovered places that would have remained hidden, but also forgotten. These landscapes, some of which are marked by man-made creations (unused playgrounds, swimming pools, unfinished roads) that signal former lives, seem to sit in states of abandonment and preservation at the same time.
The artist, who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents and is currently a professor of Visual Art at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), has made his mark as a photographer of places that bear such qualities. Another series of works, titled Al Sawaber, captures a defunct housing complex on the verge of demolition in Kuwait. In the late 1980s, the complex was home to 2,600 residents. Al-Ghoussein's photos, which he began taking in 2014 and amassed through more than 150 visits, show the remnants of residential life.
Through his images, the artist navigates ideas of place and habitation, as well as how we build and deconstruct spaces. While the fate of Odysseus remains unclear, the existing works that constitute the series will continue to raise these questions.
Odysseus is on view at The Third Line, Dubai, until Wednesday, May 5. More information is at thethirdline.com