Speculative Landscapes: the show looking at life in the UAE now and in the future

NYUAD Art Gallery's latest exhibition considers contemporary life in the UAE through the lens of four artists

'Unknown Safety' by Areej Kaoud, commissioned by NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. John Varghese
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

I'm standing with artist Raja'a Khalid in what appears to be a yoga studio – wooden floors, an arrangement of mats to one side, straps, blocks, ropes and a hammock set up across the room. Himalayan salt lamps give off a green glow. Scribble-shaped neon lights hang in the hallway. From floor to ceiling, the walls are painted in a soft, sea foam-like green.

But this isn't a yoga studio. It's an environment created by Khalid as part of NYUAD Art Gallery's latest exhibition Speculative Landscapes, which opened on Monday.

Curated by Maya Allison, Executive Director of NYUAD Art Gallery, the show considers our environment in the UAE, not just in a physical or ecological sense, but a conceptual one. Through these works, which have mostly been commissioned by NYUAD Art Gallery, we get a glimpse of life in the Emirates now and what it could look like in the future.

Called a.quiet.wave, Khalid's work investigates the wellness economy, particularly the idea of yoga as a spiritual and physical practice that also happens to be a billion-dollar industry. The artist says that while yogis (consumers) might view these studios as spaces of spirituality, they are also places of labour and competition.

“The yoga studio is supposed to be a space of well-being, wellness and health, but it is a workplace as well. It’s highly commodified. People’s livelihoods are connected to it. It’s not just an esoteric practice that is limited to some small, niche group of people. Hundreds of thousands of people are part of that economy, and it’s an economy of goods, but also an economy of the body,” she says.

Khalid, who grew up in Dubai, has often reflected on working life in the Gulf through this obsession with fitness, viewing it in parallel with the "thrust for progress and drive" that permeates the economy and everyone involved in it.

"I'm interested in competition and work and of the culture of work and working out," she explains. "Now I'm looking at feminised work; what it means to be 'on' all the time."

She also considers how marketing fuels this industry and shapes consumer behaviour. The walls, for example, have been painted a specific Quiet Wave green, which has been predicted by colour-coding system Coloro as one of the five key colours of spring and summer 2021. A competitor to Pantone, Coloro claims that Quiet Wave is “a perfect mood-setter for the start of a new decade”, the shade drawn not from nature but from technology. “Its pale detached character makes it perfect for aiding mental preparation before physical exertion,” states the sale copy. Is this prediction accurate or will consumers make it so?

The strength of Khalid's work is its duality; it is both contemplative and cynical.

NYUAD Art Gallery curator Maya Allison stands on Areej Kaoud's work during the opening of 'Speculative Landscapes'.

Ayman Zedani's Between Muddles and Tangles features a contemplative abstract video of lights dancing across a tangle of branches and leaves.

The artwork is a meeting of the artificial and the natural, as the artist filmed the glow of a light show against nearby greenery in an unknown location in the UAE.

“It’s a cross-section of man-made and natural environments where new landscapes thrive,” he says, pointing out that insects have adapted to these disruptions by using lights to guide their paths.

In one corner of the room, the artist has set up a sort of growth lab for the desert plant Kaff Mariam (Hand of Mary), placing them under LED lights that give off the same wavelength as sunlight.

It's a cross-section of man-made and natural environments where new landscapes thrive.

Overall, the Saudi artist's work documents new environments where artificial creations intersect with nature, though Zedani says he is not making a comment on whether they coexist or clash. In the age of climate crisis, it would be interesting to see how long that will last.

Entering the next room is like entering the mind of Areej Kaoud. The Palestinian artist’s installation reflects her interest in what she refers to as “the psychology of emergencies”. Her preoccupation with worst-case scenarios comes from her parents, who passed on emergency preparations to her growing up, revealing a kind of anxiety in their history.

In the middle is a large red dome made of soft rubber. It looks like something from a playground, but it also reminds me of an emergency button. This uncertainty is exactly what the artist is going for, naming the work Unknown Safety. Surrounding this work are LED lightboxes that spell out Arabic expressions of comfort that turn into worry, showing the ineffectiveness of platitudes as a way to deal with stress.

From two small holes in the wall plays Kaoud's An Escalation, a reading-performance that details her "thought escalations", or how minor incidents like a paper cut or bleeding from flossing can rapidly lead to thoughts of amputations, bombings and war.

The artist not only reveals her own psychological landscape through these works, but also offers a glimpse into how trauma and anxiety can transform the mundane into the catastrophic.

The next room takes visitors to the planet of Jumairy, an Emirati artist whose name is derived from the Dubai neighbourhood of his family’s residence.

Raja'a Khalid's 'a.quiet.wave', a constructed environment resembling a yoga studio that investigates labour and the wellness industry. John Varghese

Part of Jumairy's practice looks at our relationship with the internet and technology, which he explores through immersive installations that contain elements of science fiction. For A Comma, In Arabic, he has created a desert landscape within the NYUAD Art Gallery, filling a white room with pink sand.

"The pink colour has a lot of connotations and history. There's a huge association with evil," he says, providing examples in pop culture, including Ursula from The Little Mermaid's lipstick colour.

The work is tied to a universe Jumairy created in 2016 called BRZ5 or "barzakh", Arabic slang for a kind of limbo. For the artist, it is the world where AI resides after the machine that houses it dies. Glitch sounds echo throughout A Comma, In Arabic, triggered by visitors as they walk past certain points. The room also records the visitors' voices and chatter, then plays it back in distorted, dystopic forms every few minutes, each round with increasing intensity.

“The space becomes more and more alive. More and more dangerous and obnoxious. It relates to my experience of logging into the internet and being overly stimulated by all the information you’re getting, because that is not normal,” he says.

Jumairy’s installation 'A Comma, In Arabic' includes 20 tonnes of pink synthetic sand. John Varghese

Jumairy has captured the way the internet entices users – its flashy pink colour (coincidentally similar to the colour of the Instagram icon) lures us in with promise of fun and entertainment – but also traps and bombards us. Once you’ve stepped deep into the sand, it’s not easy to get out. You’ll have to endure the barrage of noise while you’re there.

The show ends with Khalid's yoga studio, which also includes an element of virtual performance about it. During the gallery's off hours, yoga instructors will be using her installation for flows and post them on the NYUAD Art Gallery's Instagram page. It is the only time that the work will be used for yoga practice, and the only way to witness it is through a screen. It is another commentary on the endless labour involved, and the meshing of two industries that feed off each other.

“It’s become impossible to divorce Instagram from the wellness industry. For example, a yoga instructor would need a page with followers and be expected to perform a certain kind of labour via that, so that’s kind of inseparable from the act of yoga. There’s a kind of showmanship there that technically shouldn’t really be part of that physical practice, which includes meditation,” she says. “But you know, we live convoluted times.”

Speculative Landscapes is at NYUAD Art Gallery until Saturday, December 7. More information is available at nyuad-artgallery.org.