Spotting Fadi Sarieddine’s garden chair – with planted grass for a seat – on my way into Traffic on Dubai’s dusty Umm Suqeim Road, it’s hard not to reflect on the very rapid changes in direction that the gallerist Rami Farook has made in the past three years.
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Once Dubai’s only outpost for contemporary design, with Sarieddine winning the gallery’s design award in 2009, Traffic has more or less done away with those previous incarnations and now dedicates itself now solely to art. Moving from its original headquarters near the Mall of the Emirates to Al Quoz last year was a statement in itself: the gallery wanted to take its place alongside the city’s other art-focused spaces.
But Farook, a design aficionado turned gallerist-cum-curator, has unveiled the fruits of his own time in the studio. Monitor (Issue 0) is his first solo show, a sort of visual journal for accumulated knowledge gleaned from the internet, books and conversations. It's hard to call this specifically an exhibition. It doesn't invite the typical relationship that a viewer has with the work on display.
Instead, this is more Farook-as-curator presenting a manifesto for the way he sees art heading (and the way we digest it).
It’s an outlook that has steadily emerged since he relaunched Traffic with contemporary art as its priority.
So far, Farook has divided the interests of the two large spaces of the gallery between commercial shows to promote emerging artists in the Traffic stable, and exhibiting pieces from his own, rather dizzying collection. With Farook as curator, these non-commercial shows have so far been ambitious. The State (2010), for instance, brought together stocky heavyweight artists from both East and West to ruminate on war, power and US foreign policy. The works were big and loud; they went off like the explosive rocketry in Abbas Akhavan's video work, August, included in the show. We saw pre-September 11, 2001, New York skylines made out of speakers, and Andrei Molodkin's plugged-in hunk of glowing Perspex, Democracy.
Since then, Farook has assembled a series of shows drawn from his collection that have attempted to be as didactic and decisive as they can within the boundaries of a regional art gallery.
Monitor, then, feels less like an exhibition and more of an attempt – by whatever means necessary – to enact the same caustic dialogues found in the art that Farook adores. "People are increasingly curious now," he says as we stroll through the space. "They aren't getting enough from the purely visual, and are only satisfied with more intellectual pleasure."
The cerebral certainly stands above the visual in Monitor. In addition to the fat stack of printouts that act as a sort of catalogue – definitions from the internet, quotations from books, even the lyrics to the British national anthem – Farook has photocopied pages straight from his library. He presents these in a sort of tableau form, stuck next to each other, through which the viewer is guided by the pencil underlining and annotations made by the artist.
These really do run the gamut – from an introduction by the Egyptian theologian and writer Sayyid Qutb for a book titled Islam and the World through to printouts of an e-mail about a group of students in Edinburgh University gaffer-taping their mouths shut when the Israeli foreign minister came to town. There's an exhausting exposition on A Structural Model of Art's Social Environment, complete with diagrams of how an artwork operates when it's let loose in the public sphere.
Opposite that is the flag of the United Nations, printed on to canvas and adorned with the resolutions and agendas of every year since its formation. Meanwhile, imposing itself in the middle of the space, is a large wooden pedestal and behind that – who else but the Hulk, rendered in scratchy black ink.
The second room features even more curious collisions. Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the US Congress is laboriously transcribed with every whoop, clap and jeer. Next to that is Barack Obama's signature rendered in blue neon, a model of Capitol Hill on a barbecue grill (complete with overhanging fly zapper) and Mona Hatoum's Witness, a miniature reproduction of the statue in Beirut's Martyr's Square.
Phew. There's no denying that across the two rooms of Monitor, it's easy to become a little overwhelmed by the disparate nature of the works included. Or it would be, if this were actually an exhibition in the usual sense.
Farook agrees that his first solo show is not an exhibition at all. Rather, at its best, it is a cabinet of curiosities dug up by a curious mind. Despite their occasionally hazy direction, Farook hopes that these works can attach themselves to already well-entrenched ideas and symbols in our minds. If they show something new, or invite us to reassess our relationship with existing icons and images, then the work – forging a direction in what he refers to as “social art” – succeeds.
“I view art as a form of mass communication in the same way as TV, radio and print. Art was supposed to be that way but it has become diluted. I hope that I’m bringing it back to that.” Capitalism, he says, has been the force pushing art away from its potential as a force for documenting and breaking new ground in social history. Simply, cut out the edge for selling and the work can come back to a worthwhile, communicative base.
The strongest work here is certainly the wooden pedestal. As a “prototype” for a monument, Farook leaves us to summon up the idea of what we might conceivably put up there as a celebration of our time. The reality is, if we were to erect a statue – to the freedom-hungry crowds of the Arab Spring, for instance – then it wouldn’t fit under the gallery’s roof.
This has a certain insight when it comes to this show. Monitor is Farook's enthused manifesto for a rethink of what art can and should do. Yet the sort of call-to-arms for social change through art just isn't happening under the roof of a gallery right now. There's an air of longing about this show, for a time – imagined or not – when the arts and artists were more about engineering social change than social networking.
But Farook does explain that he hopes this show can educate, present to the viewers of his work a new sense of the commitment that visual art can encompass. For that reason, it's no coincidence that, just down the corridor, Traffic is hosting The Graduates, an excellent selection of works by artists freshly graduated from the University of Sharjah. Between the four female artists – Hala Ali, Sarah Abu Abdullah, Sofia Byttebier and Nada Dada – we see a considered, conceptual engagement.
Hala Ali, a Saudi artist, is interested in the politics and power of labelling. She puts an otherwise inoffensive brogue under glass and labels it as Khrushchev’s shoe, describing it as the very one with which the Soviet leader banged the table while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 1960. Who are we to argue that Ali has not got her hands on it? Or what about Sarah Abu Abdullah, who toured Saudi Arabia’s various photographic studios to find the most absurd fantasy backdrops she could. Posing in front of them, Abdullah is completely covered and in niqab.
What this pair of shows demonstrates is that, increasingly, there is a hunger on the home soil of the UAE for art that bristles. If the graduates can take anything from Monitor, it's Farook's discerning insistence that strong statements will be listened to and acknowledged by those with the ear to do so.
Monitor (Issue 0) is in Galleries II and III and The Graduates in Gallery I at Traffic, Al Quoz, Dubai. Both exhibitions run until August 31. Details atwww.viatraffic.org.
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