Review: Dubai art show Is This Tomorrow? says more about our bleak present than our future

The exhibition by London's Whitechapel Gallery ends in Dubai this weekend. It pairs architects and artists to create works that envision the future

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Imagining the future is a very human endeavour. Think of the popularity of science fiction, trend forecasting, palm readers and astrologers, which randomly succeed and fail to varying degrees. For the exhibition Is This Tomorrow?, artists and architects present their own predictions for what the future can hold through experiential installations and environments.

Held at Concrete in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, the travelling exhibition was previously shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London earlier this year. It is based on the historic 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow, where 38 artists and architects organised themselves into 12 groups, creating works that broke away from the traditional forms of painting and sculpture towards more experimental structures.

“It was a period in the post-war era when Britain was entering a new optimism,” says curator Lydia Yee. “We decided to do this exhibition in 2019 at Whitechapel Gallery as a sort of an experiment to see if the two disciplines [art and architecture] still share things today, and what they can bring to each other,” she explains.

“Could collaboration produce something interesting, and what might it have to say about the future?”

As the declarative title suggests, the 1956 show exuded a certainty about a way forward for art and artistic collaboration. Today, however, that conviction has turned to uncertainty. “The title was turned into a question to reflect the times we live in, where there’s no single answer…,” Yee says.

For one, today’s art forms and mediums are already as wide-ranging as they can be. The show has also turned its attention away from just the art context, but questions how these collaborations can engage in social issues as well.

Metal and industrial materials feature heavily in the show, including a maze-like structure by 6a architects and Amalia Pica titled Enclosure.

The work resembles sheep management systems used in herding, with scattered objects related to animals, such as chew toys and buoys for captive seals. Despite these seemingly playful items, the experience of walking into the installation stirs a small panic. The pathway is narrow enough for only one person, and even though I know I can walk back and out, a sense of entrapment creeps in as I inch my way further down the maze.

Enclosure questions the way in which man-made structures and systems have been built entirely for the creator's own convenience and advantage, much to the disregard, and at times, detriment, of other groups and species. This type of relationship extends beyond ecology, but the work offers no solution or explanation as to how this could reshaped in the future. Instead, it simply demonstrates the problems we face today.

Meanwhile, the collaboration between Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball and architect Tatiana Bilbao look to human structures in Mind Garden, Heart Garden. The skeletal frame made of scaffolding recalls mass-produced houses in Mexico, while the colourful metal beams that curve and divide the cube represents a new approach to designing these residences.

The perforated beams correspond to the Mesoamerican ritual calendar, Tonalpohualli, which has 13 days in a week and 260 days in a year. Deball and Bilbao encourage us to revisit the past in order to formulate new ways of thinking about time and space.

Yet the work feels too conceptual – metaphysical, even – to be taken as a blueprint for an architectural project. Compare this to Bilbao’s previous work, where she designed low-cost homes for Mexico City’s social housing that had modular systems, allowing residents to expand or shrink spaces according to their needs.

Mind Garden, Heart Garden reads feels more like an architectural ethos much-needed in the world today. At the same time, it shows how architecture, which exists on precision and feasibility, can sometimes fall short against the conceptual demands of art. Nevertheless, the proposal is interesting, albeit a little idealistic – can we change the way we build structures to make them more tailored to our emotional needs, rather than our aesthetic or economic concerns?

Less hopeful is Thugz Mansion, the work of Apparata and Hardeep Pandhal, which imagines the fate of architecture after the collapse of society and political systems. Described by the duo as 'Somewhere between a construction site and a ruin', the piece shows a toppled concrete slab with a pole that pins a circular mirror to the wall. Above it, a slanted metal sheet appears as though it could fall at any moment.

Amidst this site-slash-ruin, visitors can sit on concrete blocks and listen to Pandhal’s rap song on headphones. His esoteric lyrics muse on class struggle and the disintegration of family structures due to financial hardship, a nod to the Tupac Shakur song that shares the same title as the work. “It’s all about short term / no time for a family / all about life long / precarious workforce fraternities,” Pandhal raps with off-beat delivery. “Stuck on maternity leave / having a baby that you cannot feed / Mary Poppins society working for nanny state / come to wipe the slate clean / then come to wipe the slate clean.”

Cao Fei and mono office's 'I want to be the future' looks at technological alternatives in China. Jandri Angelo Aguilar / Courtesy Alserkal Avenue

Technology is at the heart of Cao Fei and mono office's collaboration I want to be the future. They have created an adaptable, portable and multi-use device that can service various technological needs for ordinary people and small business owners across China.

On the wall, renders show how the machine can be placed in many settings, including farms, laboratories, private spaces and streets across the country. This prototype proposes a new relationship with technology, the kind that rejects the all-powerful, all-seeing force of state surveillance and monopolised industries to something more autonomous and accessible. This concern is not restricted to China, of course. As talks of breaking up Big Tech proliferate in the United States, the idea of technology and network systems being too invasive and uncontainable is an urgent global concern.

Even in these last two works, which envision conditions and needs for the future, the themes do not radically break out of our current concerns. For most of the show, the present is pervasive. The question of Is This Tomorrow? has already been resolved. In a way, the exhibition illustrates how the predictions of the future are too reliant on our memories of past, our experiences in the present.

The most compelling work: 'Phoenix Will Rise'

The most hopeful and compelling work in the show stands just outside of Concrete. Titled Phoenix Will Rise, the space is a collaboration between artist Rana Begum and architect Marina Tabassum.

Outside, the structure appears almost brutalist, with angular openings cutting through the concrete. Inside, however, it opens up to an oculus surrounded by a beautiful textured work by Begum, who has spray painted crushed aluminum with delicate pinks, yellows, greens and traces of gold and silver. In natural light, the openings let in light that spills across the walls, suffusing the space with a sense of calm.

We realised that there is a lot of negativity [in the world], and we wanted to come up with something that brought people together, that gave hope

Yee's idea to bring the two together has paid off. In this work, both artist and architect manage to maintain their artistic imprint while complementing each other's style. While the rest of the works inside Concrete crowd against each other, stepping out into Phoenix Will Rise is a breath of fresh air.

“We realised that there is a lot of negativity [in the world], and we wanted to come up with something that brought people together, that gave hope…,” says Begum.

The space offers a kind of stillness, a shield from the complications of the outside. In times of uncertainty, a little hope might be what we need to keep us going.

Is This Tomorrow? is at Alserkal Avenue until Saturday, November 23