An exclusive tour of the Seeing Through Light exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat

The first pieces of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi's permenant collection go on display next week. We get an exclusive tour.

Sasha Kalter-Wasserman, Maisa Al Qassimi and Susan Davidson. Ravindranath K / The National
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It's the last installation but one of the best. The Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life is an edition of three works from 2011. The mirror-panelled room has water covering the floor with only a small pathway to walk on, and from the ceiling hang dozens of handblown acrylic balls lit with LED lights. The glittering installation is inspired by Kusama's battle with mental illness, psychosis and schizophrenia, and is representative of "all the millions of souls that make up the world". Standing somewhat bedazzled in the centre of the room, it feels like you are at the centre of the universe.

Kusama's brilliant work features in the exhibition Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection when it opens next week at Manarat Al Saadiyat (to coincide with the annual Abu Dhabi Art fair at the same venue). It is the first time any pieces from the permanent collection of the yet-to-open museum have been revealed.

The exhibition unfolds across five sections that cover the different nuances and elements of light: perceptual, reflective, transcendent, activated and celestial. The art, presented in a variety of media, shows light as a metaphor – as manipulative and beautiful, as a form and as rhythm. Walking past the mesmerising pieces, the viewer cannot help but be engaged because the art has all been designed to play with perception.

Also showing are the works of the American artists Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler, two of the 18 artists introducing the much-anticipated collection.

Irwin and Wheeler are founding members of the California Light and Space movement in 1960s America – former painters who became interested in replacing their painting materials with light and space, and as such, represent a moment in art history when experimentation with light became established as an accepted aesthetic principle.

Irwin's 1967-68 work, Untitled, consists simply of a clear acrylic disc with a wide black line running through its centre, mounted on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition. Seen from a distance, the work looks flat because of bright spotlights that prevent the eye from catching its edges, so it is only when the viewer walks past the piece that it reveals itself.

“We chose this work as the beginning because it immediately sets the tone – that light plays with your perceptions,” says Susan Davidson, the senior curator of collections and exhibitions at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, who curated the exhibition alongside Sasha Kalter-Wasserman, assistant curator for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project and the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, and Maisa Al Qassimi, programmes manager for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.

Immediately inside the exhibition, in a small room to the left, is Wheeler’s piece: a white UV neon square frame in an otherwise dark room. “This is where light becomes medium and subject,” says Kalter-Wasserman.

“In fact, what you are looking at is a painting,” adds Davidson, explaining how, during the second half of the 20th century, artists began to challenge the boundaries of the visual frame that defines traditional paintings.

These first two pieces are also placed in a dialogue with those by artists who were practising at the same time on America's East Coast – such as Keith Sonnier's Ba-O-Ba V (1970).

But after that, the conversation spreads to the rest of the world, especially the Middle East.

“While the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection will look at different cultures, gender and media, we are also keeping a strong focus on the Middle East,” says Al Qassimi.

Seven out of the 18 works are from artists with roots in the Arab world and Iran, with one section dedicated entirely to them.

“This was not entirely intentional,” explains Davidson. “We went through the whole collection and then started playing with it and certain pieces naturally started forming their own relationships.”

The three curators pored over maquettes of the exhibition space for months, and when we met, the placement of each piece and every reflection and shadow was being closely monitored.

Most of the Middle Eastern works fall in the section labelled transcendent.

A rare piece from 1976 by the Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian hangs opposite to the Palestinian artist Samia Halaby's Yellow Spiral. The two spent many decades living in the US, yet took inspiration from the structure of Islamic geometry, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is "very fortunate" to attain these works, says Davidson.

Also in this section is Luminous Darkness, a painting by the London-based Shirazeh Houshiary, and Endless Prayers XVIII, cut and pasted printed paper on canvas by the Iranian Y Z Kami. On the floor is the Egyptian artist Ghada Amer's spherical sculpture titled The Words I Love the Most and featuring the Arabic words for security, peace, freedom and love.

“This exhibition cannot look at the whole history of light art but it can give you a cross section,” says Davidson.

The transition through time and cultures is seamless. From the 1960s and 1970s, the exhibition turns to activated light with an installation of Shaabi music from Cairo-born Hassan Khan and lacquered boxes filled with coloured light from English artist Angela Bullock – both from the 2000s.

The final part tackles the subject of celestial light.

“These artists evoke light as symbol and as theme,” explains Kalter-Wasserman. For example, Bharti Kher’s panels of broken mirrors covered in bindis direct the viewer’s attention skywards to the light of the universe. There is also a compelling video work from the Chinese artist Song Dong, who merges traditional myth with new media.

Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection runs from November 5 to January 19 at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi