Visitors go bananas for eighth edition of Abu Dhabi Art

Gu Dexin's installation consisting of thousands of bananas, arranged in a rectangle on the floor at the annual art fair, provoked plenty of reactions on social media – and not everyone was happy.

Visitors enjoy Gu Dexin's installation at Abu Dhabi Art. Courtesy TCA Abu Dhabi
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If one word will remain on the lips of visitors long after the eighth edition of Abu Dhabi Art, which closed on Saturday, it is probably “bananas”.

An installation consisting of thousands of bananas, arranged in a rectangle on the floor at the annual art fair, provoked plenty of reactions on social media – and not everyone was happy.

There were many joyful photos of people happily eating the bananas, as they were encouraged to do, and even a few humorous ones, such as an art dealer from New York and his friends pretending the fruit were mobile phones.

However, there were also posts from people who were upset about the issue of food waste. The most widely circulated, titled Food For Thought, featured two small children in chains, lying on bare earth in front of a sea of bananas.

Although the art fair’s organisers said in advance that the leftover bananas would be donated to the Emirates Zoo, the fact that food was being used in art, in such a large quantity, did not sit well with some observers.

The artist behind the work, Gu Dexin, from China, is known for using perishable materials in his work. He once filled Venice’s casino with coffins full of rotting meat, and his works pointedly address the almost absurd obsession we have with consumption, as well as humanity’s uncanny ability to destroy our environment.

One could argue that the response his work has generated is precisely the reaction he was after. People are talking, thinking and arguing – no change ever came about without a reaction.

“This artwork was a participatory piece with which you are invited to come, eat a banana and return the skin to the pile or place it in one of the urns alongside,” says Abu Dhabi Art organiser Michelle Farrell. “A successful piece of art is one that engages the public – and this installation certainly did that.”

The installation was one of several memorable pieces included in the fair’s newest section, Gateway, an umbrella term for the curated sections.

Also on display under this banner was (Re)-Birth, an exhibition curated by Fabrice Bousteau. Along with several of the larger art works installed for the fair, (Re)-Birth will remain at Manarat Al Saadiyat until January, so if you missed it during the main event at the weekend, make sure you visit.

It includes some excellent content, although the labels describing the works are on sheets of A4 paper tacked to the wall, which gave the impression it had been somewhat thrown together.

Included are Emirati artist Zeinab Al Hashemi’s kaleidoscopic composite images of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, revealing the complex structures underlying these cities. Their inclusion, alongside a map from internationally renowned Palestinian- Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum, is quite a coup for Al Hashemi, who has enjoyed meteoric success in recent years.

Kader Attia, who won France’s most prestigious art award, the Prix Marcel Duchamp last month, also has a wonderful piece on show. It is a box-like structure that seems to be under construction, with debris on the floor and a hole in the outer wall. Viewers are invited to enter a dark room where they find a beautiful stained-glass window.

Also part of Gateway was Xavier Mascaro's Departure, which consisted of 26 sculptures of ships. The work was previously displayed at Warehouse 421 and was part of the fair's ongoing effort to interact with people and organisations across the city.

“We have worked hard at extending the programme in terms of time and outreach beyond Saadiyat Island,” says Farrell.

One of the most direct ways of doing this was the street-art programme, with local artists commissioned to paint on huge shipping containers placed at locations around the city, including Warehouse 421, Yas Mall and the Corniche.

It was a shame that the artists were not painting live at these venues, but it is nonetheless a commendable idea, and adds a much-needed level of engagement with the public.

The fair’s performing-arts programme, Durub Al Tawaya, which is now in its fourth year, has grown so much that it is almost a festival in its own right.

Its curator, Tarek Abou El Fetouh, put together another innovative programme. A highlight was Raed Yassin, a Lebanese experimental artist, who performed with Emirati musicians.

Those at the fair on Thursday were treated to another kind of performance – from Nja Mahdaoui, one of the world’s most important calligraphy artists. This Tunisian master is often referred to as “the choreographer of letters”, and watching him make swirling brushstrokes, accompanied by live music, was a rare treat.

From a logistical point of view, there were a few things that the fair’s organisers could have worked on, like having to show your ticket every time you enter one of the gallery halls and the placing of some of the media- partner booths.

But these are minor quibbles – all in all, this year’s Abu Dhabi Art was one of the best to date.

“We’ve had really great feedback and many more collectors and VIPs came this year, which only helps to cement and establish the fair and bring it to its maturity,” says Farrell.