Power of art combines with art of power generating

Judges are getting ready to decide the world's first competition for avant-garde art that also generates clean energy.

DUBAI // Someone strolling through Abu Dhabi or Dubai in a couple of years could suddenly find themselves confronted with a sight straight out of a Tim Burton film: a forest of nine-metre high plastic flowers. They may be even more surprised to find out the avant-garde art installation is capturing sunlight and generating clean energy.

At least that is what the organisers of what is being billed as the world's first energy-generating public art design competition are hoping. They believe an exhibition of the top entries scheduled for 2012 in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai could be a draw as big as the Burj Khalifa. The plan is for some of the designs to eventually be erected inside both cities permanently. Judging of the 51 shortlisted entries by artists from 40 countries starts today. The panel of 18 judges, which includes renowned artists, architects and engineers, will on August 1 announce the winner, who will take home a US$15,000 (Dh55,000) prize. They will also select other designs as top entries, which will be uploaded onto a website so the public can vote on their favourites.

The popular voting is intended not only to generate buzz about the designs but also attract the interest of companies whose funding will be needed to make the artists' designs a reality for the exhibition. The names of artists taking part in the competition are also being kept quiet, from both the judges and the public, until the panel has made its selections to prevent any accusations of favouritism.

Overall, more than 300 entries were received, and The National has obtained a preview of some of the 51 shortlisted designs, most of which plan to harness solar or wind energy and use "photovoltaics" panels with tiny semiconductors that convert sunlight directly into electrical current. At a glance, a statement by one judge that they are "mind-boggling" does not seem out of place. Besides the giant plastic flowers, another entry entitled The Light Sanctuary features 40km of ribbon, lined with photovoltaics. Another entitled Light and Wings uses wind-sensoring technology used in paragliders to suspend spheres in the air to form clouds. Another shows towering shells inspired by rare purplish-black Socotra Cormorants, their exteriors capturing solar and wind power.

Yet another captures the position of the planets on the day the UAE was founded 39 years ago, with large spheres representing the planets. "Our message is to create clean energy, and integrate this into the cities in art," said Robert Ferry, the head of the Land Art Generator Initiative, the organisers. He stressed the project was geared towards combining groundbreaking works of art with innovations in the fields of renewable and sustainable energy. The top entries will be required to capture natural energy and distribute power onto an electrical grid.

"It will be art first and power plants second," said Mr Ferry, an American architect who conceived the project with his wife, the artist Elizabeth Monoian. "[Exhibits] will be connected to a [power] sub-station, so homes, refrigerators and televisions will be powered by art," said Mr Ferry The show is expected to be a major tourist attraction, drawing people who are interested in both art and science.

Mr Ferry estimated the installations would each take at least two years to complete. "It must be functional to attract investors who look to recap their costs," he said. "How many megawatt hours will it generate? And what income from tourism and merchandising - this is what we will engage in." The plans have fuelled excitement in the local art scene as well. "I believe it's the start of start of something big for this city. It's a great initiative," said Hetal Pewani, the owner of Dubai's jamjar gallery. "Concepts like this are new to this region."

Reuben Andrews, a member of the judging panel and senior executive at the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, who specialises in consumption sustainability, described the designs as "phenomenal and mind-boggling". Georgeta Vidican, a professor at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and also a judge, said: "The plan is to combine aesthetics with energy generation in an urban community.

"It's a strong message for urban planners, that it's possible to integrate these elements." The panel also includes Brett Steele, the director of the Architectural Association in London; James Wines, the principal of New York architects SITE; Jennifer Leornard of the acclaimed design company Ideo; and Jeanette Ingberman, co-founder of New York gallery Exit Art. The Emirati artist Khalil Abdul Wahid, the chairman of the Emirate Fine Art Society and manager of Dubai Culture, will also sit on the panel.

Mr Ferry hopes the top entries will be snapped up by companies. "People will come to see this as they come to see the Burj Khalifa. This will be international," Mr Andrews said. "It's a strong message. It's art for the community and not just about return on investment." rtalwar@thenational.ae