Early into my first evening in Dubai I fell asleep in the taxi on the way to some pre-Art Dubai junket and ended up in the wrong hotel, so instead headed back to the XVA gallery, where I was staying, and continued to sleep. I was woken to the sound of a panel discussion in the courtyard below (my alarm clock would be the call to prayer for the rest of the week). Debates filtered up to me on the perennial problems of Eastern/Western art, art education and its relative qualities, what defines an artist of any particular location etc. As with many art panel discussions there was a small crowd consisting mainly of friends and documentors rather than 'audience'.
A question: "How do contemporary UAE artists compare to international artists?"Answer: UAE contemporary art is about communication, localised communication - the possibilities that can be made through computers/internet and language to create a form of artistic 'globalisation'.
Some issues I heard recently when I was in Istanbul - artists complaining on the one hand that, because of their location, they receive lacklustre and inferior art education. But on the other that they are proud of being removed from a Westernised system.
The XVA gallery (and hotel) hosts the Creek Art Fair: 22 houses in the historical (in Dubai terms) district of Bastakia given over to local and international galleries and institutions. It is, for now, the only satellite fair during Art Dubai. These mud and rock-coral merchant's houses have a central courtyard and an upper floor that is flat and open with perhaps another room and a wind-tower that draws air into the building as a form of primitive air conditioning.
One of these exhibiting galleries is The Flying House; they have a neatly curated show that gives a snapshot of what's to be found in their permanent, museumesque, non-institution in Al Quoz.
Residential Al Quoz, near the Pepsi Cola interchange, has rows of white houses on dusty streets named numerically. A house on one such street is like all the others, but inside is what looks like an Arabic re-embodiment of Kurt Schwitter's Merzbau.
This is Abul Rasheem Sharif's house, he has moved out because the amount of work that populates the house is overwhelming. Also, so that it can exclusively used to show 3 generations worth of work from 9 Emirati artists, created over the past 40 years and, in particular, his brothers Hussain and Hussan.
The nucleus of The Flying House, and how it has become this unique presentation of Emirati contemporary art, is Hussan. He studied in the UK for a period in the 1970's and this is clear in how he has used performance and 'semi systems' in his work since.
Hussan still paints in a studio on the top floor and at present gets inspiration by looking out from the flat roof over satellite dishes and beyond the metal crates. These containers used to be the storage for all the artwork until the beginning of this year when The Flying House opened.
A highlight at The Flying House at the Creek Art Fair were Hussan's cardboard box constructions that were attached to the wall and seemingly had burst open and spilled out their innards of bound, colourful, plastic detritus. Somewhere between an exploded Christo, and again Schwitters, their dusty and ancient appearance gave them a sense of art historical import. Mostly the work is about repetition, or 'redundant repetition' as Hussan has labelled it, a critique on overpowering Western ideologies and an all-pervading consumerism.
Some of the strongest work in this group of artists is by Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim who has developed a Richard Long/Robert Smithson-type land art performativity. His simple interjections in the mountains of Khorfakkan outside Dubai of wrapping trees in coloured material or painting black symbols on white on rocks are beautifully striking and unexpected. I probably have all sorts of repressed colonial/imperialist issues to work through, but it was exciting to find someone making these performances here, specifically for themselves, that would be found only by a fortunate and confused few. This notion of binding natural elements, such as the trees, extends to rocks and boulders that he would tie up with metal and cotton. He told me how local fishermen had found one such sculpture, and because the fishing had been so spectacularly bad in that area, were convinced it was an evil totem. So, they rigorously unbound the rocks - becoming part of his performance - and thereby adding a new ritual to it in their belief that they were breaking this curse and restoring the fish. Mohammed Ibrahim's performance rites are recorded in captivating photographs - the objects themselves don't last too long in situ.
The permanent Flying House gallery is a testament to what has been achieved and is a vital part of UAE art history. However, the complete lack of censoring (an unusual circumstance in UAE) in the amount of work that is displayed in the house quickly denigrates the quality of the work when seen contrasted with their Creek Art fair show.
It is a fascinating experience to be given a guided tour by Abdul and a studio visit with Hussan. The Flying House is also gathering interest on the Dubai cultural tourist map; on my arrival the director of the Delfina was being shown around and on waiting for a taxi to leave, in walked Hans Ulricht-Obrist and his coterie.
Back at Art Dubai, on the day of the VVIP events, the day before the Vernissage, there was a press conference in the morning - noteworthy for the ambitious pondering on synergy and comparative innovations between private equity firms and the art world. The opulence is certainly not hidden here in Dubai and talk of money and art in the same breath crops up again and again. Interestingly, the Flying House in Bastakia had not sold anything when I visited them later in the week; they were trying to, even though maintaining a non-profit stance. The general pronouncements from other dealers at the two art fairs were that sales were good, particularly with work by Indian, Pakistani and Iranian artists. The next 'trend' in art buying could well come from the UAE.