Out in the UAE last week – up and down the Sheikh Zayed road from Abu Dhabi to Dubai and back again in heat hazes and sandstorms, the place seemed different to last time I was there – to look at art, at least – three years ago.
I won’t speak for the Emirates and the Emiratis themselves, of course, but the arts stuff I’ll have a go at. It seemed calmer, more assured, mature. Like anything that settles after a big boom. What goes up, right?
Last time I was in Abu Dhabi to look at the plans for the Saadiyat Island project – that possibly over-announced island of culture from blue-chip culture supplies – the Louvre, the Guggenheim, housed in blue-chip architect’s buildings – Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando and it seemed like a lovely dream. But even with Abu Dhabi’s wealth and ambition a slightly pipe-y one, given the timeframe.
This year, I went to visit the Abu Dhabi Festival – a more modest thing but a real one with artists and loud players from the Middle East, dancing Shaolin monks from the Far East and actors and directors from Europe and the Americas coming to the Emirates Palace to put on a month of art and entertainment – please don’t forget the entertainment in the art, either.
Culture from the region is often made to be a little worthy – obviously if you’re taking on the Arab Spring or militant Islam in a piece of performance, it might have to be, but otherwise you can afford to chill your boots a bit. The Festival is a bit about putting an interesting spin on existing things – those Shaolin monks are to be staged by Antony Gormley; Shakespeare’s Globe’s rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the festival has an Arabian slant, but hey – it’s the Abu Dhabi Festival. It’s a long way from the South Bank and Pompidou and feels better for its confidence in its own abilities.
While the Saadiyat experience is still in model stage, in the realm of the miniature; the festival’s enjoying full houses of well-dressed – often nationally-dressed – punters eager to enjoy something that doesn’t often come their way.
And after a gulped bottle of water – did I mention the sandstorms last week? It was Dubai time. It seems that Art Dubai, now in its sixth year, is taking what people sometimes call “a more philosophical” look at itself. I’m not sure if Dubai ever said that it was or would become the world capital of the art market or if snide doubters just wanted to tabloid-ize the Emirate and the city, to build it up and knock it down, but it feels like a changed art fair. Sure, it’s still about selling paintings but it also – and almost all fairs fail to do this – seems to be uniquely a part of the place it’s in; that it could only be there; is specifically interesting because it’s there – basically, it’s good because it’s in Dubai not in spite of being there.
This seemed to be borne out at the opening nights of both events in both Emirates – like a decent bottle of wine, available in your hotel here if it merits the right number of stars – the art and the attitude in these two cities separated by so much sand are getting better with age.