A swaggering confidence surrounds us in Dubai; the hotels are full and traffic is once again forming long, impatient queues at intersections. They have even extended the Palm Jumeirah to make another building site. Slicked individuals with tottering, spike-heeled companions once again scent money in the air while in the background the evils of greed and self-interest are beginning to stir after the brief hiatus of global financial collapse. As 24-hour construction activity recommences and piles are driven throughout the night the crash of 2008 is being spoken of as a momentary blip in the progress of this phenomenal and fabulous city-state.
A few evenings ago we were at the opening of Design Days, a part of the Dubai Culture initiative whose patron is the Crown Prince. He was there, actually – but very briefly. The reception was set against a backdrop of the Burj Khalifa, with the shiny towers, lights, fountains and music of Downtown Dubai combining to produce a venue that is both opulent and impressive. Regardless of what one might think about the moral character of this place – and anyone who has read earlier posts will know that I sometimes have something to say about that – today’s Dubai is quite fantastic and developing the ambience of a major international city.
Dubai, embarking this week on the annual culture fest of Art Dubai, is of the moment and very much a place to see, drawbacks aside. But hard on the heels of the upturn and the irrepressible feeling of ‘we’re back!’ comes a familiar and odorous occupation – flipping. This is where high art flourishes because the denizens of Dubai have turned this distasteful practice into their very own version of it. Houses and apartments in projects that are nothing more than notions in computer generated imagery have been purchased before the construction has started with the clear expectation that they can be sold on at a profit as inflation jacks up the prices. That, in turn, is driving costs and rents higher and tenants are once again being pressurised into leaving accommodation so that unscrupulous landlords can install a higher-paying incumbent. The renting laws have been amended to afford some protection against this but in a land that is over-regulated and under-legislated money still rules so, in reality, nothing has really changed since 2008.
Cultural events like Design Days struggle to be anything other than passing entertainment [and a further opportunity to wear those shoes, of course] and in a place that has its mind on money most of the time they are soon forgotten as the next takes over the interest of the media. Reviewing the opening next day on ‘Dubai Eye’, the nearest thing Dubai has to a ‘serious’ radio station, the presenter was asked to recall what impressed him most. His answer was the Audi 7 that was placed, courtesy of a sponsor, at the rear of the exhibition. Astoundingly, nothing relating to the exhibits or artists was mentioned in the programme and that, in many ways, is Dubai in a nutshell.
I found several of the exhibits original, many innovative and all of some merit. In particular, the stainless and Core-10 steelwork of Helidon Xhixha was beautifully executed, an engaging and temporary installation by Andrea Mancuso and Emilia Serra was very original and kinetic pieces by Frederik Molenschot, Ritchie Riediger and Humans Since 1982 had huge potential.
Maybe to fully appreciate Dubai you don’t need to know about art, you just need to know what you like.