BEIRUT: For all the shimmer and sheen glossed onto the first-ever Gulf Art Fair in Dubai this month, organizers made a bold move by leaving a small but significant tear in the surface visible right at the entrance to the event. At the end of a long and elaborate majlis, or meeting area, just outside the main hall of the Madinat Arena where 38 international galleries were showcasing artworks worth a total of $100 million, artist Sarah Strang carved out an otherwise empty corner for herself and three others.
In a trio of illuminated booths, three craftsmen named Goutamde, Pradipdas and Jaydeudas leaned intently over a set of thin 18-carat-gold slabs, each etching the phrase "Made in Dubai" onto a precious rectangle the size of a postcard.
Strang first encountered the craftsmen when she visited their workshop in the local gold souk in February. "[We] agreed on the idea [for the installation] with the jewelry store owner on the first day of my visit," she recalls. "[They] were happy to participate in the project," she adds. "They felt the Gulf Art Fair was a new context for their work."
Above them in the majlis hung two text-heavy canvases - one in English, one in Arabic - explaining in two languages the definition of "hammer price," the moment the gavel falls at auction to mark the final bid on a work of art or property - a nod, no doubt, to the arrival of auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's to the UAE.
A Serbian artist who just finished his master's degree and is living in Dubai painted the "hammer price" canvases at Strang's prompting, she explains.
Strang was one of more than 15 artists commissioned to create or install new or existing works on the grounds in and around the fair. Nadim Karam's familiar, euphoric "Urban Toys" were beautifully strewn around a man-made lake. Lara Baladi's kaleidoscope sculpture "Roba Vecchia, The Wheel of Fortune" was placed in perfect symmetry before the headquarters of the Dubai International Financial Center, the fair's state-owned corporate sponsor. Subodh Kerkar's enormous black-matte light bulbs were cushioned onto the Madinat Jumeirah beach, where the Global Art Forum, an event parallel to the fair, was taking place.
In relation to the fair itself, however, Strang's piece was arguably the most physically present, conceptually involved and critically engaged. Strang spent eight months preparing for the creation of "Marketplace," her installation of twinned works, "Hammerprice" and "Made in Dubai." A critique of the global art market and the local labor market at once, the installation also threw open a slew of tough yet sensitive questions about the movement of capital, the logic of trade, globalization versus authenticity and the institutionalization of art versus the expression of culture presumed to be rustic and real.
It has become common practice, in the events that keep the gears of the contemporary art world going, to fly artists into a city to create site-specific works. Those works, in turn, either attest to a city's vitality or vie for its uniqueness, like the first draft of a public relations campaign
to lure future tourists. Artists being artists, this often backfires when people hinge onto an idea that is critical.
In autocratic societies where the surface is smooth but the machinations beneath are rough, there is always the temptation among artists to probe the underbelly. The subjects that have become sexy in Dubai (and in the Gulf generally), and have begun to cause the stirrings of artistic critique, are, naturally, censorship, prostitution and the lives of migrant laborers as victims of extreme exploitation.
Artists always run the risk, however, of dropping into a place they don't know, coming up with something they think is of profound and unprecedented subversion and then realizing, too late, that it's shallow and common. That, or they shift gears entirely to please a creative brief that will yield a lucrative commission and end up making work that fits nowhere in their previous practice (the artistic equivalent of a journalist's hack for hire).
To her credit, Strang fell into none of these traps. The analysis that underlines the installation is careful and shows a curiosity that is both genuine and without prejudice. Built around the notions of labor as performance, social collaboration and a critique that circles around the complexities of existing sources and subjects without jabbing fingers or imposing prefab ideologies, "Marketplace" is also entirely in tune with Strang's existing body of work.
Born in Cambridge in 1979, Strang studied at the Leeds College of Art and Design and Central St. Martins in London. Including "Marketplace," she has created a dozen projects based on performance, investigation and social collaboration since 2002. She works with the gallery Bearspace in London and her Dubai commission marks the first appearance of her work outside of Europe.
In 2005, Strang created a billboard for central London in collaboration with Denis Augusto, whom she met outside Central St. Martins. Augusto was employed as a sign holder and making a wage best described as paltry. Strang has a long-standing interest in human rights and is about to begin an artist-in-residency program at Tooks Chambers, a law office devoted to civil liberties and founded at the height of a UK miners strike in the mid 1980s. She showed Augusto the text of Article 23 from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration, ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection."
Augusto took the text, dismissed it as false and amended it to read: "Everyone who works has the right to just accept bad remuneration, ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of servitude, and supplemented, if necessary, by another mean method of social exploitation." Strang reproduced his words on a billboard on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road.
Augusto and Strang then collaborated on a number of pieces, culminating in the exhibitions "The Keep Turning Left Route" and "About Jeans Death," delving into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in the hysteric aftermath of the attacks on London's public transport system in July 2005.
"Since living in London temporarily from 1999 and permanently from 2002, I have been aware of the presence of migrant workers," says Strang. "Ultimately I am interested in the presence of labor I personally experience ... I think the presence of labor, specifically migrant workers in Dubai, is something that is highly visible.
"Dubai is a city with many extreme and institutionalized cultures, both Eastern and Western," she says. "Working in Dubai where there are many extreme ways of living and being really questioned the codes and norms of the social theory I think about within my practice."
Within the first day of the Gulf Art Fair opening, half of the 10 gold postcards to be created for "Made in Dubai" had already been reserved. (Sales are distributed among Strang and the craftsmen with whom she collaborated.)
"Being asked to inscribe an Emirati resident's family name on a gold bar was not untypical," she reports.
Sarah Strang's "Marketplace" exists now as a video and the gold postcards. For more information on Strang's work, please check out www.sarahstrang.com