A thoughtful walk through Art Dubai

DUBAI: Anyone walking through the main entrance of the Madinat Jumeira conference center nowadays must run a gauntlet of thigh-high marsh grass. A miniature meadow of the stuff has been planted in the foyer, in a few dozen small flowerpots, and arranged in thick rows on either side of the twin doors.By Tuesday evening – the day before the eighth edition of Art Dubai opened to the public – several of the pots had already been knocked over and the grass trampled underfoot by the fair’s patrons, who may not have realized they were walking though a piece of installation art.

That seems to have been the intention behind “The Desired Path,” a two-stage work by New York-based Lebanese artist Youmna Chlala.

“The title ‘The Desired Path’ is an architectural term,” Chlala explained. “Whenever there’s a concrete footpath through a green space, you always see another one that pedestrians take across the grass. It’s more-or-less parallel to the official pathway but less direct, and that’s the one people want to take.”

The work’s second stage is located a few hundred meters north of the first, beyond the far side of the Madinat Jumeira, at the base of a set of outdoor stairs leading to the Mina al-Salam hotel – the venue of Art Dubai Modern and the fair’s Global Art Forum.

Here, art buyers don’t find pots of marsh grass, but strips of sod – the sort of weed-free grass cultivated in nurseries, cut from the soil like a scalp from the skull and sold to impatient and wealthy homeowners – that has been arranged into a square. If you raise one of the once-green strips and peer beneath, as the public is encouraged to do, you see the sod has been laid on a bed of sterile sand.

“For me,” Chlala said, “this piece is all about time.”

The most-obvious temporal element is the degradation of the plants over the course of Art Dubai from green to a shade of gray-beige. For the artist, the work is also meant to evoke “sensory memory” in the public – recollected encounters with greenery that are accentuated by the piece’s incongruity within the meticulously manicured space.

The two different types of flora used in “The Desired Path” juxtapose the way in which this patch of turf may once have looked (when it was still called Chicago Beach) with what it has become since being transformed into the upscale hotel district of Jumeirah.

There is also a performative aspect – not simply the public’s tramping through and over the grasses, but in their maintenance. The plants are being watered daily, with a spray bottle.

If “The Desired Path” has a weakness, it’s less in the work itself than its spatial deployment. The two stages are so far from each other that preoccupied art-market aficionados may have trouble keeping both in mind at once, or even noticing that they are both facets of the same artwork, rather than the detritus of some grounds-maintenance project at the hotel complex.

Chlala is one of 12 artists involved in the 2014 edition of Art Dubai Projects. Held in conjunction with A.i.R Dubai – a residency program run by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, Tashkeel, Delfina Foundation and Art Dubai – it commissions younger artists to collaborate with a curator to create new site-specific works.

This year’s curator is New York-based writer Fawz Kabra, who has recently been involved in prominent projects in New York as well as Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

As always, diversity is the mark of this slate of projects.

Maitha Demithan’s “Live Portraiture,” for instance, is a performative photo collage created over the course of Art Dubai that assembles images of the body parts that participating fair-goers allow to be scanned into a computer.

Nadia Ayari’s “Selfie Booth WC” is comprised of a wall erected inside a men’s washroom in the Madinat Jumeira, on either side of which have been hung a pair of similar works – square plaster surfaces adorned by floral paintings that have been affixed to strip of burlap.

Hajra Waheed’s “Character 1: In the Rough” is a series of shadow performances on a fake abra (a traditional boat), a permanent fixture in the artificial lagoon separating the Madinat Jumeira from the Mina Al-Salam. Its deck has been surrounded by a back-lit white curtain, in front of which actors enact a story whose plot only they know.

Another strong performance-inflected work situated on the fair’s sprawling grounds is Mounira Al Solh’s “Clogged.” Situated between the Madinat Jumeira and the artificial lagoon, it consists of a kiosk-style installation whose shelves are lined with 36 pairs of traditional clogs – the sort you’d be given if you went to a traditional hammam.

Like so many contemporary artists, Solh commissioned a fabricator to make her objects, in this case a Damascus craftsman specializing in this footwear.

Many curious art-fair patrons have enthusiastically swapped their towering stilettos for a pair of the handcrafted wooden sandals for a couple of hours of relaxation, while the Lebanese artist explains what is behind this work.

“Since the crisis began in Syria I’ve been blocked, clogged,” she said. “My mom’s family is Syrian and we have lots of relatives inside.”

“Clogged” is a simple and well-realized work based on the multilingual notion of “placing yourself in someone else’s shoes” or “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

“Walking is what displaced people do,” the artist says, “and as a refugee you often only carry your shoes with you.”

Like much of Solh’s previous work, a wry sense of humor is embedded within “Clogged,” here accentuated by the incongruity of its placement in the postmodern confines of the Madinat Jumeira, teeming with the fair’s well-heeled patrons, who are often depicted as being aloof of the humanitarian concerns that compelled the artist to make the work.

Lest anyone regard “Clogged” as flippant, Solh says that, necessary as it was for her, it didn’t come easily.

“For years I had a problem with artists trying to do something on this conflict,” she recalls. “It seemed too early for me and the work that was coming out seemed unfinished and propagandistic. But I had to make this work because until I did I felt like I wouldn’t be able to do anything else. I guess you could say ‘Clogged’ has had a three-year gestation process.”

“For me this work is also about how the clogs sound as you walk in them.” She stamps a heel against the stone surface. “Sometimes you have to make noise.”

Art Dubai runs until 22 March. For more information, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 21, 2014, on page 16.




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