Expo Dubai finally opens after a year of delay – and its public art commissions set to stay long after the exhibition

With laser light shows, an estimated budget of $ 18 billion, and long-delayed excitement, Expo 2020 Dubai finally kicks off this week, with pavilions for 191 countries around the world (October 1-March 31, 2022, ceremony opening September 30).

But in an artistic context, his most important legacy might be after the fanfare ended. When the Expo closes at the end of March, it will become District 2020, a large-scale real estate investment in southern Dubai. About 80% of the Expo built will be transformed into residential, commercial and commercial developments. This includes art: works of art commissioned by the Expo will remain permanent sculptures.

“The Expo is building a new community in the district, and I wanted contemporary art, with its concepts, its language and its aesthetics, to be part of public life”, explains Tarek Abou El Fetouh, curator of Expo 2020 . “These works will literally be in the squares and streets. They were designed so that people could touch them, sit on them, and in some cases walk on them.

Abou El Fetouh selected 11 artists for his program: a mix of local artists, including Abdullah Al Saadi and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, both members of the famous “Five” who were among the first conceptual artists of the United Arab Emirates, and names internationals like Haegue Yang, Olafur Eliasson and Yinka Shonibare. These works, all commissioned except one, will be distributed in the three districts and the two parks of the Expo.

Cosmic art for the new district

Many works assume a grandiose and monumental scale that responds to Abu El Fetouh’s mandate to look to the cosmos to rethink the identity of the world. Yang creates stainless steel balls, flowing to the ground, in an approximation of planetary bodies; Palestinian artist Khalil Rabah recreates a way to measure latitude in three enormous geometric shapes. A selection of emerging artists has also been put together by curators Munira Al Sayegh and Mohammed Al Olama.

The works were created with their future role in District 2020 in mind. The marble sculpture by Dubai-based Shaikha Al Mazrou, Pedestal, will operate in a similar fashion to London’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, welcoming future artist commissions via an open call that will be judged by herself and Abou El Fetouh. A manifesto written collectively with local artists and curators sets the parameters (“No horses!”, She says), and she sees the work continuing a dialogue with the ideas of Expo after it becomes District 2020. .

Yinka Shonibare’s wind sculptures are a metaphor for the migration or natural movement of people © Yinka Shonibare CBE

“Expo presents a global world in one city,” she says. “It’s a feat of staging and storytelling, and I wanted the idea of ​​presentation to appear in the work. “

The Expo’s idea of ​​globalism has special significance in Dubai, where around 85% of residents come from elsewhere or grew up in the UAE as non-Emirati passport holders. by Shonibare Wind Sculpture III—A patterned steel fabric that seems to stop in midair — emphasizes the multi-layered construction of national identities. The pattern on the fabric is associated with African cultures, but it originates from Indonesia and has been resold to the African public, following trade routes and migration patterns that cross the Arabian Sea.

“Most of us move around the world,” says Shonibare. “If you fly, it’s windy, and if you come by boat, it’s windy. These sculptures are a metaphor for the natural movement of people: migration. “

The United Kingdom Poems pavilion by Es Devlin at Expo 2020 is shaped like a giant wooden conical musical instrument. It collects the words given by each visitor and uses an advanced machine learning algorithm to generate the cumulative collective poem that lights up its 20m diameter facade. Photo: Alin Constantin Photography; courtesy of Es Devlin

Urban planning

Although its emphasis is on economic development, the Expo also includes cultural programming by national pavilions and other local actors. The Alserkal arts and culture district has launched a series of climate and sustainability conferences called Cultures in Conversation, in partnership with Expo. This is one of the first public projects of Alserkal Advisory, the recently launched consultancy arm of Alserkal.

The decision to integrate the Expo artistic program into the future District 2020 demonstrates how culture is integrated into urban planning in the Gulf, especially in new designs for pedestrian areas. In Saudi Arabia, where investments in culture occur on a large scale, mixed-use development is often integrated into the planning of new biennials and museums. New “cultural quarters” are said to be in preparation in the Ad Diriyah area, which will house the Riyadh Biennale and numerous museums. These will undoubtedly benefit from their proximity to art offerings, adding an upscale sparkle to the areas and, the developers hope, attracting expat (and local) residents who might otherwise complain that there is no culture in the Saudi capital.

For Abou El Fetouh, the opportunity to commission public works of art on such a scale was exceptional, he says. He has long thought creatively about how to bring art into the public sphere, in his former role as curator of Abu Dhabi Art’s public art program, Durub Al Tawaya, and elsewhere. He is currently part of the working group for the next Sharjah Biennale.

“Public art is not only lacking in the [Middle Eastern] region but everywhere, ”he says. “When you see the visual language of Shaikha Al Mazrou next to Haegue Yang, something is going to happen. And we don’t know what will happen in the future. Will people give other titles to the works of art? “Use them differently” They are going to belong to the people.

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About Bernice D. Brewer

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