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When Art is too (II) Oriented

Notes about the art fair with a special focus on Disorientation II, curated by Jack Persekian.
By Cristiana De Marchi | Nov 2009

Whereas an art fair might be the ideal occasion for measuring the pulse of the art market, undeniably it is not the best environment for discovering any lively art scene. Most of the galleries are harmonised with the presumed local taste, in a too obvious attempt to break the sales record and to justify a financially quite demanding "away match". To tell the truth, this year Abu Dhabi's Art Fair seems refreshed by a background feeling of novelty, which cannot be exclusively ascribed to the internationally renowned galleries newly participating. The art market can be like a game of chess where the presence of Gagosian, White Cube or Hauser & Wirth might have influenced the selection of works to display by other European and American galleries; and international classics like Dennis Hopper, Louise Bourgeois, Piero Manzoni and the unfailing Andy Warhol, Alighiero Boetti, Subodh Gupta and Damien Hirst take the advantage over Arab and Iranian artists.

Indeed, unlike the official announcements, Abu Dhabi Art is still strictly aligned to the Parisian wave (The Wings Party by Fabrice Bousteau; the Sorbonne involvement in talks and lectures; the Louvre partnership with the presentation of Yan Pei-Ming's imposing project The Funerals of Mona Lisa) and the persistently reported internationalized concept looks nominal rather than substantial.

Numerous are the accompanying events, among which two laudable news must be put in evidence: the Bidoun Library project, an itinerant "collection of books, catalogues, journals and ephemera that traces contemporary art practices as well as the evolution of the various art scenes in the Middle East", which aims to offer a service to the local art community and whose effects are supposed to be appreciable over the long term; and the lounge dedicated to the established Middle Eastern non-profit foundations for contemporary art (Townhouse, Cairo; Al Ma'amal, Palestine; and Darat al Funun, Jordan) is now unfortunately become almost deserted, thus invalidating its virtual confrontational value for art enthusiasts and professionals.

The memory of the Fair seems to have been committed to the exhibition Disorientation II (until February 20, 2010), a cooperative project of Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company and the Sharjah Art Foundation, whilst the other highly mediatised exhibition, "Signature" (curated by Anne Baldassari) is fundamentally a replica of the Emirati Expressions "black box" [1], reductive and frustrating as can be within the limits of a regular booth, definitely not favouring the UAE emerging talents here displayed once again.

Disorientation II is clearly establishing a connection with the 2003 Berlin DisORIENTation show [2], also curated by Jack Persekian, with a reversal of perspective: whereas the previous exhibition confronted the western politically voyeuristic point of view about the Middle East with the radicalism of the latter, the "II" has an insider perspective and takes "the era of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) as a moment of rupture when the repercussions of the failure of the Pan-Arab unity plan […] fractured fragile structures" thus counterpointing "a utopian era with the reality of today" [3].

With the exception of the D II Series of Tarek Al-Ghoussein, specially commissioned for the occasion, most of the works exhibited are already familiar to the local and international public. Mona Hatoum's Present tense, Marwan Rechmaoui's Beirut Caoutchouc, and Wafa Hourani's Qalandia 2047 have enjoyed wide international exposure, often being chosen as "representative" of the Middle Eastern problematic. It is certainly discomforting that western curators come to a compromise with the variety of productions and themes developed by Arab artists, oversimplifying a panorama that is much richer. But it is definitely more disturbing when that very same approach is embraced by Middle Eastern curators, who should try to break the conventional, still stereotyped perspective that western art specialists usually attribute to Arab contemporary art.

At their best, art works bear multiple messages, and yet they can hardly match different concepts and satisfy different points of view. Besides, the very condition of not being politically oriented does not represent a disvalue, for ultimately art should not be ideological, even though often politically engaged. The works on show are mostly not too polemic, some of them are very intimate (Hala Elkoussy's On red nails, palm trees and other icons, seen at the last Sharjah Biennial 9) or do not specifically address their critique to the Arab world (Kader Attia's Rochers carrés, vividly drawing a parallel between Algerian youth's lack of perspective and the condition of youngsters from the banlieues of European metropolises).

We do wonder why contemporary art cannot resist the temptation to share the movie industry's tendency to make sequels of their blockbusters. Either there is a clear a priori purpose and the realization of more than one event linked together by coherent guiding threads corresponds to a declared curatorial criterion or otherwise this late choice to organize second events recalling previous ones shows a certain lack of imagination and an attempt to find an easy way of satisfying the audience.


  1. Emirati Expressions, 20 Jan. - 16 April 2009, Abu Dhabi, Emirates Palace. Review by Cristiana De Marchi, in: Nafas, Febr. 2009.
  2. DisORIENTation, 20 March - 11 May 2003, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo tour, in: Nafas, May 2003.
  3. From the curatorial text.

Cristiana De Marchi

Artist, curator and writer. Born in Italy, currently living between Dubai and Beirut.

Photos ►

19 - 22 Nov. 2009

Abu Dhabi Art

Emirates Palace
United Arab Emirates

Disorientation II

The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities

Works by Middle Eastern artists, curated by Jack Persekian


19 Nov 2009 -

20 Febr. 2010

Manarat Al Saadiyat

Saadiyat Island

Abu Dhabi

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