In Dubai

Ursula Lindsey

One of the winners of the Abraaj Group Art Prize unveiled at the Art Dubai fair this week is Vartan Avakian. A Very Short History of Tall Men is a collection of portraits of would-be dictators, not-so-strong men who lasted only a few days or weeks and were quickly forgotten. He has cast detailed miniature gold statues of the men and suspended them in globes of synthetic glass, like insects in amber.

Another winner, Rayyane Tabet, bought half a ton of lead from a shot manufacturer in Lebanon and used it to perform, 5000 times, a ritual against the evil eye he learned from his grandmother: melt the lead and cool it in water, and the face of your enemy will appear (and be neutralised). Each piece of lead in FIRE/CAST/DRAW – about enough to make a bullet – yields a unique twisted blossom of shining metal. The artists says he saw many faces, including his own.

In the fair halls themselves there is $40 million worth of art and some crass gestures: a Belgian artist has used part of an old wood house from Aleppo, a city that is literally falling to bits, to set off his gold and silver sculptures (asking price for the whole installation: $3.5 million).

The Saudi artist Ahmed Mater is documenting the renovation and expansion of the Grand Mosque surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca. One of his monumental photographs shows the courtyard surrounding the Kaaba being mobbed by cranes. To build the five-tower hotel directly overlooking the site (rooms with a Kaaba view cost $3000 a night) they have had to flatten a hill and build an air conditioning unit the size of a bank.

The art fair is an attempt to ‘firmly anchor this part of the world to the global agenda’, as its corporate sponsor explained at a press conference. But the works must avoid nudity, profanity, religion or direct references to Arab politics (though it’s hard to look at FIRE/CAST/DRAW without Operation Cast Lead coming to mind). Last year, in the wake of the failed Bahraini uprising, which many here think of as an Iranian plot, a winning art piece was altered to delete the words ‘Persian Gulf’. Several works that referenced the so-called Arab Spring – one showed the image of an Egyptian woman, stripped to her bra, being beaten by soldiers – were also removed.

Richard Allenby-Pratt’s photographs of gazelles, giraffes and lions wandering empty landscapes are meant to show Dubai in 2017, when new hydrogen technology makes oil obsolete and the city state is abandoned. ‘Most affluent expats got out well before the summer,’ the catalogue reads, ‘but the tens of thousands of Asian workers struggled to find transportation and many perished as the power stations, desalination plants and basic infrastructure ground to a halt.’ Allenby-Pratt added the animals but didn’t otherwise have to retouch the photographs, taken between 2008 and 2011, when the financial crisis stalled many construction projects here.

Dubai always looks unfinished, in-between. Mohammed Kazem’s Window 2011-13 is a series of small pencil drawings of Dubai’s ephemeral mundane: building sites, migrant workers, parked trucks, advertisements (‘The Vision Is Now a Reality’), a man taking a break and staring into space.