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25/10/2021

Expo 2020: A New Home for Art



Not only is Dubai’s World Expo an impressive representation of all the world’s nations, it is also an open-air gallery for public artworks.

 

Rebecca Anne Proctor



Rashid Rana, Unity of All That Appears © Rashid Rana, 2021. Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Uzair Faruqui


Twenty-four thousand pieces of brightly colored individual aluminum composite panels align the undulating façade of Pakistan Pavilion’s at Expo 2020 in what has become one of the most sought-after structures to visit at Dubai’s World Expo. As visitors walk by the colors shift creating an alluring optical illusion. Yet does the pavilion constitute a monumental artwork or a building? Its maker, renowned Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, intended it is a work of art, stating how “I was entrusted with the task of transforming architecture into art. Perhaps the only pavilion at expo with that approach.”

 

In effect, Rana’s Pakistan Pavilion, which calls an “artistic intervention” and has titled Unity of All that Appears, transforms architecture into art and explores the notion of buildings as not only architectural constructs but as monumental works of art. “The 24-thousand pieces are seemingly identical but are in fact unique pieces, fractionally different from each other in size and color, fused together in harmony,” said Rana. “Pakistan is one of the most diverse regions on the planet; geographically, climatically, culturally, racially, and ethnically. This work is a celebration of the diversity that Pakistan has to offer as region.”

 

Contemporary art is one of Expo 2020’s most powerful offerings, not just in terms of aesthetics but for the message art relays. The event, which makes Dubai the 35th nation to host a World Expo, displays major works of public art by regional and international artists throughout Expo 2020’s four-square-kilometre site as part of Expo 2020’s public art program. Curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the immersive 11 commissioned contemporary artworks are placed around the various pavilions and districts to enact a creative journey throughout Expo 2020. Importantly, they will live on these places after Dubai’s World Expo has culminated as part of the future city of District 2020. The commissioned artists include Monira Al Qadiri, Hamra Abbas, Olafur Eliasson, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Khalil Rabah, Yinka Shonibare, Haegue Yang, and Emirati artists Afra Al Dhaheri, Asma Belhamar, Shaikha Al Mazrou, and Abdullah Al Saadi.

 

“There are 190 countries participating with pavilions at Expo 2020 as well as other bilateral and regional institutions— for me, this is significant as it could be an image of the world,” said El Fetouh. “Definitely, it’s not a full image as national representation is a contested space but a global image is being portrayed that we can contribute with other contemporary art, with its ideas and aesthetics. These factors led me to the idea of perception, vision and how perception plays a role in the way we view the world and the others.”

 

This realization led El Fetouh to go back to Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Ibn Al Haytham’s Book of Optics (c. 11th century). “The time when the book was written was a really special; it was the time when connections were made between different parts of the world through trade routes and it was also a time of translation when it was claimed all books that exist in the world were translated,” he said. “Importantly, Ibn Al Haytham analysed how we recognize what we see and his theories on the power of imagination which contemporary philosophers propose as what we share between us as humans.”





Nadia Kaabi-Linke, One Day on Two Orbits © Nadia Kaabi-Linke, 2021. Commission by and Collection of Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Roman Mensing


The public art program thus takes its inspiration from Ibn Al Haytham’s theories on visual perception, particularly his definitions of recognition, vision, and the impossibility of envisioning a full picture of reality without the power of imagination. “Recalling Ibn Al Haytham’s book, invites us to look at the universe,” he adds. The universe, the stars and the planets, can be seen as a sub-theme in Expo 2020’s public art program that comes to light in the work of Nadia Kaabi-Linke, which shows the shadow of a bicycle caused by the sun setting and the moon. This work is a permanent floor sculpture, titled “One Day on Two Orbits: and made from weathering steal embedded in concrete. It portrays the shadows of a bicycle on the ground over the course of one day, depicting the gradual transition from day to night as the sun sets and the moon rises. The work pays homage to Al Haytham who introduced the idea of the sun and the moon revolving on geometrically and temporally different orbits. When viewed from above, Kaabi-Linke’s work seems to be just a passing shadow.





Monira Al Qadiri, Chimera, © Monira Al Qadiri, 2021. Commissioned by and Collection of Expo, 2020 Dubai. Image courtesy of Roman Mensing


Of note is Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri’s otherworldly five-meter-high oil drill shaped sculpture called Chimera located in the Opportunity district. The creature-like form with its magnified size and reflective colour that changes throughout the day based on the light is part of the artist’s series of work focusing on small drill bits that once were used in the sand or the sea to extract oil. The artist, a long-time commentator on the Gulf’s past and present, makes an important statement with this work. Chimera is akin to a futuristic creature from outer space and one that seems to merge pre-and post-oil eras into one. It’s a creature that through its fantastical form referencing pearls and oil and their color and symbolisn, fights to take hold of its constantly shifting identity and yet rises as if from the sand or the sea as one proud identity despite its multifaceted eclectic parts—just like the Gulf as it moves forward into a future that seeks to gradually wean itself off the reliance of oil.





Abdullah Al Saadi, Terhal © Abdullah Al Saadi, 2021. Commissioned by and Collection of Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Roman Mensing


Notable works by Emirati artists fuse local history and culture with ideas of change and the future. For example, Abdullah Al Saadi’s work, Terhal, a permanent public intervention in a seating area, showcases his investigations into the natural surroundings of Wadi Tayyibah in the emirate of Fujairah. His map-like painting was inspired by various orientations on stones from region with the stones themselves organized according to the artist’s own undecipherable symbolic code that grasps the eye and the mind as one tries to make sense of this new archaeological form of poetry.





Shaikha Al Mazrou, The Plinth © Shaikha Al Mazrou, 2021. Commissioned by and Collection of Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Roman Mensing


Shaikha Al Mazrou’s The Plinth is made of Carrara marble and steel. It both aesthetically and formally references the nature of plinths and their relationship with the particular environment in which they are placed. The work immediately takes hold of the onlooker’s gaze not only for its sheer size but because the plinths have been carved to resemble fabric tied with a yellow steel clasp. Al Mazrou’s sculpture has been placed in the Sustainability district due to its questioning of how public art can in fact be sustainable.





Asma Belhamar, Distorted Familiarities © Asma Belhamar, 2021. Commissioned by and Collection of Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Roman Mensing


Another thread of the El Fetouh’s curation explores the role of monuments in the local landscape and their connection with memory, architecture and nature. “My colleagues and associated curators, Muneera Al Sayegh and Mohammed Al Olama worked on this section with artists Afra Al Dhaheri and Asma Belhamar,” he added.

 

The artist intends the work to function as a tool for dialogue with work by other artists. In fact, nearby is Belhamar’s sculpture Distorted Familiarities that tackles the question of nature and the built environment and how the two realities can coexist—precisely a question for the city of Dubai to ponder. “Asma’s sculpture explores the visual distortion experienced when commuting from mountainscapes into cityscapes, where the change from landscape to architecture and from typography to iconography feels like a journey through shifting scales and times,” adds El Fetouh.



Afra Al Dhaheri, Pillow Fort Playground © Afra Al Dhaheri, 2021. Commissioned by and Collection of Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Roman Mensing


Also situated close by is the large-scale marble sculpture of Al Dhaheri titled Pillow Fort, inspired by the tikkay, traditional Emirati floor pillows. The work revisits the artist’s childhood moments of carefree play while a building creative constructs with these pillows.

 

Al Dhaheri looks at how these pillows existed as spaces within spaces in the realm of one’s family home. It’s sculpture that asks us to ponder our own collective memory when it comes to impromptu childhood moments and how they remain with us for years to come.





Haegue Yang, Sonic Planetarium – Dripping Lunar Sextet © Haegue Yang, 2021. Commissioned by and Collection of Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Roman Mensing


Expo 2020’s gigantic size and never-ending stream of attractions can at times seem intimidating. It is after all an entirely new city constructed in the UAE desert. What breaks up the journey, offering moments of joy, creativity, and contemplation, is the art that is placed it seems nonchalantly through the premises. It’s often when we least expect it, that a work of art appears causing the visitor to stop, view and appreciate its form and message. One work that does exactly this is Korean artist Haegue Yang’s endearing installation Sonic Planetarium—Dripping Lunar Sextet where the artist created a huge sonic planetarium model with planets covered in bells. Her work alludes to the achievements of Ibn Al-Haytham and his work on perception, based on his observations of the moon appearing larger or smaller depending on the position of the viewer. The work, located in the Mobility district, prompts a happy surprise to passersby.





Hamra Abbas, Garden © Hamra Abbas, 2021. Commissioned by and Collection of Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Roman Mensing


There’s also Hamra Abbas’s impressive nearly one hundred-square-meters long installation of inlaid marble titled Garden. The work, riveting to behold for its attention to detail, comprises personal memories and historical examples of gardens, in particular of the Mughal era, with the inspiration for the marble inlay technique derived from South Asia, where it was brought to the Mughal court by Italian craftsmen. Once again, it is a work that celebrates a particular and crucial moment in world history.





Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Wind Sculpture III (one in a series of nine) © Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, 2021. Commissioned by and Collection of Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Roman Mensing


A similarly joyful work is that of Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare CBE RA’s Wind Sculpture III. Made in steel armature with hand-painted fiberglass resin cast, Yonibare’s colorful sculpture seems to move in the wind. Stationed in Al Forsan Park behind Abbas’s marble Garden, the Shonibare’s seemingly carefree sculpture aims to harness the wind and freeze it for a moment in time. Of note is the colorful fabric referenced on his sculpture. It was originally designed as an Indonesian fabric and then sold into the African market, the multi-hued vibrant cloth that cover Shonibare’s work is a representation of African culture and its diverse and multi-layered identities.





Khalil Rabah, A point in time © Khalil Rabah, 2021. Commissioned by and Collection of Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Thorsten Arendt


A Point in Time, an installation featuring an enlarged 11th century implements for determining location with a small black circle below a gold-colored spindle that shows Dubai on the map the objects create, is another poignant work by Palestinian artist Khalil Rabah. For the work, Rabah researched the three objects that were invented in the 11th century to measure latitude. The piece, elegant in its sculpted forms and display, pays homage to one of the Middle East’s crowning scientific achievements.



Zeinab Alhashemi, Takween © Zeinab Alhashemi, 2021. The Sustainability Pavilion, Expo 2020, Dubai. Image courtesy of Art Dubai


A Point in Time, an installation featuring an enlarged 11th century implements for determining location with a small black circle below a gold-colored spindle that shows Dubai on the map the objects create, is another poignant work by Palestinian artist Khalil Rabah. For the work, Rabah researched the three objects that were invented in the 11th century to measure latitude. The piece, elegant in its sculpted forms and display, pays homage to one of the Middle East’s crowning scientific achievements.

 

Artwork can be found everywhere at Expo 2020 and its ubiquitous presence is testament to organizer’s belief in the power of art to carry messages for unity, peace, equality, and climate change. These are messages whose tune is sung strong at Terra – the Sustainability Pavilion where additional art commissions can be spotted. Takween, Emirati artist and designer Zeinab Alhashemi is about “old and new and the past and the future,” says the artist. The kinetic metal sculpture rotates its sphere for six hours per day to become one. “It is a reminder that change is the only constant force,” says Alhashemi. “It also sends the message that man, and nature have thrived together for many centuries and can do so now.” Other works at Terra include Directions and Measuring by Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem, Terrapolis, a film installation by Saudi artist Ayman Zedani and the endearing large-scale installation titled Hugs by Emirati Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim. The artworks in Terra, like those from the public art program, have a long lifespan and are intended to remain as part of the plan to establish Terra’s legacy, which will become a Children’s Science Center within District 2020.

 

Hugs, an interactive installation that prompts the visitor to walk-through its folded and reflective form, questions the impact of our values on our decisions, importantly, the ability for these values to impact and foster our environment. The work is, like its form, a giant huge—a metaphor for Expo 2020 itself as the event literally tries to encompass all nations and cultures from around the world.