Warehouse421’s group exhibition, Total Landscaping, investigates the ways in which plant life is commonly understood, encountered, represented and consumed in the Gulf, and within similar emergent urban formations across the global south.
We caught up the exhibition’s curator and Campus Art Dubai tutor, Murtaza Vali and asked him some questions and for some insights.
ART DUBAI (AD): How did you come about the exhibition concept and ultimately the exhibition title?
MURTAZA VALI (MV): The exhibition was inspired by one of the works in the exhibition, Ho Rui An’s Screen Green (2015-16), documentation of a lecture performance in which he discusses the infrastructure of urban greenery in his native Singapore, and how it serves as a backdrop for how the city-state imagines and markets itself. Many of his keen observations seemed super relevant to the Gulf context as well. The exhibition is also a reflection on local urban phenomenon like The Green Planet and the Glow Garden in Dubai or the Gleaming Meadows on Sharjah’s Al Noor Island where we experience nature as a spectacle of artifice. As I researched the idea further, it became clear that this experience of alienation from the landscape, where it serves not as the setting for life but as ‘scene’ or ‘scenery’ was a subject of interest for many artists in the region, like those in the exhibition and others. The show is also a somewhat tongue in cheek response to the ‘return to nature’ catalysed by the lockdowns resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.
I was, initially, really struggling to find the right title for the exhibition. Then as part of the US election campaigns, a press conference was held at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a commercial landscaping company outside Philadelphia, that was mistakenly booked because of the name it shares with the luxury hotel chain.
Given this topical reference, the phrase Total Landscaping seemed to perfectly encapsulate both the pageantry of contemporary politics and humankind’s fantasy of complete control over nature. And its relationship to a brand also evokes the ways in which capitalism instrumentalises nature, which is another key theme of the exhibition.
AD: ‘Green’ is viewed as more than just a colour in this exhibition, tell us more about that.
MV: Gareth Doherty’s book Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State, which examines how landscape is understood in Bahrain through colours, revealed how the link between nature and green in the region is not one dimensional, i.e. there are many different greens, and that there are other colours that also impact our experience of landscape, such as the beige of the desert, the blue of the ocean. Rather than reducing nature to a single colour, to an approach to urban planning, to a marketing strategy, or to a sustainability protocol, the exhibition tries to present its chromatic complexity.
AD: What should visitors keep an eye out for when visiting the exhibition?
MV: Definitely watch Ho Rui An’s Screen Green. And read Todd Reisz’s wonderful fragmentary history of urban greening in Dubai. And free associate out from the works in the exhibition to identify moments from their everyday lives they might evoke. I bet you, many, if not all, of the works in the exhibition will feel very familiar.
AD: Any fun facts/anecdotes from putting the show together?
MV: This is sometimes an unfortunate reality of curating during pandemic times, but I still haven’t seen the show in person myself. It was entirely put together and installed through Zoom, Teams, Skype and WhatsApp, and through all the hard work on the ground of my amazing colleague at Warehouse421, Farah Al-Qedra.
Also, to avoid the uncertainties and exorbitant costs of shipping during the pandemic, many of the works were refabricated in the UAE. We learnt that recreating an OTT bouquet of synthetic flowers is not as simple a proposition as one might think. And, as luck would have it, the one work that we did decided to ship in, ‘Padma’ from Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi’s ‘Efflorescence’ (2019) series, almost didn’t make it because of a freak global shortage of shipping containers caused by the pandemic.