All the intriguing seminars, exhibitions, good planning, and sharp exhibition design could not save Art Dubai from the culture clash inevitable at a contemporary art fair held in a conservative Muslim part of the world. Though most of the potentially offensive works were eliminated during the vetting process, several galleries experienced difficulties during the fair. “We brought a Mark Quinn piece called Blue Sphinx, which involves Kate Moss in a yoga outfit, but we weren’t able to show it on a prominent wall, and they came in to check before certain dignitaries walked around,” said Jemimah Patterson, director of contemporary art at London’s Waterhouse & Dodd.
Dubai-based gallery The Third Line also had problems, with a work by Iranian-American artist Ala Ebtekar; a passerby thought the piece, a delicate surrealist pastiche of fighter jets, griffins, and sections of texts from Islamic prayer manuals, was defacing the Koran, and fair organizers came by two hours before the close of the event to discuss it.
“There was a misunderstanding between what someone thought the piece represented and what the artist is actually doing,” said Third Line co-director Claudia Cellini. “He was commenting on the Iran-Iraq war, and he’s fairly cognizant of the things that he’s playing with. He likes to explore how religion can be a tool for ideology.” She offered officials the chance to discuss the piece, which had already been sold, with the artist, but in the end they decided it should be removed anyway.
These incidents, however unpleasant, are a fact of life in the United Arab Emirates, but most gallerists seemed generally upbeat about their experiences anyway. “It was much better than the Armory Show,” said Dubai-based dealer and consultant Marie France Massart. “I don’t know if they made back the costs of their booths, but a lot of galleries exhibiting American and European artists made sales, and it was not expected that they would.” She said that Almine Rech Gallery of Brussels and Paris had sold a Sylvie Fleury and an Anselm Reyle, Galerie El Marsa had parted with a Jemal Mouna, Milan’s Francesca Minini had sold a Ghada Amer, and Paris’s Kamel Mennour had moved a photograph by Zineb Sedira. “People want to come back,” Massart added.
According to fair organizers, Rech made a total of €134,000 ($178,340), while Berlin’s Galerie Michael Schultz sold a piece by Korean artist SEO for $95,000 and one by Chinese artist Huang Min for $63,000. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s Athr Gallery sold three quarters of the work they brought, and New York’s Goff + Rosenthal sold out completely. But the sale on everyone’s lips was Anish Kapoors Untitled (2007), a convex stainless-steel plate textured with octagons that flirts with the viewer, sending back different kinds of reflections depending upon one’s proximity to the piece.
Local outfits B21 Gallery and the Third Line were also positive about their experiences. The latter’s Cellini said that the simultaneous occurrence of the Sharjah Biennial brought some much-needed intellectual rigor to the fair. “There were a lot of people from the Tate, fair people, good younger dealers from elsewhere in the world,” she said. “It was a more intellectual crowd, less fashionistas, and it was much more intimate this year. You had more time to talk to people about the work.”
Nonetheless, “there is definitely a feeling that the spending was lower. Last year we sold a number of large-ticket items,” said Cellini, while this year sheestimated that sales were down 50 percent. She was still impressed, however, by the number of new faces roaming aroundthe booths.
Patterson also remained relatively upbeat: “People are being cautious, and there was an awful lot of bargaining,” she said. “But we knew it would be difficult. Although sales were low, we don’t feel completely deflated. We do have a feeling that we’re still building things and meeting people here. There is still a buzz, and people are thirsty for it.”
Isabelle van den Eynde, owner of B21, emphasized the importance of judging one’s audience, “I feel that international galleries have tried to come up with something linked to this region, but many people here are really eager to see Western art.” Indeed, she seemed to be on to something, as the fair was littered with pieces from such first-generation regional staples as Iranians Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Neshat.
A misreading of the collectors may also have been a factor in the poor sales at Sotheby’s recent auction series in Doha, which some insiders say underestimated the tastes of collectors, favoring ostentatious jewelry over more sophisticated contemporary art. Attendance was rumored to be disappointing, and with the exception of one or two bidders duking it out over a few lots, the bidding was generally slow.
But Cellini, who also has a branch in Doha, felt the sales were a brave move given the nature of the Doha market. “I think the market in Doha is very limited and highly vertical in that there are just a handful of collectors, with very sophisticated or specialized taste,” she said. “We were surprised they decided to hold a sale there. I bet the collector base hasn’t gone too far outside of the royal family.”