From its ambitious starchitect-designed complex of museums being built in Abu Dhabi, to the Sharjah Biennial and Dubai Art Fair, the United Arab Emirates has grown into a major player in contemporary art. The 38-year-old nation has been astoundingly good at funding and importing Western cultural models, but what about promoting and supporting its own? This year’s Venice Biennale marks the debut of the UAE Pavilion, organized by the Berlin-based critic and curator Tirdad Zolghadr, who cocurated the 2005 Sharjah Biennial. Placed prominently in the middle of the Arsenale, the exhibition features a solo show by Lamya Gargash, a 27-year-old Dubai-based photographer and filmmaker.
Lyra Kilston: By curating the first Venice pavilion for a country that, as you put it, is "in the midst of a spectacular act of national reinvention" you’re essentially signaling its "debut" onto the global art scene. High stakes. How did you begin?
Tirdad Zolghadr: I want to be self-reflexive about what an exhibition actually is. Despite the fact that promoting national identity is viewed very skeptically these days, I wanted to highlight that it’s a national pavilion, and not disguise the fact that a biennial with national pavilions comes out of the long history of the World Expos, where nations produced exhibitions and displays to market a certain facade to the world. I aim to do this in a very straightforward manner, by creating a pavilion that looks very much like a typical national space of presentation. There will be a solo show, plus a showroom of Emirati artists like Tarek Al-Ghoussein and Hassan Sharif, architectural models, and video projections of conversations among high-profile players of the UAE cultural scene who have helped build it up, from obvious suspects, like the collector Sultan Qasimi, to people who are off the beaten path, such as Mohamad Abdel Wahab, the composer of the national anthem.
LK: And what is the Emirati national anthem?
TZ: It’s very bouncy, with a marching rhythm. The lyrics present a typical pride of place, but the thing that stuck out to me were several lines devoted to sincerity — I liked that. [Work sincerely, work sincerely / As long as we live we will be sincere]
LK: Hasn’t the idea of a national pavilion been something that artists and curators at Venice have chosen to critique or obscure rather than celebrate?
TZ: Yes, like Hans Haackes German Pavilion in 1993.
LK: Right, where he jackhammered the marble floor into shards that visitors had to carefully walk over, with the word "Germania" chiseled onto a far wall. And this year, Germany is presenting a British artist, as if to say the whole nationality thing is over.
TZ: Then there was Santiago Sierras Spanish Pavilion in 2003, in which the entrance was bricked up and only visitors who held Spanish passports could enter.
LK: So, with this history of critiquing the national pavilions, does your decision to "unapologetically" embrace the tropes of World’s Fair display tactics poke fun at the outdated idea of a national pavilion?
TZ: No, not at all. I could have decided to install a bunch of fake palm trees, but ultimately I hope to present the pavilion in a manner that will hopefully be neither glamorizing nor satirical.
LK: A hard balance to strike.
LK: Let’s talk about the title of the Pavilion: "It’s Not You, It’s Me."
TZ: It addresses the condition of being the newcomer to the Biennale, and therefore being somewhat on the defensive. The term is a cliché used to end a relationship, and is a kind of catchall easy way out, yet is rarely true. This ambivalence is something I was interested in. I was looking for a phrase that would speak to the ambivalence of the UAE being in the Biennale at all, and to speculations like: Why are they here? Why do they have this huge space right in the middle? What shady dealings occurred?
LK: How did you first come across the work of Lamya Gargash, and why did you decide to select her for the main exhibition?
TZ: I actually knew her work before I was assigned this pavilion, and I very much liked her series called "Presence," which documented the interiors of buildings that were either abandoned for demolition or about to be. The most interesting photos in that series were of residences that were about to be abandoned, because the interiors were in perfect condition. You found yourself doubting the fact that they were slated for demolition because they looked so new, and so you had to take her word for it. This created quite an interesting situation of trust in the photographer.
LK: Why were buildings in perfect condition being demolished?
TZ: This is one of the most fascinating Emirati leitmotifs — that the cities are changing with breakneck speed. Or that was the case until recently — we’ll see how things evolve with the financial crisis. The real estate boom in Dubai was such that it was an exception not to be on the move from one place to the next, or to find out that the practically brand-new house you’ve lived in for 10 years is going to be torn down to make room for a new development.
LK: Can you talk about "Familial," the new series Gargash will be showing at Venice?
TZ: Lamya decided to respond to the national pavilion theme, looking at how a pavilion can be a national welcome mat, or showcase, an archive, or a monument. Her series focuses on the amazingly varied interiors of one-star hotels, of which there are hundreds in the Emirates. On the one hand these hotels act as a national business card — they’re the first step into the country for many people. Yet on the other hand, the fact that they’re one-star as opposed to seven-star hotels is also a wink on the part of the artist to people’s preconceived notions about her country. The perception is that there’s no normal life there, it’s all driving around in luxury cars with air-conditioning, and hitting golf balls into the Persian Gulf with Tiger Woods. But there are huge working-class and middle-class neighborhoods, and there are one-star hotels.
LK: So she’s using hotels to look at the role of tourism in national and cultural presentation?
TZ: Absolutely, and there’s space there to look self-reflexively at what role culture plays with respect to tourism. Biennial industries are part and parcel of urban marketing — that’s obvious by now.
LK: During your research in the Emirates, what kind of hotel rooms have you stayed in?
TZ: I’ve been spoiled with brand-new hotels that were offering discounted rates, and were often completely empty. It was eerie — some of them were literally in the middle of construction sites. You would sit in the breakfast room and have a team of people who were there to take care of you, but you were the only one there. The staff would be so desperately bored. That was awkward, because I am unbearable in the morning and don’t want to make conversation with anyone [laughs].
LK: The Emirates accrue a lot of criticism for their labor practices, among other examples of exploitation. You could have easily curated a pavilion that bit the hand feeding you, and the artworld would have loved it.
TZ: Sure, I could have, but if I had an issue with the Emirates I would take it to the Emirates itself, not display it to entertain a European audience.
LK: ...who would congratulate themselves for getting it and feel smug.
TZ: Exactly. It’s something that a lot of people working in places seen as crisis zones feel — it’s not about shame or anything. But sometimes when I mention to people in the West that I travel and work in the UAE or Tehran, they say "You are so brave!" Even when I insist that it’s about as brave as
going to an opening at the Guggenheim in New York, they still whisper "No, you’re so brave!" It’s so easy to make certain people happy by confirming their fears.LK: There’s a lot of speculation about how the global economic crisis will affect the many cultural and architectural projects in the Emirates. What are people there anticipating?