Abu Dhabi Art opens up: Gateway programme looks to create serious discourse

For its eighth edition, Abu Dhabi Art is introducing a new curated exhibition for contemporary art. Under the name Gateway (Branding Messages R Us) it will be integrated within the art fair to anchor each of its sections within what the blurb describes as “a broader, shared cultural context”.

Gu Dexin

The headline feature of Gateway will be a large-scale installation by the Beijing artist Gu Dexin, curated by Alexandra Munroe of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation.

This is something of a coup. Gu Dexin is an influential figure in China’s New Wave movement; along with Wang Luyan and Chen Shaoping, he was part of the New Analysts group in 1988 Beijing that had started to experiment with the freedom of creation that resulted from a loosening of ideological restraints. Gu was also one of the artists in the seminal Magiciens de la Terre show at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1989, alongside names like Huang Yong Ping and Yang Jiechang; this was the exhibition that really introduced the international art world to the Chinese avant-garde.

Installation: September 2nd 2006. 10 tons of apples, steamroller

Mortality, mutability and social responsibility are his themes, rather than the more social and political commentary of peers like Ai Weiwei. He became known for unorthodox ways of representing the world around him, in sculptures made from blowtorched industrial plastics and paintings that depicted swarming masses of tiny humanoid figures with extra heads, limbs, and breasts. He went on to explore this figure world in various media, including oils and watercolour, wooden panel, modelling clay, and pretty basic computer animation.

The New Analysts dissolved in 1995, and a couple of years later Gu decided to quit the art world entirely. He has shown work since, though, typically ephemeral installations like the exhibition Another Long March held in Breda, Netherlands, in 1997 – a spread of apples, bananas and strawberries (apparently chosen for their sexual connotations) which were left for two months in an open courtyard to decay or to be consumed by visitors and birds.

The Abu Dhabi Art installation could be similarly dramatic. In recent years, Gu Dexin has been experimenting with animated film too; the Gateway work could be one of the year’s unmissable art events.

Also included in Gateway will be an exhibition on Modern Arab art curated by Catherine David of the Centre Georges Pompidou; and anther show curated by artistic director and long-term Abu Dhabi Art collaborator, Gu-Dexin3Fabrice Bousteau, under the label (Re) Birth – “a thematic group exhibition including emerging and established artists from diverse times and geographies”.

Bousteau will also organise Beyond, Abu Dhabi Art’s annual public art programme with the mandate to connect with the wider urban fabric of the city via a series of large-scale installations and sculptures.

Gateway looks like a sensible attempt to reorient Abu Dhabi Art, which hitherto has been somewhat inward looking – in the best possible way. The original aim of Abu Dhabi Art was/is to bring culture to the capital while reflecting the essential nature of the place – increasingly by engaging with the community through collaborative projects but mostly by inviting it to talks and presentations.

Take this quote, for instance: “Abu Dhabi Art has a distinctive identity that is deeply embedded in the social fabric of the Emirate, while also providing a platform that highlights and reflects our partnerships with some of the leading cultural institutions in the world. Abu Dhabi Art captures the current movement and evolution of the city’s cultural scene and the wider themes and trends of current global art discussions …”

That was a comment last year from Rita Aoun-Abdo, who bears the title of Executive Director, Culture, for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority but is basically the fair’s director.

She also put the official line quite nearly: “TCA Abu Dhabi’s initiatives [which include Abu Dhabi Art] celebrate the Emirate’s rich heritage as well as its forward looking cultural projects, a combination which truly positions Abu Dhabi as a global beacon for arts and culture”.

The Important Thing is Not the Meat … still from a 1996 video

The Gateway announcement suggests a broader outlook, positioning Abu Dhabi as a centre for artistic debate and by implication plugging the art fair into an international context. The press release quotes Rita Aoun-Abdo on Gateway’s aim as “transforming the concept of Abu Dhabi Art to a place of discovery and discourse, reflecting the exceptional calibre of contemporary cultural practice for which Abu Dhabi Art is renowned”.

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