Alternative tomorrows: Whitechapel comes to Dubai

Alserkal Arts Foundation is bringing the much-lauded Whitechapel Gallery Is This Tomorrow? group show to Dubai this November. You shouldn’t miss it.

The exhibition, curated by Whitechapel Gallery’s chief curator Lydia Yee, is a response to the gallery’s landmark 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow. That featured collaborations between a variety of British architects, painters and sculptors who were paired up, given a budget of £40 each, and asked to produce 12 exhibits about the future.

Those involved included some of the most interesting names of the time, the likes of Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, John McHale, and Alison and Peter Smithson; the show was a sensation, widely considered the forerunner of the Pop Art movement in Britain and bringing terms such as ‘site-specific installation’ and ‘conceptual art’ to a wider London public for the first time. (It also inspired a song of the same name by Bryan Ferry, who at one time was a student of Hamilton’s – it’s on his fourth solo album, In Your Mind.)

The 2019 Whitehall Gallery show earlier this year invited involved ten groups of artists and architects (more women, more international contributors) collaborating on their own visions of the future. The Dubai version – co-commissioned by Lisbon’s MAAT modern art museum – has four pairings, including a new version of the site-specific commission by visual artist Rana Begum (winner of the $100,000 Abraaj Group Art Prize in 2017, the last time it was awarded) and architect Marina Tabassum (who was a winner of the 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture) that was shown in London.

Rana Begum and Marina Tabassum Architects, Phoenix Will Rise (2019)

Phoenix Will Rise is a site-specific installation “focused on hope” that finds common ground in the Bangladeshi optimism that the two share: their collaboration has produced a space that plays with light, colour and geometry. A central circular void that carries light down into the installation is lined with a textural artwork by Begum created in aluminium foil and vibrant spray paint; Tabassum describes the installation as “a place of refuge – a space for reflection – contemplation”.

Cao Fei and mono office, I want to be the future (2019). Installation view: Whitechapel Gallery 

Chinese artist Cao Fei and the young architects of Beijing-based Mono Office have produced I want to be the future, a prototype for a machine that dispenses objects and emotions. It’s a combination totem pole and booth delivering a set of toolkits for the technological age; it comments on the boundaries between the digital and physical worlds with the sleek grace of modernist sculpture.

6a Architects and Amalia Pica, drawing for Enclosure (2019) 

In Enclosure, the installation by 6a Architects and artist Amalia Pica (both from London) we’re invited to see the world from the perspective of animals; a series of pens and animal runs provide a maze-like environment that has been ‘enriched’ with entertainment for some kind of hybrid creature able to enjoy jumps for horses, scratching posts for cats, and high-level feeders for giraffes. This was regarded as one of the most successful (and fun) exhibits in London, using art and architecture to explore our relationships with animals and by extension with the wider environment.

Although the sketch looks a tad lightweight, Enclosure was in fact one of the strongest of the installations we saw in London this spring. Not least that’s because it suggested some of the themes running through the show (barriers, exclusion, bending the environment to our will, etc.) but without being too po-faced about it.

Our other favourite was the installation in the collage design at the top. Mind Garden, Heart Garden, by Mariana Castillo Deball (Mexico and New York) and Tatiana Bilbao Estudio (Mexico and Switzerland) is delightfully manic, a work of steel frames and coloured metal based on a ceremonial almanac used by the Aztecs called the tōnalpōhualli. It takes a bit of effort to get your head around the calendar – a week has 13 days, there are 20 ‘months’ and therefore 260 days in a year – but it works (as the Guardian put it) “as a delicate suggestion that you might live by less frantic measures of space and time”.

(Not included in the Alserkal show is an imagined museum for the Salvator Mundi, by architect David Kohn and artist-architect Simon Fujiwara. You stick your head into a large eye-level model which comments ‘museumification’ in a future where the human viewer is of secondary value to the cost of the art. Obviously this would not be appropriate for the UAE, especially as the painting seems to have disappeared. Which in itself may be an appropriate comment on the future …)

We found the original show a fascinating collection, especially when viewed as a comment on the original This Is Tomorrow. That was an expression of post-war self-confidence, escaping from the grind of rationing and gap-toothed bombsites via the Festival of Britain into optimistic anticipation. In 2019 the statement has been replaced by a question; the optimism has been replaced by uncertainty in the face of climate change, the unseen menace of digital technology, our trashing of the planet.

Is This Tomorrow? doesn’t really offer any answers to the question, just possible responses. Maybe that’s as much as we can hope for right now.

Is This Tomorrow? will be in and around Concrete in Alserkal Avenue from 6 to 23 November. More information here.

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