Expo 2020 Dubai: our top 10 picks

There’s obviously a lot to see at Expo 2020 Dubai – more than 200 pavilions, up to 60 live events each day, and enough ideas to keep you buzzing for a few months. And there’s a lot of art and design; most of it interesting, entertaining or both, much of it spectacular in conception and/or execution, some of it worth the entrance fee all by itself. Here are magpie’s recommendations.

1 Yinka Shonibare: Wind Sculpture III

Tarek Abou El Fetouh’s Public Art Commissions for public spaces across the site will remain in place when Expo 2020 becomes Dubai’s new District 2020. Eleven artists have created work, and none of them are duds.

The noted Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare has contributed one of his Wind Sculpture series, a 6m tall fibreglass piece that appears to be a piece of handpainted fabric frozen as it flutters in the wind. Shonibare’s patterns speak of identity; the fabric here was originally an Indonesian pattern sold into the African market, where it has come to represent African culture – a merging of cultural backgrounds that echoes the multlple layers of identity that many people and places carry these days. Even if the vibrant colours fade a bit in the sun over time, this will always be a piece that has a lot of resonance.

It’s located in Al Forsan Park.

2 Hamra Abbas: Garden

Garden is a square-metre floor sculpture in marble, lapis lazuli, granite, serpentine, pink calcite, and jasper, inspired by Mughal gardens and the idyllic scenes depicted in miniature paintings.

These really were idyllic, since they represented a world in which humans coexisted with nature. Unlike a traditional garden, however, this one has no vertical features or horizontal enclosures; so the waterfalls, rocks, flowers and a tree that reaches into the heavenly stars above are all interconnected.

That doesn’t mean that the world it depicts isn’t real. The trees are inspired by real world examples from Abbas’s travels; sourcing some of the components was fraught with difficulties because of political tensions.

Another of the Public Art Commissions, Garden is located just off Ghaf Avenue behind the UAE Pavilion.

3 Afra Al Dhaheri: Pillow Fort Playground

Here’s a third Public Art Commission that we liked: Pillow Fort Playground is a trompe l’oeil marble sculpture of traditional Emirati floor pillows, and it’s resonant with memory and loss.

Afra Al Dhaheri’s practice is rooted in her experiences growing up in Abu Dhabi in a time of rapid change. Memory and a sense of loss characterise much of her work, and Pillow Fort Playground is very much in this vein – oversized to give the sense of scale a child would feel when building a play fort of pillows and overweight to monumentalise the experience of childhood memories.

This is not a piece that’s going to age. The viewer is an active participant in the work, contributing their own recollections of play, childhood and place.

Pillow Fort Playground is located near the UAE Pavilion.

4 Monira Al Qadiri: Chimera

Monira Al Qadiri has been playing with these huge sculptures of oil drill heads for some time, but this is one of the best. Another Public Art Commission, it really is massive – it takes a minute or two to realise what it is you’re looking at – and the iridescent colours flicker and change as the sun moves or surrounding lights come on in the evening.

It also looks like a creature of the imagination, perhaps created on another world, and the title references the mythical beast composed of parts from other animals; the shimmering colours echo the pearling that underpinned the economy of the Gulf before the discovery of oil, and putting the two together suggests the connection between past, present and future of the region. Indeed, Monira Al Qadiri says Chimera is the first of what she hopes will become a Gulf-wide series of public sculptures of enlarged drill bits. Now that would be worth seeing.

Chimera is located in the Opportunity District near the Malta Pavilion.

5 Michaelangelo: David (sort of)

The Italian Pavilion’s full-size reproduction of Michaelangelo’s David has been attracting the attention of the world’s popular press for all the wrong reasons, but it’s both a thing of beauty in its own right (and you can get a lot closer to the head here than you can with the original in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia) and a pointer to the future in terms of preserving and/or recreating at-risk artefacts.

This replica will be the only authorised copy of the David; if something were to happen to the original, this replica would be a valid replacement. And having a machine rather than a man reproduce the sculpture means the copy will still be faithful to Michelangelo’s skills as they are accurately captured rather than manually imitated.

The project has advanced the technology considerably. Prof Grazia Tucci’s team of technical experts and researchers from academia and industry has been working on cultural heritage digitalisation for over 20 years, but this one posed some tricky challenges – not least the size of the statue (more than 5m high) and the need to capture it as a whole.

Photogrammetry and laser scanning were used to create the replica of the statue. A 3D printed copy was assembled from pieces that were as large as possible in order to avoid problems associated with deformation resulting from the gluing together; sustainable plastic and resin were coated with marble dust before engineers milled the surface and craftsmen tweaked the results.

Dubai, clone del David al Teatro della Memoria al padiglione Italia EXPO 2020 2021-10-01 © Massimo Sestini

The Italian Pavilion team has now announced the launch of a new academic institution in Dubai, the Advanced Training School for the Reproduction of Archaeological Heritage in conflict zones. Prof Tucci said the technical knowledge gained from the David project would provide the basis of the institute: “reconstruction cannot be based on hypothesis – it has to be accurate,” she said. The school will be set up in the Italian Pavilion after Expo 2020 ends next March.

The Italian Pavilion itself is a pretty special piece of work in terms of reconfigurable architecture and circular design. Its façade is made of two million recycled plastic bottles; the rest of the structure features a collection of innovative materials, from algae and orange peel to coffee grounds and sand. The principal designer, Carlo Ratti, also happens to be director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab.

Find the Italian Pavilion here.

6 Hammour House

Hammour House is a community art project featuring workshops and installations. Its aim is to raise awareness about our seas – about overfishing of species like hammour, the pollution in the oceans, the increasing threats to coral reefs. The curatorial inspiration comes from the 1001 Nights story of Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman – a poor fisherman named Abdullah was struggling to catch any fish: he cast his net again and pulled out a merman who was also called Abdullah: the two became partners … and suddenly there were abundant fish stocks for the local fishermen. The moral is that creatures of the land — we humans — must work with creatures of the sea to ensure a sustainable environment for all.

The most notable of the three installations is by Australian artist Sue Ryan, also called Hammour House. She has created a sculpture from intricately layered fishnets and other debris from the ocean.

The two other works are in Hammour House itself, a vibrant tapestry by UAE schoolchildren made using batik and sustainable dyes created by Dubai-based muralist Steve Chambers; and a coral reef sculpture that will expand as visitors who attend various art and teacher-led workshops staged by Hammour House made their contributions to it over the course of Expo 2020’s six-month existence.

Hammour House is located in the Opportunity District across from China’s Pavilion and facing Sunrise Plaza.

7 MENASA: 8,000 Waves

In this case MENASA is the Arabic for platform rather than the UN designation for the regional area that has Dubai as its centre. The platform bin question is for Emirati design, and it showcases more than 40 designers with exclusive collections.

There are some strong ideas here, including Craft Stories – seven projects that match Emirati and international studios. 8,000 Waves: The Pearl Diving Story is the first Craft Story, a collaboration between Spanish design studio Todomuta and the Emirati studio Asateer. This illustrates what each side brings to the table; Todomuta is happy to deploy new technologies alongside traditional techniques in creating its custom made pieces, Asateer was founded by the grandson of a pearl diver to specialise handcrafted products created from mother-of-pearl and raw materials.

Between them they have produced a collection that includes a feature wall sculpture and limited-edition candleholders and incense burners, crafted in metal inlaid with mother-of-pearl from oysters farmed in Ras Al Khaimah. The rhythmic, reflective forms suggest the Emirates’ history of pearl diving, the waves and reflections of sea, and the shape of the divers’ boats.

The other MENASA strandnd is Designer of the Week, a snapshot of the creative scene that will show 24 UAE-based designers. Most will present new collections created for MENASA.

All design pieces and collections will be exhibited and available for sale from MENASA’s design space on the ground level of the Rove Expo 2020 hotel, next to Al Wasl Plaza.


Most of the national pavilions have some kind of artwork on show. We particularly liked the Canada Pavilion’s TRACES, a quiet and apparently minimal installation just outside the building. TRACES was designed by Montreal-based architectural studio Kanva, which says it’s aiming to challenge visitors and raise awareness about climate change.

Developed around the idea of the imminent disappearance of natural landscapes and living species, TRACES presents a series of eight ‘experiences’ to emphasize the value of an inclusive, intimate and necessary dialogue between humans and nature. The concept is artistic and poetic, eloquent and thoughtful, based around a visual image that captures the essence of the message – a rising murmuration of birds, swirling across the sky but frozen in mid-flight in a way that preserves traces of their existence.

“Whether due to climate change, or oppressive human development, as landscapes fade away, so do the species that inhabit them” said Rami Bebawi, a partner at Kanva and lead architect of the project. They are simply erased from memory, and our collective amnesia allows us to persist in their destruction. TRACES reinterprets that cycle by fossilizing the species to ensure that it is not forgotten.

TRACES unfolds in the eight boxes, each about 2.5m square and each containing a precious object that embodies the beauty of dynamic life in suspension. These are complemented by multimedia interactions developed with artist Étienne Paquette, and there’s a progression from the first box – The Jewel, which places fossilised birds on a pedestal and presents them as beautiful jewels – right up to the eighth. This is The Awareness: four chairs, one in each corner, with an empty bird cage, door open, suspended from the ceiling. It’s a stark message.

Kanva has also designed the mural that stretches along a wall of the entry hall to the pavilion. This features a multiplicity of flocking birds, at different depths and distances, on a background that can be interpreted as sky, mountains, forests or water.

The Canada Pavilion is here.

9 Nicola Anthony: See Things Differently

It hasn’t happened yet, but we suspect this will be one to see. UK artist Nicola Anthony has been selected to create a Live Sculpture at the British pavilion over ten days in November, offering visitors a front row seat to the creative process.

The sculpture will be created from suspended fragments which form a delicate hourglass shape in which LED ‘sand’ responds to real time hashtag activity. “I often use this shape in my sculpture to symbolise important moments and turning points,” said Nicola Anthony. “In this work it also references the tipping point which we are fast approaching.”

She hopes to encourage the audience to think about sustainability, balance, and regeneration; the work also seeks to highlight the connection between present and future actions, and how everything is interconnected in virtuous or vicious cycles. Should be good.

Anthony’s commission will feature as part of a five-day innovation-themed event under the title In the Future, How Will We Create? Running 9-13th November, it promises to explore how creativity can tackle some of the major challenges of our time via panel discussions with keynote speakers and podcasts from across arts, design and media. They include Es Devlin, artist and designer of the UK Pavilion; Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A; and Martin Green, Head of Ceremonies for the London 2012 Olympics and now Chief Creative Officer for both the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games and Festival UK* 2022.

The UK Pavilion is here.

10 Al Wasl Plaza

And finally – Al Wasl Plaza is just brilliant after sunset. The plaza turns into an immersive theatre in the evening with a 360-degree projection screen on its 130m-diameter dome. It’s the largest of its kind in the world, of course, and it’s already wowing visitors with a variety of shows. We love it.

Expo 2020 Dubai is open every day until 31 March 2022, from 10am to midnight Saturday to Wednesday and 10am to 2am Thursday and Friday.

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