Bayn: Exploring the In-between. Abu Dhabi Exhibition Review

A group art exhibition with an earnest, galumphing feel that would be charming if it were an end of term project, Bayn (in-between in Arabic) is what happened when debut curator Munira Al Sayegh invited a set of UAE and Gulf-based artists to contemplate the gap between the past and the present. One criticism of many aimed at the United Arab Emirates — and at other Gulf neighbours — is their persistent prioritisation of global approval over the nurturing of a grass roots arts scene. A handful of royalty-sponsored prizes aside, the UAE provides no substantial support structures in place its artists. The ambitious are forced overseas to study due to the paucity of local international-standard further education. There are no subsidised studio spaces, arts grants or incentives. So it’s somewhat miraculous that the likes of Sara Al Haddad — Dubai-born, exhibiting three works here — manage to forge a profile through sheer force of will. One of the artists currently showing in the UAE’s 2017 Venice Biennale pavilion, for Bayn Al Haddad shows an enormous quilt crocheted from tissue paper and dumped higgledy-piggledy beside mascara-ed eye lash prints on more tissue next to tiny glass phials of real tears. 
 Usually equally as reliable, Saudi Arabian artist Manal Al Dowayan’s piece Tree of Guardians adds to the neophytic feel of the show. Al Dowayan is fearless in portraying stark situations of her home country and, although the piece comments on the prevalence of male guardianship in Saudi, her use of suspended golden leaves seems less a comment on gaudy Gulf lifestyles and more a snapshot of a gauche front parlour. Asma Al Ahmed’s Geo Displacement is a two storey-high hollow wire mesh mountain that should be brooding and gnomic rather than resembling a half idea abandoned. Hatem Hatem’s tanks of saltwater and electrically-charged metal curlicues illustrate how, like, salt is attracted to, like, electricity and metal? An empty echo of a first-grade chemistry experiment.
 Maytha Al Shamsi’s sonic piece is unidimensional and might well have been knocked together after a quick Ableton Youtube tutorial. The text that accompanies Talin Hazbar’s Accumulation 2016–7 tells us that she wanted to find out what would happen when the wire cages used by local fishermen she displays suspended in the space were placed in an alien environment. That alien environment? Under water…
 The region from which the Bayn participants were plucked is not devoid of noteworthy artists, despite difficult odds. Fujeireh-based mischief-maker Abdullah Al Saadi’s wind-blown desert tracings tap on the shoulder of Richard Long and Mohammed Ibrahim’s lumpy structures might happily stand in line with similar Phyllida Barlow constructs. Yet there is little here to demonstrate the new artists’ knowledge of their predecessors and the thoughts they unravelled. Nasser Al Zayani’s Contemporary Archeaology piece certainly begins to address issues covered by Al Saadi, set as it is in the wild Emirates landscape. Al Zayani uses his gallery space to recreate the mountain-side campsite he built as he gathered found objects (also on show in a display case) and took a plaster cast of a rocky trail that’s presented here as a kind of table. Again, the overall effect is of something half-finished and it’s hard not to wonder how much Al Zayani’s work would benefit from time spent studying Al Saadi’s practise.

Conversely, there’s nothing here that comments on the here, now or next. All the artists fall into the millennial demographic and the Gulf region is as social media-engaged as anywhere else in the world. But there are no reflections on cognitive dissonance, post-truth cyphers, fake news or the digital age, let alone on-going local issues like censorship, immigration, women’s issues or human rights abuse. Dubai itself works hard to be cast as a forward-thinking city state, what with introducing robotic police, taxi drones and a Mars space programme. Yet there’s nothing on show here about artificial intelligence, data protection or surveillance. None of the artists use new generation materials, virtual reality or 3D printing to realise their work. Rather, this is a space full of tentative work corralled by conservatism. It might be said that this is hardly a surprise given the locale, and that it’s wrong to ascribe perceived liberal Western notions on a Gulf culture that defines itself differently. However this excuse is wearing thin. In fact the region’s most successful artist, the late UAE-born Hassan Sharif, pursued the kind of subversive themes set out in Dadaism and the Fluxus movement as long ago as the 1980s. Using tropes and leaps of thought to centre on humankind’s inhumane treatment of the environment, Sharif proved that universal themes can flourish in even the most arid of places. 
 Trumpeted and celebrated locally, Bayn is dogged by lack of vision, and succeeds only in appearing prim and distanced from the real world.

Bayn: Exploring the In-between at Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi, UAE 
25 Feb 2017–18 Jun 2017

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