The Language of an Art Fair

Author ········· Rania Jaber
Published ······ Online, Apr 2015

Section ·······  Art & Design

Borrowing the term from Emily Apter, a “translation zone” is a space of multilingual exchanges and transactions from one currency to another, one language into another, and from one culture to another. This year’s edition of Art Dubai (18-21 March 2015) was the biggest yet in its nine years of operating the region’s top commercial art fair. Situated across from Madinat Jumeirah – a replication of an old marketplace ­– the art fair’s halls struck a faint resemblance to the souk on the other side. I met with a few people to get their impressions of Art Dubai this year and to highlight some of the main themes that cropped up.

The other side of Madinat Jumeirah – Photo by Rania Jaber

Art fairs combine the visual language of works on display by creating a dialogue between viewers and gallerists. Despite the fair’s commercial characteristic, many of the participants, especially artists, were more interested in the non-commercial initiatives of the fair. In fact, according to some curators, conceptual art was more integrated into this year’s galleries and the language stemming from the booths appeared to be more profound than in previous years. Dubai-based galleries such as Grey Noise and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde took more risks, featuring conceptually curated booths and installations. Similarly, many other galleries communicated an understanding of artworks that was focused on ideas, layers, and narratives, rather than on a solely traditional format of presenting art in a fair. The jewellery stands, which were pronounced in last year’s fair, had disappeared. Hence, subtly decreasing some of the outright glamour and glitz.

Isabelle Van Den Eynde Gallery Art Dubai booth (2015), Photo by: The Studio – Courtesy of Art Dubai

A gallery manager from a Dubai-based gallery pointed out that the line up of talks at the Global Art Forum were an excellent complement to the art fair. The focus this year was on technology and the eventuality of the digitising age. Speakers questioned whether this would affect viewers’ willingness to visit museums in the future and concluded that the digital world was in harmony with the world of objects. The allure of experiencing art works remains a very persuasive marketing tool for encouraging people to visit shows and exhibitions. Although the traffic in fairgoers was slightly lower this year due to the two fairs that were scheduled before Art Dubai (The Armory Show in New York and Art Basel in Hong Kong, respectively), many art enthusiasts still made the journey to see both Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial.

The Mute Tongue by Mounira Al Solh (Abraaj Group Art Prize, Shortlisted Artist, 2015) – Photo by Rania Jaber

A curator from Brazil came to Dubai primarily for the Biennial in Sharjah, but passed by the fair in search of new artists and discoveries. His biggest surprise this year was the Grey Noise booth, because of its conceptual language that resonated with him. The interchange with this particular gallery invoked a world of ideas and a non-commercial side to the art fair that he found young and refreshing. An additional surprise was the language gap he discovered when work was translated from Arabic. In the video projection The Mute Tongue by Mounira Al Solh, one of the shortlisted artists of this year’s Abraaj Group Art Prize 2015, the viewer translated each Arabic proverb from its English translation into Portuguese to decipher a meaning that worked for him. Out of nineteen proverbs, he succeeded with twelve. It is for this reason, he stresses, that the focus should be on local art production and regional works, because people are looking for these gaps, or access into artworks that demand more effort and understanding from the viewers where they can partake in translations.

Throughout all my discussions with participants, I ended with the same question about Art Dubai’s longevity in the global art circuit. The responses stressed on the fact that although the fair is young, it is a growing fixture on the global market. To retain its uniqueness in the next few years, there has to be more dialogue between the fair and the city, for it remains an elitist art fair. According to an artist who was participating in the A.i.R. Dubai projects section for the first time this year, the focus should not be on who the fair attracts, but rather who it does not attract. In her opinion, very few artists work with community building and elevating those around them. This is lacking in most art fairs, not just Art Dubai.

Anila Quayyum Agha - Aicon Gallery at Art Dubai, Intersections (2015), Photo by The Studio – Courtesy of Art Dubai

Who attended the fair besides collectors and people living in Dubai from various diasporas? Was it necessary to include the general public in Art Dubai? Does that ensure its success or is a fair’s triumph based on sales? Participants also play a role in creating a language around an art fair. For example, the most popular image posted on Instagram was Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections, a work comprised of stunning geometrical patterns that created a set of pronounced and expanded shadows of patterns illuminating the space surrounding the object. The fact that it was the most photographed piece perhaps suggests that this is the kind of work people want to see and interact with. These interactions with the object on display were translated at face value through social media, where the image became a symbolic representation of Art Dubai.

The fair appears to be suspended outside the constraints of a pulsating city and behind the walls of Madinat Jumeirah. The stark reminder of border controls that artworks have to pass through attunes visitors to the context of Dubai. Yet, this is where metaphors are created, where artists find loopholes around censorship. For one of the curators, it is high time to remind ourselves that this is a city in the making, which has only existed for 40 years, and to stop falsely comparing Dubai to Las Vegas. Dubai feels like a transitory setting, paradoxically in flux, a place where people pass-through, and where many visitors were ready to leave after only a few days. Yet it is recognised as the most important art fair in the region, with growing interest by foreign visitors and collectors. In the years to come, the main aim for the fair will be to retain its distinctiveness as a “translation zone,” to grapple with all its identities as it expands into integrating a more local presence, yet speak an international art language that attracts art enthusiasts who are more interested in conceptual art that comes with unexpected surprises.

Rania Jaber is a UK-based researcher interested in art, language, gender, and translation. She is currently working on a PhD thesis about translation in art by women artists from Lebanon who work in-between places.