Fall 2012 | ArteZine

A Vast Expanse of Desert Transforms Into a Green Field: Rayyane Tabet’s Home on Neutral Ground


“Okay, the stadium went to Afghanistan. So, if the stadium was given to Afghanistan, then when the Afghanis are playing in it, where are they?” – Nida Ghouse.(1) In a country where the South Asian community makes up close to 50% of the population, it is unsurprising that cricket would be among the most popular sports in the United Arab Emirates. In fact, the 20,000 capacity Sheikh Zayed Stadium in the capital Abu Dhabi, and the 25-30,000 capacity Sports City Stadium in Dubai are among the world’s primary venues for the sport. Rayyane Tabet’s Home on Neutral Ground looks into the history of cricket in the UAE, and focuses on its much more modest beginnings. Not in the nation’s capital as one might expect, nor even in its best known city of Dubai, where the International Cricket Council has resided since 2009, but rather in the more discrete neighboring Emirate of Sharjah. Commissioned by the 10th edition of the Sharjah Biennial in 2011, and one of the winners of the Biennial’s prize that year, Tabet’s project focuses on the Sharjah Cricket Association Stadium, which was built in 1981 by the young Abdul Rahman Bukhatir within the city’s vast industrial area. Bukhatir had recently completed his studies in Karachi and rightly saw an investment opportunity in cricket. The piece is structured around four components, two of which take place in the stadium itself: a site-specific installation and a tour of the grounds conducted by the artist during the opening week of the exhibition. In addition, a limited edition publication, and a video installation were located within one of the exhibition spaces of the Biennial: a room in the old repurposed hospital called Beit Al Serkal in the Cultural Area surrounding the Fine Arts Museum in the Heart of Sharjah.


Rayyane Tabet, Home on Neutral Ground: a project in three parts, 2011. Still from Video, Afternoon



Law 7: The pitch is a rectangular area of the ground 74 feet in length and 10 feet in width. It is bounded at either end by the bowling creases and on either side by imaginary lines.

At the entrance to Tabet’s room at the Serkal House a square plinth-like table contains a neat stack of square brown envelopes that are just slightly smaller than the surface of the table upon which they rest. The envelopes are one foot all around, and contain a white square silkscreened on one side of each of them: the total number of editions is 740 print runs. The squares, each individually marked by the artist as “one square foot” would cover the surface area of a pitch. The pitch of the Sharjah stadium is therefore quite literally dematerialized, fragmented and dispersed through the object’s dissemination. This is the first of numerous displacements of space, or more precisely of land, that Tabet executes in this project. After walking past the stack of envelopes, viewers enter a long and dimly lit rectangular room through black-out curtains. On either side of this room are large panels on wheels identical to those used in the game to provide a solid background against which the fast moving ball becomes more easily visible to the batsman. In this room however, the boards are used as screens that display a 24-hour projected video of the stadium from the extremities of the pitch, where the creases would normally be. It Is a gesture of recreation: a to-scale replica of the stadium within the premises of the biennial, complete with the location of the creases reflected in white chalk on the floor of the room just in front of the projections. A third spatial transference occurs at the actual stadium, where Tabet has created a vinyl pitch protector, commonly used by most stadiums to maintain favorable conditions on their sandy playing surface. The pitch protector has a 1:1 scaled satellite image of the playing surface of the Ghazi Amanullah Khan International Cricket Stadium, which began construction in March 2010 just outside of Jalalabad in Afghanistan. After the heyday of the stadium had passed around 2003, accelerated by allegations of match fixing, the pitch was scarcely used for international circuit matches. In 2010, the national Afghani cricket team could not train at home due to the degradation of the political and security conditions on the one hand, and to the absence of international standard facilities on the other. Afghanistan was offered the Sharjah Cricket Stadium as their ‘home’ ground. Indeed, Tabet’s brief timeline weaves together key dates in a region rife with forced migrations, conflict and instability, the intricate manners in which regional geo politics has shaped the spread of the game. This chronology was included within the publication and illustrated how the stadium, aided by political stability of the UAE and its status as economic haven, offered a neutral ground on more than one occasion, a place where nations who were sometimes at war could come together to compete in cricket. This aspect of the stadium as arena for diplomatic encounters is further developed in the publication, which also includes individual pencil drawings that Tabet has created for 174 of the record 198 International one-day matches that took place throughout the history of the stadium (2). The drawings consist of delicate pencil outlines of the national flags of the respective teams, as well as the date of the encounter in question. The drawings are made on Sharjah Cricket Club letterhead, as if to further tie the corporate identity of the stadium with its history of international diplomacy. In 1986, the stadium briefly became a meeting point between India and Pakistan; a meeting which could not have taken place in either country, as tensions ran high between the two nations. In 2002, when Australia and the West Indies refused to go to Pakistan fearing for the security of their respective rosters after a fatal bombing in Karachi, and the general global atmosphere of anxiety in the era just post 9/11 attacks, Sharjah once again became a home on neutral ground, this time for the Pakistani team, unable to lure teams into its borders. Through these and other examples, Tabet highlights the status of the stadium as fluid. Like an embassy, the piece blurs national boundaries from within a country. This status is not simply expressed to viewers through a simple re-hashing of historical chronology of events. Rather it is transmitted spatially or sculpturally, and by the deterritorializing of the rectangular playing surface. The surface of the pitch becomes an organizing malleable material in the hands of the artist, an interchangeable zone which cannot be grounded in any one nation, or rather, that is re-grounded in a different nation at every match.



Rayyane Tabet, Home on Neutral Ground: a project in three parts, 2011. Still from Video, Dawn



Law 15: The following shall be classed as intervals.

(i) The period between close of play on one day and the start of the next…

In addition to spatial collapses and expansions, the piece also relies on several interventions on time. The first of these interventions is directly linked to the geographic space in question, and that is the use of historical conventions, and the layering of key historical dates as a means to tease out the geopolitical complexities inherent in the location of the stadium within Sharjah: The game first appears in the city in 1932, a pitch is constructed in close vicinity to a British Royal Air Force runway, laid down as an overnight refueling transit point on the long Karachi-London flights. Afghanis discover cricket when refugees flee the Soviet invasion by crossing the border into Pakistan in 1979. The stadium owner, Bukhatir puts together the first UAE national cricket team, comprised mainly of players from the Indian subcontinent whom he flies in and provides work permits to. The first recorded match takes place in 1976. These facts along with many others were shared with a small group of viewers who made their way to the cricket stadium in order to attend a tour of the stadium as well as to see the pitch protector installation, which the artist had donated to the stadium. The audience sat in the bleachers, while Tabet sat facing them, legs dangling off of a ledge casually but precisely retold the story of Bukhatir and the cricket stadium. Though the stories weaved together in both the publication and the tour present a particular approach to history (one that is conveniently axial and that makes use of conventions of chronology, but ultimately seeks to hop and skip between narratives to tell a compelling story), the real intervention on time here was perhaps the tour itself, which imposed a rupture in time: viewers were picked up by bus at the Fine Art Museum, and driven away from the biennial and its packed schedule to be taken far away, deeper into the city. There, in a stadium that was beginning to look like a relic of its time, Tabet walked and spoke slowly, taking his time to linger on tangents and various details. After listening to Tabet’s storytelling, the audience were left to explore the stadium, to climb up and down its bleachers and to walk on its grass pitch under its bright floods. It was evening time, and nobody seemed in a rush to leave the premises of the stadium, walking around the pitch, staring up at the bright floods, and to the advertisement panels and scoreboards damaged by the often unforgiving sun. As he spoke, the particularity of the color of dusk mixed with the lights of the stadium was being projected in the rectangular room back at the biennial. During the course of his research for the project, Tabet had visited the stadium on several occasions prior to this trip, spending ample time on its grass. One of those visits included a 24-hour stake-out where the artist placed two cameras on the playing surface and filmed the view on either end of the rectangle. The projection of this footage was synchronized with the hours of the day. This meant that the sun rose in Tabet’s blacked out room in Beit Al Serkal at dawn, just as it was rising over the stadium itself and over the entirety of the city of Sharjah every day. From conception to presentation, there is a slowness in the piece: it is in the stillness of the room, in the drive to the stadium, in wandering around on the grass, in the 24 hour stake out just to film 24 hours, in the 740 individually silkscreened white squares, in the pencil drawings of national flags… It is the slowness of cricket, the slowness of a day, and the slowness of Sharjah. This kind of slowness is seldom forgiven by history: the stadium not unlike the city of Sharjah is a pioneer left behind by more recent, more grandiose projects (3). Once at the forefront and in the heat of the game, Sharjah’s crucial role as a global cricket destination has all but disappeared. One cannot help but think of the role of the biennial itself in the arts landscape of the United Arab Emirates: known to be the most avant-garde and challenging of platforms, it is safe to say that it is overshadowed by much larger and flashier mega-initiatives in the country, such as the Guggenheim and Louvre museums in Abu Dhabi and the glitzier Art Dubai fair in Dubai, which continues to expand its curatorial, discursive and publishing activities.



Rayyane Tabet, Home on Neutral Ground: a project in three parts, 2011. Still from Video, Day




Law 11: The use of covers before the match is the responsibility of the Ground Authority and may include full covering if required.

On February 15, 2012 The Bowery’s New Museum in New York opened the 2nd edition of its Triennial entitled The Ungovernables. A new work by Rayyane Tabet entitled 1989 was one of the pieces included in the show. Almost a year after Home on Neutral Ground in Sharjah, in another bi/triennial, on the other side of the world, Tabet was again playing with space, time and politics. Again, the work is in multiple parts, though this time there are only 2 components: a sculptural installation on the 3rd floor of the museum, and a short story written by the artist in collaboration with John Greenberg, included in the exhibition catalogue. The sculpture consists of a doorway elevated above eye level on a section of wall specifically constructed as a part of the piece and which goes from the ground to the ceiling of the room: The door is open. On the other side of the wall, a loose muslin fabric hangs from the frame of the door and over another larger frame sitting on the floor. We are told that the dimensions of the cube formed by the loose fabric correspond to an exact replica of Tabet’s childhood bedroom in Lebanon, and that the doorway and the window frame are the originals from the artist’s room, removed from his parents’ house and shipped specially to complete the work. In this piece, like in Home on Neutral Ground, there is once again a transposition of space and time. The room is a ghost, a remnant of a space that was once the artist’s most intimate and most domestic of settings in a country far away from the one the exhibition was being held in. The concrete which likely formed the original room is stripped of all structural integrity and rigidity, with the only solid forms being the elements imported from Lebanon, which also happen to be the meeting points between interior and the exterior. This play between inside and out, is now familiar to viewers: while in Sharjah, an open pitch was enclosed in an exhibition box, here the room seems to be a portal into some sort of infinite warp zone perhaps only accessible to a child’s imagination. The title, no doubt an important date in the artist’s life, is a trigger for local and global histories and memories. 1989 marks the beginning of the end of the Civil War with the Ta’if agreement between warring Lebanese factions as well as Syria, signed in Saudi Arabia. It also marks the beginning of the end of the Soviet block and therefore the Cold War. 1989 was a year of transition to say the least. The text provides further context to the otherwise minimal and somewhat subdued sculpture. It is the story of a 6-year-old boy (Rami Khatchatouri) who wakes up one morning and realizes that his entire room has vanished, leaving a gaping hole on the side of his apartment building. His parents who seem to be unaware of the crater that has suddenly formed itself in their home, casually send their son out on an errand. Rami’s outing generates several encounters with various archetypal figures, each of whom engage in conversation with the boy, often reflecting on various states of the materiality of the buildings, which make up the architecture of the city. A soldier points out to Rami that most of the buildings surrounding him are also riddled with holes, while an architect is stunned that his design for an elevator shaft has inexplicably become completely filled with concrete.


Rayyane Tabet, Home on Neutral Ground: a project in three parts, 2011. Still from Video, Evening



Law 16: … The match is concluded as soon as both

the minimum number of overs for the last hour are completed

and the agreed time for close of play is reached

unless a result is reached earlier.

In both Home on Neutral Ground and 1989, a traditionally historical approach is used, citing dates and creating chronologies, not in order to get to an accuracy of how events unfolded, but rather to weave a framework which brings into motion various layers of a narrative: from the personal to the geo-political. The chronology enables Tabet to explore a rhetorical and emotional terrain which dates can trigger. Similarly, real spaces with geographical specificity, social and psychological significance are interchangeable, transferrable, and easily dismantled. This is done in both works by a one to one relationship between the space being referenced and its reproduction. The spaces come with their own material weight, a weight, which is often hollowed out by the artist, or flattened and broken down into singular sheets of paper or into a light fabric. Tabet’s work hovers, from the doorway of his disappeared room, to a floating plot of land from Afghanistan; it inverts spaces inside out and turns concrete into air. History in his work presents chronological timelines affected by personal narratives. Memory in this work is not an attempt at remembering moments or summoning glory days or unearthing traumas, rather it is an embodied muscle logic which is carried within, experienced corporeally and which can be applied to any given space and time in order to create richer formulations of a transient passage. In Tabet’s work, space is without borders and without set coordinates. Memory, while decidedly spaceless is palpably material and endlessly malleable. Similarly, the notion of time is impossible to pinpoint: freely dipping in and out of conventions of chronology, as well as from the alinear surreality of dreamscapes. Consequently, Tabet’s work is grounded in historical realities (The invasions of Afghanistan, the end of the Cold War, the Civil War in Lebanon etc.) but the viewer is quickly elevated from that ground in order to roam freely. More importantly however, Tabet un-grounds the ground itself, and takes his time to do so.


Rayyane Tabet, Home on Neutral Ground: a project in three parts, 2011. Still from Video, Dawn



Haig Aivazian is an artist, curator and writer born in Lebanon and currently based in New York City. He has a BFA from Concordia University in Montréal Canada and an MFA from Northwestern University in Chicago, USA. He also attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2011. He has been involved in a number of curatorial initiatives including Roads Were Open/Roads Were Closed at The Third Line gallery in Dubai (2008) and was the Associate Curator of the 10th edition of the Sharjah Biennial in 2011 entitled Plot for a Biennial. His work has been shown in France, Canada, the UAE and the United States, and the first installment of his ongoing project entitled FUGERE (A Series of Olympiadic Events) was commissioned and exhibited in the 9th edition of the Sharjah Biennial (2009). Aivazian has written for a number of websites and publications including Bidoun, FUSE, AdBusters, Ibraaz.org, AMCA, The Arab Studies Journal as well as several exhibition catalogues. He is currently represented by Lombard Freid Projects in New York.



(1) Ghouse, Nida. This Text Is 25 Hours Long. Read It Slowly. Plot For A Biennial. Ed Saadawi, G. Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE. 2011. 361-366.

(2) The Stadium made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the most one day matches in 2011

(3) Cricket itself is undergoing a revolution/crisis as a relatively new and controversial format called Twenty20 (or T20) cricket, has sought to speed up the game and bring it closer to the duration of most other professional sports.


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