What does it feel like to belong to a Gulf? What does it mean to dwell in a chasm? How does one commune in an abyss? For those thousands of expatriates who have grown up in the United Arab Emirates, many born as resident aliens knowing no other home, these somewhat abstract queries into the affective textures of national belonging are palpably real concerns. Dwelling in a land that does not claim them, these denizens develop a particular and paradoxical relationship to the seductive lure of discourses of nationalism and patriotism. Like ill-fated lovers, doomed to endlessly desire the object of affection despite rejection, they are inexplicably, albeit with great skepticism, drawn to all its promise. Belonging becomes an intense bittersweet longing. Unable to live with the certainties guaranteed by citizenship these denizens must find ways to inhabit their precarious status.
What forms and narratives might adequately articulate, communicate and interrogate such states of unrequited belonging and unhomely dwelling? Two recent projects about Dubai by Lantian Xie and Haig Aivazian, both artists raised in the United Arab Emirates, suggest one approach. Subtly re-inscribing elements drawn from local image economies these artists sublimate their experience of political precarity into aesthetic statements that embrace and foster uncertainty. Through distinct but related conceptual strategies their projects dissolve or empty out images and narratives of nationalism, revealing and reveling in the resulting absences. The clearly defined borders demarcating these loci of national identity are made permeable and, gradually, they disintegrate into voids of unbelonging.
Widely disseminated in the public realm through mass media and propaganda, the omnipresence of a leader’s portrait is a key strategy in establishing and maintaining a cult of personality; what sociologist Max Weber classified as “charismatic authority” circulates through and accumulates in such repeated cult images. Xie’s I Think I Love You (2012)—a cleverly deadpan installation of twelve painted portraits of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s constitutional monarch—interrogates how this process might unfold in light of Dubai’s much-heralded cosmopolitan ethos. Based on a single publicly distributed image obtained from the Media Office of the Government of Dubai, Xie commissioned painters in Dafen, the most notorious of the oil-painting factory villages clustered around Shenzhen, China, to execute the suite of near identical paintings. Handmade but anonymous copies of a mechanically produced and reproducible original these paintings are curiously hybrid objects mimicking the invisible facture of mechanical reproduction through decidedly non-mechanical means. Walter Benjamin famously suggested that mechanical reproduction diminishes the aura of an original artwork; positioned ambiguously between the mechanical and handmade, these portraits keep both this aura and the charisma of authority in constant flux.
In recent years, many contemporary artists have similarly outsourced painting to Dafen for varying ends. For some it is a quintessentially postmodernist gesture, relieving the artist of the burdens and responsibilities of authorship and calling into question values like authenticity, originality and singularity and the mechanisms through which these values are capitalized by celebrity-driven art markets. For others the strategy foregrounds postcolonial concerns regarding the unjust labor policies and practices routinely employed by multinationals, with art work standing in for other forms of exploited outsourced labor. Xie’s use of this strategy introduces a wry autobiographical element; by including China in this melodrama of belonging, Xie enacts a return of sorts to the country his parents left decades ago for the promise of the Gulf. Simultaneously, the anonymous painters commissioned to execute these royal portraits serve as surrogates for the countless long-term denizens in the Gulf, like Xie’s parents, whose labors and contributions remain invisible and unrecognized though handsomely remunerated.
Transposing this portrait into the rarefied space of the gallery also extracts it out of the complex ideological apparatus that enables it to function as a locus of power, shifting its context and mode of address. In this new context, the visual echo created through the tightly installed series of near identical images does not reinforce power through an accumulation of charismatic authority but introduces an image redundancy that subtly challenges it. The installation registers as hollow repetition, a retinal stutter that mimics the tentativeness expressed in its curious title, a faltering declaration of patriotic love. Like its equivalent in speech, the source of this pathology of deferral is an anxiety, the anxiety of a denizen whose presence is always temporary and whose love will never be requited. Situating this meditation on the politics of belonging in and to the United Arab Emirates in an affective register humanizes it, universalizing, to some extent, what is at stake. Prohibiting the sale of these paintings, the Media Office of the Government of Dubai, clearly understood these stakes.
Before the 2008 recession sent its high-flying real estate market into a sharp nosedive Dubai’s rapidly expanding urbanity was largely experienced by residents and visitors alike not through physical encounters with built structures but as a series of digitally rendered future projections looming large on billboards barricading the city’s countless construction sites. Twenty first century Dubai is truly simulacral, a city composed entirely of and through image, where image exceeds reality in both time and space. Aivazian’s multi-part project The Unimaginable Things We Build (2011-12) understands this logic implicitly, asserting that if Dubai’s ontological foundation lies in this projected image then maybe, like one of Lawrence Weiner’s Conceptual gambits, the city’s eventual materialization is unnecessary for apprehending its unique urban situation. Interested in deflating Dubai’s superlative laden self-aggrandizing narrative of emergence, Aivazian focuses his critique on the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest manmade structure and an exemplary icon of this hubris, wryly picking apart the projections that preceded and heralded its completion.
Anchoring Aivazian’s project is the provocative thesis that the building’s spectacular inauguration on January 4, 2010 may also have marked its public suicide, its withdrawal from history. A birth marked by death, this event may be best understood as an unbecoming becoming. Researching the nighttime festivities Aivazian was struck by what he saw in footage he found that captured the moments of the Burj’s grand reveal. As a series of horizontal pyrotechnic rings cascaded down its tremendous height, tracing its contours, the Burj seemed to disintegrate into a fury of light and smoke. Commissioned to produce a public banner for the exterior of the Pavilion Downtown Dubai, a new exhibition venue situated near the tower’s base, Aivazian fragmented this footage into a sequence of single frames. Decontextualized and juxtaposed against the actual building these images of its apparent destruction force a double take, introducing a moment of uncertainty into its monumental presence.
Into Thin Air Into the Ground, the half hour film that is the project’s centerpiece, develops these ideas further, engaging in a trenchant but playful deconstruction of the rhetoric, of both image and discourse, proclaiming the Burj’s triumphant rise into history. A prefatory statement emphasizes the irrelevance of the actual building for Aivazian’s project: “At no point during the course of this project was the Burj Khalifa visited for the purpose of collecting visual material.” Composed largely of footage and material found online and in various secondary sources—promotional and user-generated films, print advertisements, billboards at the construction site and scattered around the city, press coverage—the film enacts a détournement of this public archive of the building’s imagining. Early advertisements show a detailed 3D rendering of the Burj isolated against a flat background, as if the building was unable to inhabit Dubai’s existing urban fabric. Though the Burj’s image manages to anchor itself in a detailed urban panorama in subsequent campaigns its ambition upward exceeds the frame and its record-breaking height must be accommodated on specially constructed extensions to the billboards. Repeatedly, the measured female voiceover demonstrates that, visually, the Burj remains uncanny and out of place, unwelcome in Dubai’s urban reality. A final section focuses on a Financial Times advertisement that inserts the Burj into a Manhattanesque skyline composed entirely of iconic skyscrapers from around the world; the voiceover suggests that, maybe, the Burj only exists in such imagined non-places, spaces shaped by global finance and cosmopolitan privilege. Tellingly, the film dwells more than once on an image of the Burj as absence—a shot taken from its observation floor of its shadow stretched out across the surrounding landscape—a ghost at the center of a city haunted by its future.
Xie’s installation, an unexpected recasting of politics into an affective register, is essentially iconophilic, exaggerating, through replication, a local icon to a point of parodic excess. In contrast, Aivazian’s is determinedly iconoclastic, dissolving an iconic structure through an analysis of its own image rhetoric. While Xie tentatively seeks the acceptance of an absent father, Aivazian is downright Oedipal, emasculating the city by making its ostensible phallus recede from view.
The breakneck pace of modernization and development the United Arab Emirates has experienced over the last two decades, paired with its particular demographics, which includes an expatriate and, hence, transient and unanchored majority, has precipitated an identity crisis of sorts. One response, which has only become more acute since the upheavals of the Arab Spring, has been a retrenchment of sorts, a codification of Emirati identity in line with cultural traditions and customs perceived as being under threat. Xie and Aivazian, denizens accustomed to precarious existence, seem less troubled by this uncertainty and flux. Similarly nihilistic in tenor, at the heart of their visions of Dubai is an absence, a void, a Gulf.
The research and writing of this essay was generously supported by a 2011 Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for Short-Form Writing.
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