The rhetoric of economic development often conflates the rights of capital with the rights of people. This is especially true in Dubai—a city known for its horrendous treatment of temporary workers, which, according to Human Rights Watch, includes “unsafe work environments, squalid living conditions in labor camps, and the withholding of travel documents,” and whose native Emirati culture is subsumed under a culture of commerce primed for the global elite to fashion at will. Curated by Srimoyee Mitra (previously programming coordinator of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre and now curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Windsor), “Changing Stakes: Contemporary Art Dialogues with Dubai” was a portrait of a city’s affections and affectations. The recognizable connection among the artists it collected was an intimate relationship to the United Arab Emirates, be it by way of birth or passage. Together they mapped deep fissures between marketing and reality, tracing how infrastructural transformations in Dubai have affected the lives of the city’s inhabitants as much as they have affected representations of the city itself.
While the projected image of Dubai in the West is one of architectural feats and economic prowess, the culture and history of the city cannot be read through its iconography. When images familiar to a Western audience appeared in this exhibition, they did so in a manner that conjured the uncanny: the use of spectacle was in service of critique. Upon entering the gallery space, the first thing a visitor saw was Armin Linke’s The Palm, Jumeirah. At billboard scale, this aerial photograph of the Palm Islands reveals them to be construction sites–not exactly the paradise they are made out to be–rewriting the landscape of a desert into a beachfront resort for the affluent and itinerant.
From there, it was not so hard to imagine Amir Berbic’s postcard suite History Rising carrying the “Wish you were here!” messages of this community across the globe. With images appropriated from the advertising campaigns of major architectural projects in Dubai, and die-cut with attendant tourism slogans, these missives are billboards in miniature. By squashing the landscapes, Berbic draws attention to the constructed nature of the messages, both pictorial and textual, thereby complicating the documentarian fantasy of marketers.
Haig Aivazian’s video The Unimaginable Things We Build could have been read as the exhibition’s coda, as it takes on the mythology surrounding the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Known as the Burj Dubai during its construction, the monumental structure was to be an embodiment of the city’s economic and cultural rise. Yet, in the final stages of the Burj’s construction, with Dubai facing a severe debt crisis, the tower was renamed after Sheikh Khalifa, the emir of oil-rich Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates who gave Dubai $10 billion to pay off its creditors. The building now stands simultaneously as a symbolic deflection elsewhere and as an image of absence. The emergence of the Burj, both materially and symbolically, is further marked by the suicide of Athiraman Kannan, a construction worker who jumped to his death from the building 16 months after it opened. Drawing a line from Kannan’s suicide to Yves Klein’s Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void), which was itself a critique of NASA’s lunar expeditions, Aivazian challenges the hubris and folly of Dubai’s unrestrained appetite for growth.
Around these pieces, the works of Abbas Akhavan, Lamya Gargash, George Katodrytis, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen and Hajra Waheed presented unfamiliar images–of so many individual men separated from their families, of decay, of peculiar codifications of the city’s embrace of modernity–which employ subjectivity as a strategy for sovereignty. Managing to speak both to erasure and to survival, representation here became a subject of negotiation, not a given. Much like Klein’s leap materialized the void (and Kannan’s leap materialized the Burj), these works bear witness to, and materialize, the shadow side of progress.
The rising chorus of “Changing Stakes” hovered around the idea that whispered histories are as much a part of Dubai’s identity as the grand narrative it exports about itself. By tending to the possibility of alternatives, development was critiqued and urban spaces reclaimed. Concurrent protests across Canada, the United States and elsewhere could be interpreted as deriving from a similar impulse, and at this moment of collective reconsideration, “Changing Stakes” highlighted conditions of transition and uncertainty in Dubai that seemed to foreshadow these acts of resistance, resilience and expression.