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by Ana Finel Honigman
After two years as arts editor for Alef, the bi-monthly pan-Arab art and fashion magazine that is published in London but focuses on the Middle East, I had finally made it to Dubai, the superwealthy Persian Gulf emirate that is undergoing a dramatic modernization. The occasion for my visit was to curate an Alef-sponsored exhibition for the second annual Creek Art Fair, Mar. 15-30, 2008, an edgier satellite to Art Dubai, Mar. 19-22, 2008

Creek features maybe 15 local galleries and magazines (plus Phillips de Pury & Co. from New York) and two dozen special installations by artists, including Abbas Kiarostami and Lynn Davis, and takes place in 20 houses in Bastakiya, Dubai’s historical district. Art Dubai, on the other hand, brings 70 contemporary galleries to the deluxe Madinat Arena convention hall, including Aidan (Moscow), Bonni Benrubi (New York), Christine König (Vienna), Diana Lowenstein (Miami), Distrito Cu4tro (Madrid), Enrico Navarra (Paris), Gallerist (Istanbul), Kukje (Seoul) and SCAI the Bathhouse (Tokyo).

My host was XVA gallery, which was founded by the American émigré Mona Hauser in 2003 and boasts, in addition to the art space, a vegetarian café, a store and a gorgeous eight-room hotel (since locals can’t drink but tourists may, hotels are social hotbeds). Hauser was showcasing the Alef exhibition as a highlight of Creek, which she had helped found in 2007.

On the premise that sex and politics would be inadvisable subjects for an art show in Dubai, I went with something almost as appetizing -- food. My thinking was that most human experience, including the decadent Western kind, could be served up using food as a metaphor.

The home for my show, titled "Regional Delicacies: Alef’s Art Mezze," is an airy, sunny house complete with its interior courtyard. The final menu of artists, each displayed in his or her own room, includes Pinar Yolacan (who shows with Rivington Arms in New York), New York artist Jay Batlle (called maybe the "world’s best doodler" by New York magazine), Iranian-born Sara Rahbar, XVA curator and top Iranian artist Fereydoun Ave, Turkish-born artist Esma Pacal Turam (who shows at Sara Tecchia Roma New York), Baghdad-born Iman Mahmud, and Malekeh Nayiny (who currently has a project with Louis Vuitton in Paris).

Before arriving in Dubai, I had wondered just how conservative the local society would be, but it turned out more affluent and lush that one could imagine. In the XVA café, where the call to prayer vied for attention with conversations in five languages and Amy Winehouse on the sound system, we began to define the place in terms of SAT-like analogies.

Sara thought that Dubai was like Los Angeles, and Pinar agreed. Jay felt it was a mix of L.A., Mexico and Vegas, though without gambling. But to me, Dubai seems infinitely stranger. With all the environmental negligence in the emirate, I’m convinced that Dubai most resembles a sci-fi image of what society will be like on Mars, after we have to colonize it because of the oil-fueled destruction of the earth.

But back to "Regional Delicacies." I had wanted to include one of Will Cotton’s candy landscapes in the show, but insurance costs proved prohibitive. Then Mona suggested I include Jonathan Gent instead, who just happened to be artist-in-residence at XVA. Gent has shown with London’s Hotel gallery and counts a stellar roster of smart Hollywood stars among his collectors. Even better, Gent’s work, like the artist himself, has the all of the qualities one would want in an ideal dinner companion -- the economy and charm of a truly brilliant, funny, lazy man’s banter. His painting, titled My Last Meal before Execution, perfectly fit my curatorial thesis and cemented my immediate affection for the artist. We hung it in the first room of Alef’s exhibition space.

As it turns out, the picture has an interesting genesis. Gent likes company in his studio, and had invited an Ethiopian hooker from one of his favorite brothels to pay a visit. When the statuesque young lady dismissed his work as something even she could do, Gent invited her to give it a try. Directing her to a massive canvas, he instructed her to paint her ideal last meal. Unnerved by the doomsday overtones to the assignment, she began loading the surface of the picture with expensive art supplies while hovering over it like Jackson Pollock, except in a mico-mini and stilettos.

When her concoction was complete, she explained the menu. "She’d included a milkshake," Gent said. "It was so cute that I just hugged her." When he woke up the next morning, he said, the first thing he saw was a painting that looked like "an adolescent cry for help." He repainted the whole thing, so that only a slight taste of her original creation could be discerned underneath his strong marks and juicy colors.

A similarly pulpy aura comes from a sound installation by Jay Batlle in a room across the courtyard. For Sparkling or Still, which he presents along with 20 napkins on which he painted with wine, coffee, ink  and pencil, Batlle reads a script with Tallulah Harlech, the 19-year-old daughter of Lady Amanda Harleck, English fashion icon and Karl Langerfeld’s in-house muse. In the recording, Tallulah plays a waitress reading a menu to a snooty American customer, and her cut-glass English intonations add a knife-sharp edge to the escalating perversity of the culinary selections, which begin with "a single chestnut on a plate," and escalate to "the chestnut was stuffed into a baby hen, which was  stuffed into a chicken, which was then stuffed into a long island duck, which was then stuffed into a castrated wild turkey, and again stuffed into a boned out Australian lamb and finally roasted in a manmade pit, which was dug 30 feet deep in solid bedrock and covered in fig leaves as it cooked for the entire season of autumn."

But the most magnificent spread was created by Fereydoun Ave, who lovingly arranged the seven ingredients used in the traditional "haft sin" table for the Norouz, the ancient Iranian New Year festival (the seven items all begin with the letter Sîn in the Persian alphabet, and represent the seven creations). On a carpet of grass running to the exhibition’s entrance, Ave arranged mirrors, piles of salt, eggs, pita, gold sweets (replacing the traditional gold coins), candles and bowls with live gold-fish.

Ave, who is black-listed in his native Iran, told me that tending to the installation has offered him the opportunity to perform a ritual he profoundly misses. At the same time, the work touches an emotional chord in its viewers, who visibly respond to the way that it turns Alef’s gallery house into a home.

After the warm and festive opening, when the artists we’d flown over had returned home, a new wave of people began to arrive for the much bigger Art Dubai. The intimacy of Ave’s installation was in striking contrast to the scene we encountered when Ave, Hauser, Gent and I went to Art Dubai’s gala reception. Ladies wearing expensive little nothings that showed off their bronzed and bejeweled skin mingled with women in full djellabas. Gent and I started drinking and soon decided we were toasted enough to start looking at art.

"There is a lot of optimism here," Hauser enthuses. "The market everywhere is depressed but it has energy and hope. Dealers, though, can’t get ahead of themselves. The market is too fragile. People still need to think that they are getting a bargain."

Bargains didn’t seem to appeal to the super-shopper mentality in Dubai, however. "Dubai is America in the 1950s," explained one local observer. "Dubai is focused entirely on expansion and spending, with no concern for the ramifications."

Overall, the art at the fair reflected that mentality. Green might be the new black in Europe and the U.S., where eco-conscious consumerism is chic, but in the UAE gold has always been the prevailing color and over-the-top opulence is the norm. With this gold standard in mind, the dealers at Art Dubai brought over as much glitz and glamour as they could ship to stock their booths. Almost every booth had at least one glittering gold work.

But a healthy spattering of irony, skepticism and intellectual value could be found as well. At Galerie Kasha Hildebrand from Zurich, two twin Andrei Moladkin sculptures of the words "KI$$" and "$EX," done in clear 3D plastic, were filled with Iranian crude oil, as an umbilical cord-like tube, also filled with crude, curled around the words’ bases. Behind these works hung Shadi Ghadirian’s arresting photographs of women in traditional Iranian dress, holding anachronistic objects such as coke cans or yesterday’s newspaper.

The blinking light bulbs on Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s massive dollar sign in the booth of Portugal’s Galeria Mario Sequeira read like a mocking reminder of the dollar’s brighter days. But at $60,000, that capitalist totem should be fancy enough to appeal to someone in its bling-bling-loving art audience.

On one side of the booth of Ben Brown Fine Art from London was a massive Shirin Neshat photograph, its black-and-white chador-clad women representing the Western idea of the muslim Middle East. On the other were the big money pieces that really reflect the feeling of being in Dubai -- a Damien Hirst spin painting next to an Andy Warhol portrait of Jean-Paul Barbier Mueller, painted with diamond dust and valued at $950,000. "It’s messy," Gent said with faux disapproval, as he pointed to the diamond dust gathered on the rim of the frame. "You’d need a maid for it alone. That’s too expensive."

But no matter how pricey, Warhol’s diamond dust still looked understated compared to the shimmering gold shining up and down the aisles. At Thailand’s Tonson Gallery, Chatchai Puipia’s gold leaf covered pair of legs attracted a lot of admiration. Over at Grosvenor Vadehra, a gallery with spaces in London and New Delhi, a gilded gold, fiberglass and polyester head by Ravinder Reddy shimmered next to a Vespa made of gold-plated MS metal disks by Valay Shende. And at Paris’s Galerie Kamel Mennour, a $47,055 settee with gold fabric created by Shen Yuan sprouted magnificent long plaits of blond hair from its back.

As for life’s other luxuries, the fair had no nudity, though a little hint of flesh could be encountered at the booth of SCAI the Bathouse from Tokyo. Sadly, it was only Julian Opie’s digital strippers, scantily clad stick-figures that were each priced at $37,889. Despite being a little risqué for the region, Opie’s pieces fit in perfectly. The background color behind the slinky bikini- and baby-doll negligee-wearing forms? Silver and gold, of course.

After I left the fair and tried to catch a taxi -- a notoriously difficult task in Dubai -- I thought of an even greater luxury. If dealers really wanted to show something precious, they’d bring a fleet of cabs and sell rides as performance art.

ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a Berlin-based critic, curator and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.