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Ai WeiWei in Abu Dhabi

The British student jailed and subsequently pardoned for spying in the UAE has dominated headlines over the past week.

The episode has raised questions about Britain’s power in the world and the trade-offs our country continues to make when human rights are pitted against economic imperatives.

But it also raised questions in my mind about contradictions inherent in the UAE.

A real Ripley’s Believe it or Not

The UAE is a popular place to work and holiday — a place which is a veritable Ripley’s believe it or not. It has the world’s tallest building, the largest shopping mall (with biggest indoor ski slope), the fastest rollercoaster, the largest artificial island and the world’s lowest tax rate. It is a country that clearly wants to position itself as a forward-thinking and exciting place to live. Everything is the best money can buy — even the police drive super cars.

But the flip side of this miracle in the desert is also painfully obvious. Lurking behind its wealthy veneer, the UAE remains closed, paranoid and resistant to change.

Tourist and residents alike trade stories about strict rules and draconian punishments meted out for infractions big and small. According to Human Rights Watch the government forcibly details or disappears individuals who criticise authorities. Labour abuses are rife. The armies of migrant workers, on which the cities depends, live in squalid conditions and face serious exploitation.

The Louvre: Abu Dhabi style

This contradiction for me was most acutely represented in a trip to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The new gallery is beautifully curated and aesthetically stunning. Designed by acclaimed architect Jean Nouvel, the buildings are built on piers over the sea and capped with a huge dome, inspired by Arabic architecture and curiously weighing in at the same as the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The importation of the Louvre brand is at once smart and a telling nod to the Emiratis’ approach to culture — why create your own when you can buy the best?

Despite this — or maybe because of this — the collections lived up to the standard you would expect from the world’s leading art museum. Both the main collection and special collections were thorough and unique. In the special exhibitions I learned about the “Nadi” movement in French art, inspired by Japanese 2D art, and had a go at (colouring in) Manga comics.

The main collection was a historical tour de force. It opened with a room of triptychs. They explored archetypes in human development, myth and art from golden masks, Madonna figurines to ornamental plates across centuries and geographies — as if to say we are not all so different.

The collection flowed from ancient civilisations through to the contemporary — reminding us that the world’s centre of the gravity and balance of power has shifted, and will shift again.

The contemporary collection was so interesting because it included artist from countries we aren’t accustomed to seeing in big European galleries. Alongside Picasso, Gauguin and Mondrian, you could find Omar Ba, Wilfredo Lam and Ibrahim El-Salahi. It made me realize how Eurocentric our definition of ‘fine art’ is but also provided a novel twist on the Louvre brand for its audience in the Middle East.

Ai WeiWei

The exhibition ended with an Ai WeiWei installation — Fountain of Light. Constructed from 10 individual chandeliers and reaching 4 metres high, the installation was a spectacular end to the collection.

But upon leaving the gallery I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with this last piece. The work fits — Ai WeiWei is an internationally acclaimed artist and any gallery would want one of his pieces, especially one seeking to promote its internationalist and cutting-edge credentials. The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s slogan is even to “see humanity in a new light.”

However, the piece made me wonder what on earth the curator and the gallery’s Board where thinking. How can a regime that is not “free” champion the work of a well-known dissenter against authoritarism? Doesn’t Ai WeiWei’s very politics grate against their sensibilities and their regime’s records?

Perhaps not, because they are not Chinese. Or perhaps they just don’t care. Having him there is a good PR exercise.

As with a lot of things in the Emirates, they want the biggest, the best, the most expensive, to attract people and the biggest names from around the world, with little regard for anything else. They like to give the appearance of being leaders in a field, but without actually doing much (hence, buying the Louvre name).

Likewise, the Emirates give the appearance of being open, but for now this is little more than a chimera. Like Ai WeiWei’s chandelier, it may glimmer and glow, represent luxury and glitz, and dazzle a crowd, but it hasn’t yet been foisted off the floor.

Originally published on Medium here.

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