Foiled Islands: Abbas Akhavan’s Islands
The Third Line Gallery, Dubai
5 May – 17 June, 2010
review by Sara Mameni
You are standing underneath a palm tree looking up. The tree’s wide fronds extend out like an umbrella above your head. The sky is clear. It is sunny. Instead of protecting you from the sun, however, the tree glares back at you with its golden leaves. The trunk of the tree is solid black, but it’s flat fronds have been meticulously layered with sheets of 22-carat gold. The palm tree appears on a regular Xeroxed sheet of paper. It is a grainy black and white image, except that the palm leaves are highlighted with thin layers of gold.
Palm trees are a familiar sight in Dubai. They are native to the region and were traditionally used as the main architectural material for building Barasti (palm-frond) houses. Barasti houses are built on wooden foundations, using palm trunks as columns and split fronds for roof hatchings and window screens. Such houses, however, are the last thing you should expect to see in Dubai today. A dense metropolis known for its rapid urban development and home to the world’s tallest skyscraper (Burj Khalifa), Dubai is mostly built out of concrete, glass and steel poured over rocks and sand.
The most direct relationship between palm trees and architecture in contemporary Dubai is the reclamation project that extends the city into the Persian Gulf in the form of three artificial islands known as the Palm Islands. Built in the shape of palm trees by Al Nakheel development company (whose very name translates into “Palms” in Arabic), the Palm Islands sprout into the gulf multiplying its shoreline and beachside luxury properties. Dubai’s real estate boom dates back to the early 2000s reaching its height in 2002. The bubble has since burst, leaving Dubai in a perpetual state of half-finished construction.
The Palm Islands were featured prominently in Abbas Akhavan’s exhibition “Islands.” One side of the gallery was dedicated to a large map of Dubai drawn directly onto the wall using imitation gold leaf. Akhavan’s golden map covered one entire wall, presenting the city from above, the ideal vantage point for viewing the Palms and the constellation of other artificial islands that surround them. Much like the desirable beachside properties that are sold in bits to foreign investors, Akhavan’s golden map was also up for sale. For the duration of the exhibition, collectors could choose any section of the wall, carve it out and pay for it by the metre. Akhavan’s prices varied based on the locations depicted on the map: the gallery wall was zoned according to the desirability of the lots represented there. As rectangular blocks were wedged out of the wall, the price of the remaining work increased and the hollow foundation of the drywall became apparent. Akhavan’s map left the gallery in solid chunks to be reinstalled as luxury items in buyer’s apartments or air-tight storage areas capable of preserving its golden sheen. All that was left behind was the white powdery dust of the drywall spotted with golden flakes on the gallery floor.
The void left behind on the wall was as constructed as the golden map itself. The analogy here is not the familiar rhetoric of a hollow land built over with luxury towers that are nothing but a facade. That language is suspiciously similar to colonial views of conquered lands, presented as barren and uninhabited in order to justify settlement, foreign investment and development. Rather, the void left on the gallery wall is more plausibly seen as a fabricated absence related to the diminishing supplies of a very specific commodity that has shaped the economy — if not the very identity — of the Middle East: oil. Unlike its neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi, which is the largest oil producer in the UAE, Dubai’s oil wells have become desiccated since the late 1990s, necessitating a search for another source of income. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that the real estate boom of the early 2000s was a direct result of a shift from an oil-based economy, dating back to the early 1960s, to one that concentrated on tourism, investment banking and service industries.
While Akhavan’s golden map left the gallery with hollow pits, his photocopies pointed to alternative economies existing in the region. Displayed in the same room as the large golden map, the xeroxed images depicted labor activities such as fishing, date farming and herding, where animals and vegetables, the main sources of survival, were covered in gold leaves. It is in these images that we see a man climbing a palm tree to collect dates or cut its broad fronds for a Barasti hut. Akhavan’s black-and-white images, which stayed in the gallery while the map was gradually dissected, introduced a discourse parallel to the one provoked by Dubai’s real estate market. These grainy shadows held firm against the wall, while the opposite wall was gradually dismantled and devoured.
Sara Mameni is an artist and writer completing her PhD in Art History at the University of California. She is currently completing her dissertation on contemporary art in the Middle East while curating an exhibition on the theme of music and national identity.