E-Issue 07 –– AUH
Winter 2023-24

January 29th, 2024

  1. Editor’s Note
  2. What’s On in Abu Dhabi/Dubai
  3. Cover Interview: Shaikha Al Ketbi on Darawan
  4. Rapport: Public Art in the Gulf and a Case Study of Manar Abu Dhabi
  5. Hashel Al Lamki’s Survey Exhibition Maqam Reflects on a Decade of Practice in Abu Dhabi
  6. “You Can’t Stand on a Movement”: Michelangelo Pistoletto Interviews Benton Interviewing Pistoletto

Winter/Spring 2024

Curators Interview May 14, 2024
AUH Embracing Change through an Open System: Maya Allison and Duygu Demir on “In Real Time” at NYUAD Art Gallery

About ––

    What We Do
    Editorial Board

Interviews ––

    Selected Archive

Open Call ––

    E-08 Seoul

Newsletter ––

Chronological Archive ––

    Selected Archive

Artist Interview November 18th, 2016
AUH Raed Yassin in Abu Dhabi

Editorial March 1st, 2018
AUH Abu Dhabi Is The New Calabasas

Exhibition Listing May 22nd, 2018
DXB Christopher Benton: If We Don't Reclaim Our History, The Sand Will

Artist Interview June 15th, 2018
TYO An Interview with BIEN, a Rising Japanese Artist

Artist Interview July 17th, 2018
TYO Rintaro Fuse on Selfies and Cave Painting

Artist Interview August 28th, 2018
BER Slavs and Tatars: “Pulling a Thread to Undo The Sweater”

Artist Interview September 1st, 2018
NYC Shirin Neshat In Conversation with Sophie Arni and Ev Zverev

Artist Interview September 1st, 2018
PAR Hottest Spices: Michèle Lamy

E-Issue 01 –– AUH/DXB
Summer 2020

August 1st, 2020

  1. Editor’s Note
  2. What’s On in the UAE
  3. Pop(Corn): Hashel Al Lamki
  4. Tailoring in Abu Dhabi
  5. Rapport: Dubai
  6. Michael Rakowitz From the Diaspora

Fall/Winter 2020-21

Artist Interview August 23rd, 2020
LHR/MCT Hanan Sultan Rhymes Frankincense with Minimalism

Artist Interview August 24th, 2020
DXB Augustine Paredes Taking Up Space

Artist Interview August 26th, 2020
AUH Sarah Almehairi Initiates Conversations

Market Interview August 28th, 2020
AUH/DXB 101 Pioneers Ethical and Curious Art Collecting

Exhibition September 1st, 2020
DXB Alserkal Arts Foundation Presents Mohamed Melehi

Market Interview September 4th, 2020
DXB Meet Tamila Kochkarova Behind ‘No Boys Allowed’

Artist Interview September 7th, 2020
DXB Taaboogah Infuses Comedy Into Khaleeji Menswear

Artist Interview September 10th, 2020
LHR/CAI Alaa Hindia’s Jewelry Revives Egyptian Nostalgia

Curator Interview September 14th, 2020
UAE Tawahadna Introduces MENA Artists to a Global Community

Exhibition Review September 24th, 2020
MIA a_part Gives Artists 36 Hours to React

Artist Interview September 27th, 2020
AUH BAIT 15 Welcomes New Member Zuhoor Al Sayegh

Market Interview October 14th, 2021
DXB Thaely Kicks Off Sustainable Sneakers

Exhibition Review October 19th, 2020
DXB Do You See Me How I See You?

Exhibition October 22nd, 2020
TYO James Jarvis Presents Latest Collages at 3110NZ

Exhibition Review October 22nd, 2020
AUH Ogamdo: Crossing a Cultural Highway between Korea and the UAE

Book Review October 28th, 2020
DAM Investigating the Catalogues of the National Museum of Damascus

Exhibition Review November 13th, 2020
Kanye Says Listen to the Kids: Youth Takeover at Jameel Arts Centre

Exhibition Review November 16th, 2021
DXB Melehi’s Waves Complicate Waving Goodbye

Exhibition Review November 19th, 2020
DXB Spotlight on Dubai Design Week 2020

Exhibition Review November 21st, 2020
DXB 101 Strikes Again with Second Sale at Alserkal Avenue

Exhibition Review
November 23rd, 2020

AUH SEAF Cohort 7 at Warehouse 421

Exhibition Review December 9th, 2020
SHJ Sharjah Art Foundation Jets Ahead on the Flying Saucer

Curator Interview January 25th, 2021
DXB Sa Tahanan Collective Redefines Home for Filipino Artists

Exhibition Review February 21st, 2021
GRV MIA Anywhere Hosts First Virtual Exhibition of Female Chechen Artists  

🎙️GAD Talk Series –– Season 1 2020

November 1st, 2020
1. What is Global Art Daily? 2015 to Now

November 16th, 2020
2. Where is Global Art Daily? An Open Coversation on Migration as Art Practitioners

November 29th, 2020
3. When the Youth Takes Over: Reflecting on the 2020 Jameel Arts Centre Youth Takeover

December 20th, 2020
4. Young Curators in Tokyo: The Making of The 5th Floor

January 27th, 2021
5. How To Create Digital Networks in The Art World?

E-Issue 02 –– NYC
Spring 2021

February 21st, 2021

  1. Editor’s Note
  2. What’s On in NYC
  3. Pop(Corn): Zeid Jaouni
  4. You Can Take The Girl Out Of The City
  5. Rapport: NYC
  6. Kindergarten Records Discuss The Future of Electronic Music
  7. Sole DXB Brings NY Hip-Hop To Abu Dhabi
  8. Wei Han Finds ‘Home’ In New York
  9. Vikram Divecha: Encounters and Negotiations

Spring/Summer 2021

Exhibition Review March 3rd, 2021
DXB There’s a Hurricane at the Foundry

Exhibition Review March 7th, 2021
AUH Re-viewing Contrasts: Hyphenated Spaces at Warehouse421

Curator Interview March 21st, 2021
DXB Permeability and Regional Nodes: Sohrab Hura on Curating Growing Like a Tree at Ishara Art Foundation

Exhibition March 28th, 2021
DXB Alserkal Art Week Top Picks

Exhibition Review April 1st, 2021
DXB A ‘Menu Poem’ and All That Follows

Exhibition Review April 5th, 2021
DXB A Riot Towards Landscapes

Exhibition April 16th, 2021
RUH Noor Riyadh Shines Light on Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Art Strategy

Artist Interview April 26th, 2021
CTU/AUH/YYZ Sabrina Zhao: Between Abu Dhabi, Sichuan, and Toronto

Exhibition Review April 27th, 2021
TYO BIEN Opens Two Solo Exhibitions in Island Japan and Parcel

Artist Interview April 28th, 2021
DXB Ana Escobar: Objects Revisited

Exhibition May 9th, 2021
LDN Fulfilment Services Ltd. Questions Techno-Capitalism on Billboards in London

Artist Interview May 11th, 2021
BAH Mihrab: Mysticism, Devotion, and Geo-Identity

Curator Interview May 20th, 2021
DXB There Is A You In The Cloud You Can’t Delete: A Review of “Age of You” at Jameel Arts Centre

Market Interview May 26th, 2021
TYO Startbahn, Japan’s Leading Art Blockchain Company, Builds a New Art Infrastructure for the Digital Age

Exhibition June 11th, 2021
TYO “Mimicry of Hollows” Opens at The 5th Floor

Exhibiton Review June 20th, 2021
AUH “Total Landscaping”at Warehouse 421

Artist Interview June 30th, 2021
OSA Rintaro Fuse Curates “Silent Category” at Creative Center Osaka

Exhibition Review August 9th, 2021
DXB “After The Beep”: A Review and Some Reflections

E-Issue 03 ––TYO
Fall 2021

October 1st, 2022

  1. Editor’s Note
  2. What’s On in TYO
  3. Pop(Corn): Nimyu
  4. Ahmad The Japanese: Bady Dalloul on Japan and Belonging
  5. Rapport: Tokyo
  6. Alexandre Taalba Redefines Virtuality at The 5th Floor
  7. Imagining Distant Ecologies in Hypersonic Tokyo: A Review of “Floating Between the Tropical and Glacial Zones”
  8. Ruba Al-Sweel Curates “Garden of e-arthly Delights” at SUMAC Space
  9. Salwa Mikdadi Reflects on the Opening of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Arab Center for the Study of Art

Fall/Winter 2021-22

Market Interview October 6th, 2021
RUH HH Prince Fahad Al Saud Discusses Saudi Arabia’s Artistic Renaissance

Exhibition October 7th, 2021
RUH Misk Art Institute’s Annual Flagship Exhibition Explores the Universality of Identity

Curator Interview October 15th, 2021
IST “Once Upon a Time Inconceivable”: A Review and a Conversation

Exhibition Review October 16th, 2021
AUH Woman as a Noun, and a Practice: “As We Gaze Upon Her” at Warehouse421

Exhibition Review February 11th, 2022

Artist Interview February 26th, 2022
TYO Akira Takayama on McDonald’s Radio University, Heterotopia, and Wagner Project

Artist Interview March 10th, 2022
DXB Prepare The Ingredients and Let The Rest Flow: Miramar and Zaid’s “Pure Data” Premieres at Satellite for Quoz Arts Fest 2022

Exhibition March 11th, 2022
DXB Must-See Exhibitions in Dubai - Art Week Edition 2022

Exhibition Review March 14th, 2022
DXB Art Dubai Digital, An Alternative Art World?

E-Issue 04 –– IST
Spring 2022

March 15th, 2022

  1. Editor’s Note
  2. What’s On in IST
  3. Pop(Corn): Refik Anadol
  4. Rapport: Istanbul
  5. Independent Spaces in Istanbul: Sarp Özer on Operating AVTO

Spring/Summer 2022

Curator Interview March 21st, 2022

Market Interview March 28th, 2022
DXB Dubai's Postmodern Architecture: Constructing the Future with 3dr Models

Exhibition April 23rd, 2022
HK Startbahn Presents “Made in Japan 3.0: Defining a New Phy-gital Reality”, an NFT Pop-Up at K11 Art Mall

Exhibition May 6th, 2022
Istanbul’s 5533 Presents Nazlı Khoshkhabar’s “Around and Round”

Artist Interview May 13th, 2022
“We Are Witnessing History”: Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian On Their Retrospective Exhibition at NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery

Artist Interview June 13th, 2022
DXB “Geometry is Everywhere”: An Interview and Walking Tour of Order of Magnitude, Jitish Kallat’s Solo Exhibition at Dubai’s Ishara Art Foundation

Exhibition June 21st, 2022
DXB Art Jameel Joins The World Weather Network in a Groundbreaking Response to Global Climate Crisis

Exhibition June 27th, 2022
What’s On in the UAE: Our Top Summer Picks

Curator Interview July 9th, 2022
IST Creating an Artist Books Library in Istanbul: Aslı Özdoyuran on BAS

E-Issue 05 –– VCE
Fall 2022

September 5th, 2022

  1. Editor’s Note
  2. What’s On in VCE
  3. Pop(Corn): UAE National Pavilion
  4. Rapport: Venice
  5. Zeitgeist of our Time: Füsun Onur for the Turkish Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale
  6. GAD’s Top Picks: National Pavilions
  7. Strangers to the Museum Wall: Kehinde Wiley’s Venice Exhibition Speaks of Violence and Portraiture
  8. Questioning Everyday Life: Alluvium by Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian at OGR Torino in Venice

Fall/Winter 2022-23

Market Interview June 28th, 2022
How Pearl Lam Built Her Gallery Between China and Europe

Exhibition November 11th, 2022
“Atami Blues” Brings Together UAE-Based and Japanese Artists in HOTEL ACAO ANNEX

Exhibition December 2nd, 2022
TYO Wetland Lab Proposes Sustainable Cement Alternative in Tokyo

Artist Interview December 9th, 2022
DXB Navjot Altaf Unpacks Eco-Feminism and Post-Pandemic Reality at Ishara Art Foundation

Artist Interview January 8th, 2023
TYO Shu Yonezawa and the Art of Animation

Artist Interview January 19th, 2023
NYC Reflecting on Her Southwestern Chinese Bai Roots, Peishan Huang Captures Human Traces on Objects and Spaces

Exhibition Review February 9th, 2023
DXB Augustine Paredes Builds His Paradise Home at Gulf Photo Plus

Artist Interview February 22nd, 2023
DXB Persia Beheshti Shares Thoughts on Virtual Worlds and the State of Video Art in Dubai Ahead of Her Screening at Bayt Al Mamzar

E-Issue 06 –– DXB/SHJ
Spring 2023

April 12th, 2023

  1. Editor’s Note
  2. What’s On in the UAE
  3. Pop(Corn): Jumairy
  4. Rapport: Art Dubai 2023
  5. Highlights from Sharjah Biennial 15
  6. Is Time Just an Illusion? A Review of "Notations on Time" at Ishara Art Foundation
  7. Saif Mhaisen and His Community at Bayt AlMamzar

DXB Christopher Joshua Benton to Debut Mubeen, City as Archive at The Third Line Shop in Collaboration with Global Art Daily

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4. Rapport: Public Art in the Gulf and a Case Study of Manar Abu Dhabi

By Sophie Mayuko Arni

Published on January 29, 2024

In our current attention economy, art appreciation seems to have shifted, globally, from contemplative meditation to Instagram-worthy moments. While looking at representational works in enclosed spaces – a solemn aesthetic and intellectual experience – still holds value, 21st-century audiences are encouraged to explore the outdoors with larger-than-life installations.

In the past year alone, there has been a clear spike in public art initiatives and outdoor exhibitions on an international scale: AI-generated graphics, 10-meter high LED screens, inflatables, temporary architectural pavilions, and massive projections are all tools that artists can use today to produce spectacular works, given the right budget and teams.

Published in 2014, Tristan Manco’s anthology Big Art, Small Art explores this shift towards so-called ‘big art’. The book surveys noteworthy large-scale installations from exhibitions in the Western hemisphere, with a few East Asian and Australian examples. In his introduction, the author takes the commissions for the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern as one of the impetus for the global drive towards bigger art – a post-industrial space turned into a museum meant larger gallery halls, and thus, larger installations.

A decade later, we cannot talk about public art without mentioning the Arabian Gulf. Huge multi-year initiatives, backed by governmental entities, have propelled open-air exhibitions, festivals, and biennales, and public art commissions throughout the region. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are leading the way. Their megaprojects do not necessarily have a long legacy – biennales and annual exhibitions are still in their nascency, and yet, the pace is not slowing down. It seems announcements for new major exhibitions or commissions are rolling out monthly in the region. Unfolding live in front of our eyes, we are witnessing a public art boom, an artistic renaissance, and the writing of a new art history. In this constant growth stage, I find it important to take a step back and reflect on the role of scale in public artworks, and the role of the artist in these public art scaffoldings.
 1. Jim Denevan, Self Similar, Manar Abu Dhabi 2023. Image courtesy the artist and DCT Abu Dhabi. Photo by Lance Gerber.

This Rapport will concentrate on the phenomenon of public art in Abu Dhabi specifically, with a focus on the Public Art Abu Dhabi initiative, and the recent success of Manar Abu Dhabi. While Abu Dhabi’s investment into public art might feel novel, I hope this Rapport will show the ways the UAE’s capital has been slowly and steadily investing in its arts and culture sector for the past decade. The ground of the exhibition site might be rippling, but its foundation is rooted, ensuring sustainable growth in the years ahead.

Public Art Boom in the Region

Arguably, it all began in Qatar in 2014. The current boom of public art in the Gulf can be traced back to the massive East-West/West-East installation by Richard Serra in the desert surrounding Doha, Qatar. Commissioned in 2014 by H.H. Sheikha al-Mayassa al-Thani, Chairperson of Qatar Museums, the installation made waves globally, but remained part of an insider art tourist trek, partly due to its remote location.

2. Richard Serra, East-West/West-East, 2014.  

Then came Saudi Arabia. In 2020, the Royal Commission of AlUla teamed up with Desert X to bring DesertX’s widely successful outdoor exhibition from the Coachella Valley to the UNESCO-protected desert valleys of AlUla. Held every two years, some DesertX AlUla site-specific installations have truly been masterpieces of public art, and career-shifting moments for participating artists – we are all eagerly waiting for the next edition to open next month. In Riyadh, Noor Riyadh opened its inaugural edition in 2021 with a highly ambitious program and a vast list of headliner artists. The world’s largest light art festival is held on an annual basis and has broken several Guinness records for the scale of light artworks on display.

3. Gisela Colon, The Future is Now, 2020. Desert X AlUla 2020. Photo by Lance Gerber. Courtesy of DesertX and Royal Commission for AlUla. Photo by Lance Gerber.
4. Muhannad Shono, The Lost Path, 2020. Courtesy of DesertX and Royal Commission for AlUla. Photo by Lance Gerber.
5. Rashed Al Shashai, A Concise Passage, 2020. Courtesy of DesertX and Royal Commission for AlUla. Photo by Lance Gerber.

6. Installation view of Janet Echelman, EARTHTIME 1.26 RIYADH, 2023, presented at Noor Riyadh 2023, Wadi Namar. Photo by Faisal AlFuhaid.
7. Installation view of Chris Levine, Molecule of Light, 2023, presented at Noor Riyadh 2023, Wadi Namar. Photo by Faisal AlFuhaid.

Meanwhile in the UAE, Dubai Expo opened in 2021 and public art commissions were part of the overall Expo strategy, with notable works by Monira Al Qadiri, Shaikha Al Mazrou, and Afra Al Dhaheri enhancing the visitor experience. Some works were acquired and have since become permanent installations of Dubai’s new Expo City. In early 2023, Dubai Culture announced its Dubai Public Art strategy, fostering open calls with local art institutions such as Art Jameel, Alserkal Arts Foundation, and Tashkeel, to adorn selected neighborhoods of Dubai with permanent public artworks. Dubai Dhai, Dubai’s first light art festival, was announced days ago and will also soon illuminate Expo City.

Then, comes Abu Dhabi. Last March 2023, Abu Dhabi announced the launch of Public Art Abu Dhabi (PAAD) with a massive $35 million annual budget dedicated to public art. The Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) announced the launch of PAAD with Korean collective d’strict WAVE activating the facade of the city’s Cultural Foundation. As part of PAAD,  Manar Abu Dhabi opened its inaugural edition this November 2023, curated by Reem Fadda and Alia Zaal Lootah, and the first Public Art Abu Dhabi Biennial is set to open in November 2024, led by Reem Fadda and Galit Eilat. Other public art commissions are also underway, with a series of yearly direct commissions across the emirate's landmarks, including tunnels, roundabouts, bridges, and parks.

8. d'strict. WAVE, 2020. Cultural Foundation, Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi. Courtesy the artists.

Is Bigger, Better?

As we delve into the installations presented in Manar Abu Dhabi, I would like to pause and reflect on the question of scale. Public art is by definition art for the public, a true civic pursuit. It stands against the strict hierarchies of low- and high-brow art that we often experience at different exhibitions or art institutions. In public art exhibitions, the curatorial statement may even feel less important than the pieces themselves. A large public is in awe: in awe of the scale, the production value, and the imagination of the artist.

As we judge public art exhibitions, we must consider scale, and what it does for artworks. A simple question arises: is bigger, better? Does super scaling an artwork make it automatically more impactful? Does the medium fit the message?

9. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Translation Island: Collider, Manar Abu Dhabi 2023. Courtesy the artist and DCT Abu Dhabi. Photo by Lance Gerber.

A “gargantuan display of glimmering lights”, Collider by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is the highlight of his 10-part installation on Lulu Island, commissioned by Manar Abu Dhabi. Every night, since the exhibition opening in late November, massive projectors emit white lights straight into the sky, in a stark installation of light beams visible from a 5 kilometers-radius. Seeing this display up close gives us a sense of wonder at the artist’s vision and the work’s technological ingenuity. From afar, it is a sight that prompts us a feeling of “awe”: a quick, surprising, shock of waves – a contemplation of sorts that what we are seeing is indeed possible, and made by human ingenuity. Collider will remain in my mind long after the ten-minute boat ride it took to see it.

10. Jumairy, Luciferin Shores, Manar Abu Dhabi 2023. Courtesy the artist and DCT Abu Dhabi. Photo by Lance Gerber.

Magic happens when an artwork moves, and inhabits a natural, ever-shifting environment. A beautiful example of this is Jumairy’s Luciferin Shores. Controlled by a motorized system that captures Lulu Island’s seashore waves, the installation projects custom-engineered green and violet light on the wave edges, mirroring the seashores’ native bioluminescent organisms. A soundtrack composed by Jumairy himself – a mesmerizing electronic melody mixed with gritty electric guitar chords – enhances the immersive experience. The shores shimmer, as they would in a sci-fi moon cycle. A luminescent wonder, quite literally, and an acute reflection of the land’s push-pull relationship with the sea.

11. Carsten Höller, Abu Dhabi Dots, Manar Abu Dhabi 2023. Courtesy the artist and DCT Abu Dhabi. Photo by Lance Gerber.

On the Corniche, Carsten Höller created Abu Dhabi Dots, letting audiences play with red, blue, green, and white spotlights, creating their chains of colors. Talking to designboom, Höller said the following about the word “interactivity”: “We should really come up with a new word for it!” The German artist, veteran of scientific approaches to conceptual art, believes that in the current art ecosystem, “simply producing more representational artworks isn’t the solution.” Quoting the same interview, “Endlessly creating more representations, collecting art, and building more museums doesn’t get us anywhere.”

12. Groupe F, Persistence of Form, Manar Abu Dhabi 2023. Courtesy the artist and DCT Abu Dhabi. Photo by Lance Gerber.

Seeing Groupe F’s drone show on Saadiyat Island embodies this idea very well – a simulacrum of the simulacra: the drone show mimics the Saadiyat Island museum architecture, simulating the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s dome on top of its cultural district. An ephemeral sight, that lingers on the viewers’ minds long after it has passed.

Finding Beauty in the Fleeting Moment

An uncomfortable truth emerges out of these spectacular works: the beauty of the fleeting moment. Once we cut the electrical power, light and new media artworks ‘die’ in some sense. Only the exhibition lives on in our imagination.

In Big Art, Small Art, Manco cites Gavin Brown, an art dealer from New York: ‘When we are able to fly around the globe in twenty-four hours, and that kind of movement is a common, everyday occurrence, then we have lost our physical sense of awe. These large-scale works might be a conscious attempt to rediscover that awe.’ (cited in Big Art, Small Art, Introduction, p.16).

In many ways, “awe” has overtaken “aura” as the buzzword for public art. As print technology introduced reproducible works of art, Walter Benjamin was worried about the loss of the artwork’s aura. I wonder what he would have to say about the projectors emitting light into the stratosphere off the coast of Lulu Island. 

The relationship between “aura”, “awe” and “light” is an interesting one to dissect. Light, as a self-reflective medium, uses an electric conduit to produce a tool for better visual clarity. In itself, light is shapeless, formless, and colorless, yet possesses instant eye-catching abilities. While “auratic” artworks radiate a glow from within, awe-inducing works emit light outwardly. While the “aura” attracts our attention, “awe” demands it. If modern art searched for “aura”, audiences may today be searching for “awe.”

I talked to a young Abu Dhabi-native who told me the experiential shift he is witnessing is on par with the current zeitgeist of pop-up activations and brand-led experiences in the art, fashion, and cultural industries. ‘This shift is representative of the larger move towards our global experience-led economy.’ It makes perfect sense to see light art exhibitions to this scale in the Arabian Gulf, a region building its post-oil future on the very idea of the experience economy, hospitality, and placemaking.

Focus on Light Art

From Riyadh, to Abu Dhabi, to Dubai, it’s safe to say the concept of the light art festival has taken the region by storm. Noor, Manar, Dhai: these are all words relating to light in Arabic (Manar translates to ‘lighthouse’). While some of the curatorial statements link to the cultural significance of light in the region  – referring to Islamic architecture and the role light and shadows play in mashrabiyyas for example – the region’s continued investment into light art festivals is reflective of these cities’ ambition. Light art exhibitions are a great way to build up, quickly and for a limited time, high-lit and high-resolution footage of cityscapes to match their ambition for soft cultural power.

Not to mention the choice of light art is a site-specific response, in environments where nightlife is active. Light-meets-public art makes for a perfect win-win in terms of urban planning and drive towards tourism.

The model of the light-filled public art exhibition is clearly working, and here to stay. Number don’t lie. After dusk, up to 2,000 people at a time are on Lulu Island. Abu Dhabi’s residents and visitors can be seen queuing for up to two hours at each five hubs – even Reddit forums have popped to discuss the best timings to visit Manar Abu Dhabi.

It would not surprise me if light art festivals may be the first creative concept exported globally out of the Gulf’s art scene.

The Event Horizon

One book comes to mind when thinking about making sense of this light-filled, ephemerality. Mass Traffic is a wonderful collection of thoughts, essays, manifestos, and short stories by Lantian Xie and Sabih Ahmed, recently published by Mousse Publishing and the Kunsthalle Bern.

Written by two important voices of the Gulf art scene, a chapter stands out titled “101 Variations of the Art Exhibition in the 21st Century”. Quoting the first four principles (Mass Traffic, p.116),

  1. The exhibition of the 21st century is where site-specificity becomes site-elasticity.

  2. The exhibition of the 21st century is where the ground becomes a rippling surface.

  3. The exhibition of the 21st century is where the site is neither an archeological site to be excavated, nor a tabula rasa to be filled.

  4. The exhibition of the 21st century is where the world of analogue information collides with the world of digital information.

According to this definition, Manar Abu Dhabi perfectly embodies the exhibition of the 21st century. Artworks sit on rippling water surfaces, expanding Abu Dhabi as a site for placemaking, with both analog and digital media.

Mass Traffic also mentions the so-called “event horizon” increasingly pertaining to the art world. In Xie’s and Ahmed’s own words, “an event is a singularity – an infinite resolution in time. In the current paradigm, the event is also the primary instrument through which a collective occupation of time is measured and monetized.” (p.49)

An event is a singularity – an infinite resolution in time.

- Lantian Xie and Sabih Ahmed, Mass Traffic (2023)

On view for a limited amount of time, with success measured in Instagram Stories, ticketed entries, and scanned QR codes, public art exhibitions exist deep into the event horizon. The risk is to travel too deep and reach the land of the event industry. Purists would argue art should not be the product of organizational charts and crowd-sourced ideas, all cascading into packed installation schedules ahead of grand opening day. Without curatorial care, intellectual frameworks of contemporary art are at the mercy of the sophistication of an industry, which privileges deadlines and budgets over the search for meaning.

In this regard, I personally think the inaugural edition of Manar Abu Dhabi has done a remarkable job. The curation doesn’t feel lost. Choosing hubs that highlight Abu Dhabi’s biodiversity, from islands to mainland, was a smart choice to invite artists to create site-specific works. Artworks are created with poetry and care. Ushers are trained to explain each installation concept and refer to easily accessible wall texts. The exhibition design, even outdoors, mimics museum-level exhibition design – with appropriate artwork labels and descriptions. It shows that Abu Dhabi has experience building museums, and DCT Abu Dhabi sees Manar Abu Dhabi and the greater PAAD initiative through the lens of art, first.

Focus on Collaboration

I still remember reading the first document of Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030, outlining Saadiyat Island’s vision to house multiple world-class museums, universities, and research institutes. For the past decade, a key strategy has remained: promoting cross-cultural dialogue and the idea of interconnectedness. There are not many places in the world that compare to Saadiyat Island as a beacon for multiculturalism and learning. Perhaps the most symbolic is the recently-opened Abrahamic House, a rare home for interfaith tolerance built in the 21st century. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, New York University Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are all visionary new hybrid institutions with a mandate to foster a new global intellectual history, not anchored in Euro-American-centric views, but rather embodying a new mix of values and innovation, native to Abu Dhabi.

The city’s openness to dialogue and collaboration has led to a positive reinforcement of both local and international experts, working together to build something new. It has created an environment where collaboration is encouraged, with mutual respect. This, above all, is what I believe stands as Manar Abu Dhabi’s key to successfully overcoming artworks’ technical difficulties.

13. teamLab, Resonating Microcosms - Solidified Light Color © teamLab, courtesy Pace Gallery

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and teamLab are some of the world’s foremost experts in large-scale light art – they need no introduction in this field. Instead of being invited to contribute a previous installation from their repertoire, they were commissioned multiple works across their dedicated islands. Their willingness to accept this invitation, and deliver on it, is something to be noted. Both Lozano-Hemmer and teamLab went above and beyond to create a multi-faceted journey of interactive installations on Lulu Island and Samaliyah Island, respectively. To storytell through immersive light-based art is rare, and should not be taken for granted. These artists acted as curators, creating mini-exhibitions within the larger framework of Manar.  

This generosity, from both PAAD and the artists, is apparent when walking through the impeccably-installed installations, using technology not readily available in the Gulf. Trust is needed to reach a balance between curatorial teams, artists’ teams, and operational teams, not something easy to achieve when the three might have differing agendas.

Rooted, Sustainable Growth 

‘Making art accessible to all’ is no easy mission. Apart from balancing hefty annual budgets and different stakeholders, respect for the intellectual and artistic integrity of resulting artworks is needed. I think the success of Manar Abu Dhabi speaks of the sustainable, slow, and steady growth of Abu Dhabi’s cultural sector over the past decade.

In 2017, Abu Dhabi made headlines with the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Two years later, the museum reached two million visits, making it one of the most visited museums in the Middle East and North Africa region. While the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi opening may have been delayed many times since it was first announced, driving around Saadiyat Island these days, it is clear that the construction of its iconic Frank Gehry building is well underway. Its curatorial team is getting larger as well. Stephanie Rosenthal was recently appointed the Project Director, joining from the Gropius Bau in Berlin. 

Amid these museum projects, Abu Dhabi’s annual art fair has been a model of participatory art – a place where we would all gather once a year, see striking pieces, attend talks and see friendly faces at the adjacent restaurants. This year, Abu Dhabi Art celebrated its 15th anniversary. The energy at Manarat Al Saadiyat was unlike any other year I have attended: buzzing, optimistic, and energetic. The room was absolutely packed during the Preview Night, with booths filled with museum-quality works, and an uplifting multigenerational community of artists, curators, writers, and arts professionals who call this city home. I remember the first Abu Dhabi Art I attended in 2013 – a decade later, the fair was unrecognizable. The growth was undeniable.

16. 15th edition of Abu Dhabi Art, Preview Night, November 2023. Image: Global Art Daily.

A lot can happen in a decade of constant, steady, activity. Over the past decade, Abu Dhabi has seen the opening of art institutions, MFA programs, countless conversations and public programs, writers and artist residencies, publications, and of course, many exhibitions. Art spaces took us out of our comfort zone, discovering places we hadn’t ventured in before. Scale was achieved with major museum buildings and keystone exhibitions. It’s safe to say that our art community grew from niche to popular. The idea that art should be accessible to all – with wide public access and interest – has always been there, but it was still in the works.

The success of Manar Abu Dhabi is a cornerstone moment. It is a testament, as Shaikha Al Ketbi mentioned in her interview, that the public has been ready for public art, “for a while now”. Queues of people lining up to take boats to see art installations show that investing consistently in the organic and natural growth of the arts and culture sector pays off, in the long run. Manar Abu Dhabi is in line with Abu Dhabi’s strategy: play the long game, always.

Concluding Thoughts

We are currently witnessing a sophistication of the way art is made and exhibited, and this new methodology is born in and out of this region. Where else in the world does a temporary light art exhibition of this scale appear before the opening of a contemporary art museum? One can safely say that the exhibition of the 21st century will somehow be influenced by the Gulf’s half-archeological site, half-tabula rasa location. The ground is rippling, and the world is taking notice.

It is useful to go back to André Malraux, and his seminal Museum Without Walls, published in 1974. His idea of the imaginary museum, without walls, is often revisited in the vision of our new 21st-century outdoor exhibitions. Malraux was inspired by technological advances that made it possible to reproduce high-quality images of artworks, and to bind these images in reproducible books and catalogues. Decades before the advent of the Internet and digital circulation of images that ensued, he wrote: “A museum without walls has been opened to us, and it will carry infinitely farther that limited revelation of the world of art which the real museums offer us within their walls.” I wonder what he would say about Abu Dhabi’s seashores.

Sophie Mayuko Arni is the Founder of Editor-in-Chief of Global Art Daily.