“Total Landscaping” at Warehouse 421
By Sarah Daher
Published on June 20th, 2021
The beginnings of this review come to me as I’m parked outside a stranger’s villa which is presumably under renovation. The outside of the villa is clad with sheeting intended to cover the work in progress ensuing behind. The sheeting, printed edge-to-edge in what looks like cascading English ivy, immediately reminds me of an almost identical image from the Mild Life series by Layan Attari. The 2016 work, on show at Warehouse 421’s current exhibition Total Landscaping, reflects on the imposition of “fake” nature in the urban landscape of Gulf cities. I turn away from the offending printed polymer silently cursing the slander of this utterly displaced European evergreen; perhaps it’s a byproduct of the moment we’re living through but any narrative of forced displacement, even of foliage, feels harrowing.
This review begins to feel urgent when just the next day I find myself driving down a road I frequent often. Demarking the two directions of vehicle traffic is a line of stately palm trees that have steadily grown more robust with every passing month. Today, though, one of these orderly angiosperms has slumped over. I spy it in the distance as I’m making my way around the light curve of the road and I reach over the armrest for my phone to snap a picture of it as I drive past. I must show this to Khalid (Mohamed Khalid). It is uncanny and it also isn’t that in the span of two days I’ve driven past two replicas of scenes from Total Landscaping, both times feeling a sense of rapidly rising excitement at the confluence of art and my lived experience.
It is uncanny and it also isn’t that in the span of two days I’ve driven past two replicas of scenes from Total Landscaping, both times feeling a sense of rapidly rising excitement at the confluence of art and my lived experience.
Curated by the always astute Murtaza Vali, Total Landscaping at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse 421 is a show with an enviably clever title boasting an impressively percipient commentary on the co-opting of nature and its associated imagery, verbiage, and hues in the region. This is the third in a series of exhibitions curated by Vali that examines infrastructures in the Gulf; departing from the canonical infrastructures that are under constant scrutiny, Vali chooses instead to look closely at infrastructures that are more intimate, lively, and proximal to the body.
Curated by the always astute Murtaza Vali, Total Landscaping at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse 421 is a show with an enviably clever title boasting an impressively percipient commentary on the co-opting of nature and its associated imagery, verbiage, and hues in the region.
Beginning at and departing from the writing of Gareth Doherty, author of Paradoxes of Green, which challenges the limits of landscape architecture through an ethnographic study of the experience of green in Bahrain, the show reflects on the myriad ways in which nature (in its many colors, not just green) seeps into the overarching structures within which daily life is conducted in the Gulf and more broadly in the Global South.
From the wilting corsages of Malaysian dignitaries to the ribbon-cutting ceremonial bouquets of inaugurations, severed plant-life has a tradition of being used as an ornamental display of grandeur marking occasions of social significance. These two scenes are brought to the fore respectively in Ceremonial Achievements in Flowers by GCC and YB 1-10 by Yee I-Lam.
The accompanying interpretative labels next to the works lead me to imagine the dignifying role bequeathed to the now-dead-once-alive flowerheads - like most things possessing copious beauty, they are allocated an inherent power of arrest. The co-opting of the flower from its natural habitat into the service of political, economic, social climbing agendas is an unnoticed way that nature features in routine human existence, but in Total Landscaping abrupt is the moment of recognition of how performed these integrations of nature often are.
For a show that speaks from a text that directly invokes a very specific color (green), different corners of Total Landscaping are awash in vastly different colors. Two walls at the far end of the exhibition meet at a corner, one a constellation of a blue that one can only describe as true, the other a markedly drab grey.
The cyanotypes of plant species native to the UAE, documented by Hind Mezaina in her series Dubai Gardens appear borrowed from under a microscope. Framed by ethnographic notes taken by architect and writer Todd Reisz on experiments in urban greening, this true blue wall displays a nature under meticulous quasi-scientific study.
The wall it meets shows a nature rendered. Stephanie Syjuco’s Neutral Orchids, a photographic series of orchids spray painted grey, belie their medium; from a distance they appear but digital renderings of finicky, hard-to-keep-alive plants. Up close, I can’t help myself from thinking that were these live grey orchids for sale they would be roaring successes amongst the hordes of neutral-loving millennials whose white, beige, and grey homes dare not be interrupted by even an errant childs toy in primary colors. I know I’m taking things a step too far but, as a byproduct of the moment we’re living through, I find myself inflamed at the ways in which the human hand exploits subjects under its control.
7. Stephanie Syjuco, Neutral Orchids, 2016. Image courtesy of Warehouse 421.
Total Landscaping is an exhibition that, in a time when mushrooms and trees are culturally in vogue, feels topical without feeling trite.
Total Landscaping is an exhibition that, in a time when mushrooms and trees are culturally in vogue, feels topical without feeling trite. It reflects on the nuanced particularities of nature in a region regarded as barren, a place where, by consequence, the experience of nature is perhaps under-examined. In the weeks that have passed since visiting Warehouse 421, Total Landscaping has been everywhere I’ve looked. It is precisely in the name of this unshakeable haunting, one of the hallmarks of an excellent exhibition, that I urge one and all to visit and see all that is green (grey and blue) afresh.
Total Landscaping is part of the Substructures: Excavating the Everyday series by curator Murtaza Vali, on view at Warehouse 421 until July 4th, 2021. Participating artists include: Layan Attari, Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi, GCC, Mohamed Khalid, Ho Rui An, Hind Mezaina (with Todd Reisz), Farah Al-Qasimi, Stephanie Syjuco and Yee I-Lann.
Sarah Daher is a curator and researcher who graduated with a BA in Theater and Economics from New York University Abu Dhabi and is currently completing her Masters in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in London. She is based between the UAE and London. She cares about the role of art in building and preserving communities and shared identities.