Over recent decades, expansive growth has transformed the United Arab Emirates (specifically Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai): deserts have become cities, new waterways flow over sand, highways span the land, and the population is booming. Such drastic change has spurred the four artists in NYUAD Art Gallery’s new exhibition Speculative Landscapes to interrogate their environment, reflecting on the shifting cultural, digital and physical infrastructure around them.
Areej Kaoud, Ayman Zedani, Jumairy and Raja’a Khalid were all commissioned to create installations exploring the notion of landscape - not only as a physical realm, but also as a spiritual, mental and virtual space. The works incite us to reposition ourselves in the world beyond geographical and political boundaries, to re-think rational constructs of time and place.
“The title,” explained Maya Allison, Chief Curator and Executive Director of NYUAD Art Gallery, “comes from my on-going interest in the concept of landscape. When we say landscape, it technically means whatever you can see, the lay of the land around us. If you take land as a metaphor for place, the word can be used interchangeably for our state of mind. Phrases like ‘no man’s land’ and ‘stuck in the middle of nowhere’ foreground the notion of where we are."
“Speculative” at once questions and indicates the future, tainted either with uncertainty or opportunity. The immersive, interactive installations expose new vantage points on ‘landscapes,’ while considering how humans or organisms occupy them.
Raised in Dubai, Raja’a Khalid probes the Emirate’s luxury economy, specifically examining colour as a marketing tool in the burgeoning wellness industry. The installation a.quiet.wave (2019) features a wall painted in the muted green “Quiet Wave,” a hue provided by Coloro, a predictive colour matching system heralding the shade as one of five key trending colours for 2021. The colour becomes a backdrop for purple neon lights, green Himalayan salt lamps, yoga mats and yoga studio equipment. No longer a place to release from external pressures, the studio is now fraught with digital implications: via influencers and trend marketing, the supposedly serene space becomes a realm of media-fuelled sales. Throughout the exhibition, well-known yoga practitioners will perform in the space, visible only on the gallery’s Instagram account, @nyuadartgallery.
Similarily, Areej Kaoud’s installation, Unknown Safety (2019), problematizes space. A red mound coated in rubber playground flooring sits at the centre of the gallery. Stepping up onto the bulge, the viewer experiences a physical connection to the piece, enhanced by a strip of grass bristling through its central slit. At the top, the familiar spongy substance underfoot, the viewer feels the gallery differently, and a well-known childhood material is recast. The softly curved platform transforms from a friendly, playful hill¾easily conquerable¾into a daunting steep slope as the viewer descends. Dismounting provokes insecurity. The red, a colour recalling caution signals and warnings, leads the viewer to suspect the piece may be as much trap as diversion.
Two other commissioned works accompany Unknown Safety. In An Escalation (2016-19), two small holes discreetly bored into the wall emit the artist’s voice quietly enunciating a progression of words; one hole for Arabic, the other for English. Initially stemming from small daily traumas, the reading quickly escalates into drama: a small paper cut ends in thoughts of amputation. Kaoud’s third piece, Silent Sirens (2018), is a series of light boxes dotting the walls at varying heights. Functioning like wayfinding exit signs, the LED lights beam Arabic expressions, used by Kaoud’s mother to calm herself in stressful situations. “It’s Ok” and “Be Strong” flash across the tickertape signs - soothing words delivered as warnings, yet producing, oddly, the opposite effect.
In Kaoud’s world, we feel on the edge of safety. The light-hearted sculpture and bright LED messages evoke a feeling of anticipation, as if awaiting danger or potential disaster. A Palestinian born in Sharjah and raised in Canada, the artist seems to be channelling anxieties her parents would have known in their native Palestine, even when all was calm.
A single video prefaces the exhibition in the entrance hall. S/\M in BRZ5 (2016) is a work by Jumairy, in which the invented pop-star alter-ego (of the artist of the same pseudonym) manifests digitally. Jumairy’s universe, called BRZ5, or ‘barzakh,’ the Arabic reference to limbo, or the space between the spiritual and psychical domains, is a special place. “Jumairy imagines a barzakh for technology,” explained Allison. “When your phone dies, this is where its artificial intelligence (AI) goes. The project originated in a poignant story of the sudden death of the artist’s friend. Soon afterwards, his friend’s phone also died, and they lost all text correspondence. He’s imagining where the phone’s AI has gone, and this planet is an homage to his deceased friend and a desire to reconnect with the device’s AI.”
Jumairy’s commissioned work, A Comma, In Arabic (2019) is a slice of BRZ5 presented physically in the gallery space—twenty tonnes of synthetic sand dyed pink. The title itself references the Arabic word for comma, which is ‘fasila,’ translated as ‘an object of separation.’ This is a portion of BRZ5 severed from its virtual existence. The barren setting conjures up a desolate land, tinged with the hot pink Pantone 213 hue that saturates contemporary culture, from pop icons and toys to political or social movements.
Stepping on certain spots of the hilly terrain triggers digital sounds that, at first, are aural shocks. The electronic screeches and beeps recall computer log on noises or glitches, harking back to dial-up tones from the early days of internet connections.
Likewise, Ayman Zedani’s Between Muddles and Tangles (2019) blurs the line between digital and real worlds: virtual and tangible coexist, or are even co-dependent. His initial studies in biomechanics led Zedani to a position in a Riyadh hospital pharmacy. Yet he sees his transition into art as a natural progression: both science and art are realms of experimentation, healing and investigation. Having relocated to the UAE, Zedani began to study local flora and ecology.
An immersive two-channel video installation fills two walls, while a line of plants and pink LED lights is set into another. The dark room ecnloses round seats where viewers can reflect on the merging of artificial and natural. The video depicts Sharjah’s Al Noor Island, where transplanted, non-native plants are the backdrop for a night-time show of coloured LED light beams dancing across stems and leaves. Zedani discovered that this artificial habitat fostered new life: insects adapted to the unnatural environment created at the intersection of the natural and human-made.
As they jointly investigate the vast notion of landscape, the four artists in Speculative Landscapes pose questions and generate ideas that force us to challenge standard concepts. Our digital, mental, spiritual and physical worlds, the artists seem to say, are blurred, overlapping and dialoguing with one another. As we physically interact with the immersive installations, we are asked to question our perspectives. The strength of Speculative Landscapes is how it prompts our critical thinking of ‘landscapes’ in our increasingly interconnected world.