Dubai’s gilded cartography

Nyree Barrett meets an Iranian artist who has created a giant scale map of Dubai on the wall of The Third Line


‘Have you been to The Universe yet?’ ask overseas friends and relatives. The proposed offshore development, originally scheduled to be built near The World, captured the imagination of many. ‘No, it hasn’t even been built,’ we reply: cue the falling of faces. Dubai’s cartography is etched with promise, yet many of the advertised structures now hang in the ether, their fate unknown. Old promo materials for developments such as The Universe are now relics of a lost era.

Abbas Akhavan’s site-specific work at The Third Line is a map of the future imagined during Dubai’s golden era. Akhavan has spent weeks at the gallery, first sketching and then laying imitation gold leaf onto a false wall to create a huge map of the emirate. Our beloved Sheikh Zayed Road intersects the giant canvas and there are many true-to-life elements, but the fallen Universe also takes a gaudy centre stage. What’s most remarkable, though, is that this essentially unreal cartography is one of the most familiar and repeated images of Dubai.

This project is a different direction for Akhavan. His past works include ‘Dirt/Table’ – essentially 340kg of dirt on a wooden table – and his next project will be an ice sculpture. He is a reluctant image maker, and ever since art school he has preferred to focus on the art of reduction. ‘When I was a student, all my colleagues were slapping giant blobs of acrylic on canvas, but I started to remove the weave of the canvas and make grids from the missing threads,’ he explains.

From afar, his latest work is visually impressive (although, like many large-scale works, Akhavan says it can look ‘a little crappy’ up close), but the most interesting element is the way it’s being sold. The wall is sectioned into 60x60cm pieces: whenever someone buys a section, the piece is cut out and removed. ‘The work is contingent to the audience’s reaction to it,’ explains Akhavan before the show. ‘It could represent its own failure by staying completely cohesive, or it could do very well and then deplete throughout the month.’ In reality, it’s been doing pretty well – 40 pieces were sold on the opening night.

The piece makes many statements on the art market and Dubai’s property industry, but the strongest is the environmental message: the resource depletes based on market demand, the shoreline shrinks with every passing dollar. The aesthetic may not be for everyone, but it’s nice to see art in Dubai with a message that involves local issues, and important ones too.

‘Islands’ by Abbas Akhavan continues at The Third Line until June 10. Each ‘plot of land’ in the piece costs between Dhs800 and Dhs2,000.

Fresh out of drama school

Next week marks the first performance by students from the Star Too theatre project, which takes hopeful actors on a 12-week course to hone their drama skills. The instruction goes beyond the usual improv exercises you may remember from high-school drama club, instead delving deep into the history of performance. ‘Many practitioners say, “Don’t act”,’ explains the group’s pioneer, Sol Abaid. ‘We
try to practise that: for example, “to be” rather than “to be like”. We also aim to reach a deep sense of ensemble, while still maintaining individuality.’

Next week’s performance features nine fresh-faced actors from the first course, who will present ‘Where is Home?’ We’re told it features a homage to the recent volcanic ash cloud in Europe, with the performers grounded on a runway surrounded by hovering bubbles.

Where is Home? will be performed on May 27 and June 3 at The Fridge, Al Quoz, Dhs50. The next 12-week course is scheduled to begin in September. See for info.

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