The Public Art Programme at Expo 2020 Dubai will showcase specially created immersive artworks from a selection of local and international artists throughout the six-month event.
The artworks will form a creative journey around Expo 2020’s public spaces and will live on as part of the future city of District 2020. The programme will mark the first-ever curated permanent open-air art exhibition in the UAE and the artworks will remain at the World Expo site after the event closes leaving a lasting impact on the UAE’s vibrant and thriving art scene. The idea of the programme is to provide a prism to view contemporary art creations and a context that allows an exploration of the philosophical aspect of Ibn Al Haytham’s theories on visual perception. The famous Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist is the source of inspiration for the project.
As Curator, Public Art Programme, Expo 2020 Dubai, Tarek Abou El Fetouh has been working on the programme for a number of years, striving to find the perfect blend of artists that will showcase the best of the UAE’s talent and celebrate the art and culture scene in the region. Located across the Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability districts and Expo 2020’s two parks, the artworks will form landmarks on the site, inviting visitors to discover more. We find out more about this project and the lasting legacy it will leave.
What can you tell us about the Public Art Programme at Expo 2020 and what are you hoping to achieve with it?
The Public Art Programme will present 11 creations of artists from the UAE, the wider region and the world in the public spaces of Expo 2020 site. These permanent substantial public artworks will be landmarks, becoming an essential part of District 2020’s innovative character, interwoven within its urban fabric and a future platform for contemporary artistic practices in the city of Dubai.
How do you think the project is helping to support and nurture local talent?
The Public Art Programme is the first of its kind in the UAE and the region, as the programme engaged contemporary artists to create artworks within the public spaces in a neighbourhood while it is being planned and built. These artworks are permanent, they will stay in the urban fabric, the residents and visitors of the neighbourhood will interact with concepts, aesthetics and knowledge coming from different parts of the world. This reflects Expo 2020’s theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’. The presence of these artworks will open doors for creativity and imagination to flourish. The artworks of local artists are presented in connection with the creation of their regional and international counterparts.
How did you go about choosing the artists that are participating in the project?
The artworks are commissioned, and creating them required long engagement and ongoing discussions with the artists on the conceptual framework that connects all the works across the site as well as studying the precise locations of their work. It was a long process, that required committed artists. The artists visited the site and proposed works for these specific locations that were identified carefully and in connection with the urban design of the site for the duration of Expo 2020 and for the legacy of Expo. Additionally, the participating artists are all engaged with socio-political and aesthetical research, they are engaged in the programme based on their concepts, aesthetic language and eagerness to explore new horizons.
The conceptual framework of the Public Art Programme takes inspiration from the famous Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Ibn al Haytham’s seminal work, “Book of Optics” (c. 11th century). Ibn al Haytham has been called “the father of modern optics”, for his significant theories and foundational principles of optics and visual perception. This framework provides a context that allows an exploration of the philosophical aspect of Ibn al-Haytham’s theories on visual perception, including his definitions of vision, recognition, and the impossibility of envisioning a full picture of reality within oneself, without the power of imagination. Recalling Ibn al-Haytham today inspires us to understand the explanation of phenomena and the relation between the imagined and the perceived and explore human commonality while understanding cultural particulars. It may be that the only human capacity that helps us navigate diverse cultural particulars is the power of the imagination and the ability to grasp stories, however strange.
Can you tell us about some of the upcoming artworks that will be presented throughout the project?
This conceptual framework allows several threads of artistic visions and complex layers of exploration. Re-visiting the “Book of Optics” today invites us to think about the universe, to look at the sky, see the planets and the stars. This is an important thread in the Public Art Programme around the Mobility District within the Expo site. Visitors will see the floor sculpture of Nadia Kaabi-Linke that shows the revolving shadows of an invisible bicycle over the course of one day, the shadows cast by the sun and the moon are calculated precisely on this point on Earth in Jebel Ali and Dubai. Artist Haegue Yang created a huge sonic planetarium model with planets covered in bells. Her work alludes to the achievements of Ibn Al-Haytham and his work on perception, based on his observations of the moon appearing larger or smaller depending on the position of the viewer. Artist Khalil Rabah created a sculpture that references an instrument invented in the 11th century to measure latitude without any calculation tables, using only sunlight and the three objects. Rabah deconstructs the tool and enlarges its elements to create a playful arena on a white marble platform, with an engraved diagram indicating the latitude of the Expo 2020 site.
In the Sustainability District, Shaikha Al Mazrou created a sculpture that conceptually and formally references plinths, and its form allows space in District 2020 for other artists to create artworks that can be exhibited in relation to it. Shaikha challenges and questions the sustainability of public art in the district and in Dubai. Not far from this work, visitors will see an iconic work by artist Olafur Eliasson, a bronze sculpture that was cast over a glacial ice block from Greenland that was formed over millions of years from layers of highly compressed snow. The sculpture is an indexical trace of the Greenland ice sheet, which loses tens of thousands of similar blocks each minute as a result of global warming.
Another thread explores the role of monuments in the local landscape and their connection with memory, architecture and nature. My colleagues and associated curators, Muneera Al Sayegh and Mohammed Al Olama worked on this section with artists Afra Al Dhaheri and Asma Belhamar.
The work of Afra is a large-scale marble sculpture inspired by the tikkay, traditional Emirati floor pillows, revisiting childhood moments of impromptu play. Asma’s sculpture explores the visual distortion experienced when commuting from mountainscapes into cityscapes, where the change from landscape to architecture and from typography to iconography feels like a journey through shifting scales and times.
These are some examples of artworks that visitors will see on the site, in addition to other works by Hamra Abbas, Yinka Shonibare and Abdullah Al Saadi.
Can you tell us a little about the work of Monira Al Qadiri and why she was chosen for this project?
One of these 11 permanent artworks is created by the Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri. It is a gigantic iridescent, oil drill-shaped sculpture titled Chimera. Through this giant sculpture, Monira attempts to merge the pre-and post-oil eras into one body. She creates aesthetic connections between pearls and oil, through their colour, materiality, symbolism, ecology and economy to reimagine the past, present and future of the wider Gulf region. The sculpture looks like a futuristic creature from outer space, its presence in the public space is intriguing, raising questions, diverse reactions, and imagination.
What can visitors expect to learn over the course of the six months of Expo 2020 from this project?
The artworks carry, not only the aesthetical language of the artists but also their concepts, ideas and knowledge. These ideas and knowledge come from different parts of the world so they also invite visitors to explore the ways humans perceive objects and also each other.