The challenges and bold goals of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

THE JAGED towers and palm-lined alleys of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project (TAG) are inspired by the wooden dhows that ply the waters of the Gulf and the funnel-shaped wind towers, say barjeel, built to provide natural ventilation in old houses in the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates). Designed by Frank Gehry, the project was beset by protests against workers’ conditions and other human rights issues, as well as financial-induced delays and canceled contracts. Today, ten years after the start of demining the site, work has finally resumed.

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The museum is part of a long-term, state-funded effort to diversify Abu Dhabi’s economy. Culture, and especially museums, is part of the push. The Guggenheim will be the third to be built on Saadiyat Island, a triangle of flat sand just off the coast that will be the largest cultural infrastructure project between Marrakech and Shanghai. The first museum, Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened in 2017; the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, designed by Sir Norman Foster and named after the United Arab Emirates founding sovereign, will follow in 2023. Hope is for TAG open in 2025.

“It’s like walking in a really awesome Minecraft setting,” says a curator of computerized models of galleries who TAG has developped. But if the building is still imaginary, the collection – around 600 works of art from 60 countries, half of which were acquired in the past four years – is real. And the mission is clear: to present a journey through world art from the 1960s to the present day, and thus rewrite the history of modernism.

Modernism, and in particular Abstract Expressionism, was at the heart of Solomon Guggenheim’s original collection. When he died in 1949, the businessman bequeathed hundreds of works by American and European artists, such as Vasily Kandinsky and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, to the New York museum that bears his name (and which will bring in 100 million dollars for advice in construction and acquisitions for its latest offshoot). But there was a lot of modernism, not just of the Euro-American kind. “All over the world,” says Dana Chehayeb of the Abu Dhabi Culture Department, “artists were asking ‘How can I be modern without being Western?’ And Western artists have often asked, “How can I tap into non-Western, premodern sources to make art more universal?” “

Inspired by the United Arab Emirateshistory and pivotal position between Europe and Asia, TAG aims to trace the evolution of modernism into a nuanced global movement. Alexandra Munroe, curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim in New York, is at the heart of this effort. She persuaded Guy Ullens, a Dutch collector of Chinese contemporary art, to donate TAG first choice of its art treasure before putting it up for sale at Sotheby’s in 2011. The embryonic museum acquired pieces by Ai Weiwei and Huang Yong Ping, works by the first Chinese videographers and political pop art that did not has never been shown in China, such as “The Last Banquet” (1989), Zhang Hongtu’s panorama of the deification of Mao Zedong. “It was a real coup,” says Ms. Munroe.

In addition to Chinese art, TAG is building a collection of the radical Gutai movement of Japan, which in the 1950s rejected traditional styles in favor of large multimedia works and immediacy of performance. Both approaches will later become popular everywhere. Another focus is Latin American modernism, such as the geometric abstraction of Gego and Jesús Rafael Soto, both Venezuelans, and Carmen Herrera (originally from Cuba). The Neo-Concrete movement in Brazil, meanwhile, brought together Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape and Hélio Oiticica, stars of the country’s art in the 1950s. Their folded or curved sculptures aimed to make abstract expressionism more human.

Like many Asian and Latin American artists featured in the new collection, several from Iran and the Arab world studied in Europe in the mid-20th century, then creating modernist poles in their home countries. Mohamed Melehi and Mohamed Chabâa of the Casablanca school, for example, studied in Rome in the early 1960s and, with their compatriot Farid Belkahia, developed links with the Bauhaus design school. Back in Morocco, they strive to combine the modernist influence of European artists, such as Paul Klee and Nicolas de Staël, with an abstraction indebted to the geometric patterns of Berber rugs and the use of henna and walnut for dye the leather.

Parviz Tanavoli, who also studied in Italy, is the central figure of another modernist movement, known as the Saqqakhaneh or Iranian pop. Fascinated by locksmithing and calligraphy, Mr. Tanavoli is best known for his metal sculptures which use the three letters of the word heech, Farsi for “nothing”. They are inspired by Alexander Calder and Barbara Hepworth, but also symbolic metal locks often attached to Iranian fountains. Such work has typically been exhibited in artistic silos, in exhibits based on geography rather than form and ideas. The goal of TAG is to establish neglected connections, such as between Mr. Tanavoli and his contemporary On Kawara, a Japanese conceptual artist who created a significant series of paintings based on calendar dates.

Authorities hope Saadiyat Island will be a big employer. Despite lingering human rights concerns, it is already a tourist attraction – one of the reasons 11.35 million people visited Abu Dhabi in 2019, more than double the number in 2016. The emphasis on culture is to distinguish the emirate from shopping. Dubai malls and splendours, an hour’s drive away. When finally TAG opens, it will offer an encounter with a scintillating range of artists and new ways of seeing the world. Viewers will come away with a rebalanced sense of the tumultuous recent history of art. â– 

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Brave new worlds”

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