This July saw record numbers of tourists from Arab nations visiting Vienna. According to the city’s tourism board, the number of Saudi visitors increased 217 percent over the same period the previous year, the number of Emirati visitors rose 183 percent and guests from other Arab countries grew by 195 percent. It’s thus an intriguing coincidence that, in September and October, curator Myriam Ben Salah, working with Vienna’s Galerie Steinek as part of the city’s annual ‘curated_by’ showcase, organized ‘Like the Deserts Miss the Real’, a group exhibition that focused on works made by mostly young artists from the Persian Gulf. In fact, she literally cut and pasted some of the work into Vienna’s streetscape. On the gallery’s exterior windows were installed digital photographs of grand public interiors, neoclassical hotel lobbies and colonnaded halls with palm trees, all taken in the Gulf region. Viewed from outside, the images were uncannily familiar: Was the gallery actually a travel agency? Were the images an advertisement?
The clue might have been in the work’s title: The One and Only Madinat New Museum Royal Mirage (2014), by artist collective GCC. (On a curved window above the gallery entrance, four of the collective’s nine members, including two women, were rendered as sheikhs.) Inside the gallery, Ben Salah’s exhibition ran with the mirage concept, offering musings on hyperreality, accelerationism (befitting this year’s ‘curated_by’ theme, ‘Tomorrow Today’, via philosopher Armen Avanessian’s titular essay), globalism and failed pan-Arab idealism.
The exhibition was sparsely installed but refreshingly multi-sensory. Dubai-based Saudi artist Raja’a Khalid’s Oud Aura (2015) permeated the space with Oud, a synthetic re-creation of a rare, expensive oil known as ‘liquid gold’ in the fragrance industry. The scent emanated from an industrial diffuser, while a US patent application for the molecular structure of the aroma, long-used in ‘the Orient’, hung on an otherwise blank wall. The gallery’s central space juxtaposed two video works. The first was a mesmerizing, four-screen installation by Abdullah Al Mutairi (also a member of GCC) comprising a performance of a nationalist song Kuwaiti children learn in school. The videos feature multiple images of a happy boy (the artist? his brother?) singing in front of backgrounds of atmospheric Gulf skylines and celebratory fireworks; then military tanks and bombs. The faces are digitally manipulated to look childlike, while the protagonist’s dress and hairstyles alternate from western hip-hop to sheikh to child soldier. Opposite, Sarah Abu Abdallah’s meditative video Saudi Automobile (2012) featured the fully veiled artist slowly painting a doorless, useless white car pink, then settling into the driver’s seat. (Saudi women are not allowed to drive.) In the gallery’s rearmost space was a shredded magazine sculpture – a remnant of a prior performance by Beirut-based Marwa Arsanios; in her accompanying audio work, Read the Titles (2011), the artist recited headlines from a column from the magazine, published in Egypt in 1960, predicting what the world would look like in the year 2000.
The exhibition deftly communicated how a new generation of Gulf artists, who may identify more with global digital culture than local conditions, addresses a dystopian future of nationalism and commodification. Yet, one notices how seamlessly these artists have incorporated the aesthetics of international exhibition-making into their practices and have become part of the mechanisms of conventional art-world success.
‘Like the Deserts Miss the Real’, is a variation on an Everything But the Girl song lyric, as well as a line from the The Matrix (1999) – ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’ – which philosopher Slavoj Žižek later used to title a 2002 book about 9/11 that in turn references a concept in Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981). Again, the exhibition’s critiques of late capitalism through regional realities (or ‘realties’) resonated especially clearly here. Not far from Galerie Steinek, one of the oldest areas of Vienna’s city centre has recently been transformed into the ‘Golden Quarter’ – an ensemble of flagship stores of luxury brands like Chanel, Gucci and Prada. This new, gleaming-yet-antiseptic, all-too familiar ‘mirage’ is especially popular with the city’s many Gulf tourists. It’s not only deserts that miss the real.