Gigantic shopping malls, record-breaking towers, ludicrously luxurious hotels, booming industry and desert heat? Yes, Dubai is the brash, excitable city in the Gulf that just can't slow down.
But underneath the glitz and bling, there's an unlikely artistic revolution colouring the city, drawing on the richly disparate social mix, both within the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Middle East at large.
At least that's the impression four Berlin artists, Christian Sievers, Mark Groszer, Rolf Giegold and Sebastian Gräfe received when they arrived in Dubai a couple of months ago. They came to the Middle East as part of 'Fusion,' an artist exchange programme, organized by Sam Bardouil, a young art professor at the American University of Dubai, and local arts centre, Tashkeel.
Shortly afterwards, four UAE-based artists, Amna Al Madani, Hind Mezaina, Lamya Gargash and Roberto Lopardo returned the favour and visited Berlin for a week, each toting bulging portfolios of work to exhibit at the Emerson Gallery in the German capital's Mitte district.
Organizer Sam Bardouil, who until recently was based at the American University of Dubai, is fascinated by Dubai's strong need for external artistic definition. He said he felt the time was ripe to encourage some cross-cultural artistic action between Dubai and the wider world.
"I think Berlin is still probably the most progressive, open-to-experimentation city in Europe," he explained. "It has this constant search for identity – it's been divided into two parts and then before that, the war, the bombings – whatever is left of old Berlin, it's in lots of pieces. It's lots of different neighbourhoods, and each has a very different feel. It's very exciting."
Compare and contrast
As the visiting artists discovered, the loose, spontaneous energy that drives Berlin couldn't be more of a contrast with the scrupulously ordered environment of Dubai, where ragged charm takes a back seat to relentless urban planning, a purpose-built, new environment. Despite the recent arrival of million dollar art auctions, pristine new galleries, the annual Art Dubai fair and the government's plans for lavish state museums and galleries filled with air-freighted goodies from abroad, there's relatively little experimental or organic creativity about the city.
One of the exchange participants, Hind Mezaina, found herself at large in a completely alien environment. Recalling her stay, at the Park Inn on Berlin's austere eastern square Alexanderplatz, she said she found an undercurrent in the city with which she made a connection.
"I was inspired by how the city has renewed and reinvigorated itself from a difficult past", she said. "For me, to see how the former East Berlin has become a hip and happening place to be was very fascinating, I found it had a creative energy and fun vibe that I really enjoyed."
Seeking to infuse his charges with the 'hardcore, underground' atmosphere of the city, Bardouil brought his charges to the city and promptly left them to it.
"I didn't take them around," he said. "They were left to explore on their own without any influence. I felt if I choose somewhere to show them, then I am saying, 'This is an important thing'. I didn't want to interfere."
The group found plenty to love in Berlin. Cycles were procured, a refreshing novelty for the visitors since cycling in the scorching heat along Dubai's chaotic roads is rarely an option. Dubai's Italian transplant Roberto Lombardo, took advantage of Tiergarten's canopy of trees to shoot some 'very dark' short films, based on Grimm's fairy tales. Lamya Gargash explored some of the city's galleries, checking out video installations, a form that's still very much in its infancy in the Middle East.
The show, which opened at the Emerson Gallery on June 4 was a memorable night, Bardouil said. "It was amazing, we had around 140 people... and all evening, I was getting phone calls and messages from people in Dubai, saying, we haven't seen anything like this before."
'This', was the corresponding opening taking place that same evening, 3,000 miles away at the Tashkeel art centre in Dubai. For the displaced Berliners, Dubai had revealed itself to be a rich source of inspiration. Unlike the Arab artists, the Berlin team had prepared very little work in advance, preferring to react to their new surroundings.
And one member of the group from Germany, Rolf Giegold, was definitely impressed by his new environment. "I had already heard so much about that place, I also had read a lot,” he said. “But to be honest, when travelling to Dubai I tried to leave all the information aside and be as neutral as possible in my perception."
Bringing art to the city
Giegold's work at Tashkeel saw the artist creating an audio installation, based on clips recorded out and about the city, from across Dubai's broad social spectrum. It was created entirely at Tashkeel, the new arts space that has brought a new level of artistic resources to the city.
"Tashkeel somehow is a very strange place for Dubai and a paradise as well," recalled Giegold. "Everything is very new, up to date."
Giegold's enthusiasm is shared by Christian Sievers, who is based in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. Sievers is known for realizing full-scale artistic scenarios and situations. On his first day in Dubai, he asked for a fleet of emergency vehicles to race around in formation, with sirens blaring. Amazingly, through the offices of Tashkeel, his plan was almost perfectly achieved, although the obliging local police station were said to be slightly baffled. But as he explained, the project was a continuation of a long-running fascination.
"I'm always drawn to things like emergencies and out-of-the-ordinary situations. And in Tashkeel, I felt like that kid in Charlie's Chocolate Factory. It's incredibly well-equipped, and you want to try everything out," he said.
After a week's immersion in the city, the Berliners broadly agreed that the city simultaneously impressed, confounded and via a number of means, inspired them. Some of the more conservative aspects of Middle Eastern life aroused considerable interest.
"There is a lot of talk about Dubai being a new creative centre of the world, but to be honest, I can't see that happening in the near future," said Sievers.
Giegold agreed, reasoning, "there must be a process of development. Maybe one can install the infrastructure that easily if there is just enough money. But to be a 'potential art city', culture has to grow. Art has to have a history, which cannot be forced to exist."
The exhibitions lasted only ten days, but for the participants in this unlikely link-up, their experiences have made a deep impression. "There is so much to see out there and so much to experience and learn - and to teach as well," said Hind Mezaina.
Meanwhile, the German contingent left the UAE on a somewhat bemused high. For Sievers, the experience had been pretty overwhelming.
"Everything is too large, too expensive, too luxurious. For me, as an 'old European', I need the normal. There is no normal in Dubai," he said.
But Rolf Giegold was smitten. "I would love do it again," he enthused. "Tashkeel could be my Fontana di Trevi of Rome, where I have thrown my coin in and made the wish to come again."