ABU DHABI: Reflecting upon the challenges of building a world-class museum in the UAE, Manuel Rabate? seemed relieved to say that insuring the precious objects on display was not among the obstacles he and his colleagues faced. “There are some ratings,” he said during a brief interview with The Daily Star Tuesday, “but I think Abu Dhabi, the UAE, is one of the safest places in the world today.”
Rabate? is the director of Louvre Abu Dhabi, one of several high-profile museum projects the emirate announced for its long-delayed cultural enclave of Saadiyat Island. A decade in the making, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will open its doors to the public Saturday, the first of Saadiyat’s projects to come to fruition.
“The first question of the project was environmental,” Rabate? mused. “Saadiyat is surrounded by the sea. The [humidity] is high. We have the light, the sun, the salt, the dust. This in itself is a challenge. This was known. This was embedded in the program.
“When you know you’re in a difficult environment, it has to be very strongly taken into account – the building, the redundancy of the system ... climate control, security and so on. From the start, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has [labored] to make sure we meet the highest international standards.”
LAD will commence its public life with an exhibition that aspires to recount the story of human cultural production in 12 “chapters” – from “The First Villages” to “A Global Stage.”
The show is curated by Jean-Francois Charnier, the scientific and cultural director of Agence France-Muse?ums. Founded in 2007, the agency coordinates the expertise of 12 of France’s largest heritage institutions. Including 30 representatives of France’s museum establishment, AFM has been central to servicing the nascent LAD.
Charnier’s curatorial statement describes LAD as “a universal museum, in our age of globalization.”
The statement suggests a departure from older museums of its type (including the Paris Louvre), which acquired their collections and ideological precepts in the era of Western imperialism, while embracing globalization as a good thing.
LAD’s universalism, Charnier says in his statement, aspires to plurality. “In that spirit – to demonstrate what humanity has in common – Louvre Abu Dhabi takes the path to universality.”
“Yes, we have the name of ‘the Louvre’ and there’s a strong relationship, in terms of artworks, expertise, excellence, everything transferred that you associate with it,” Rabate? said, “but the full name is Louvre Abu Dhabi, so there’s this encounter that is happening.
“With ‘The Louvre’ we got not only the Louvre but the full idea of a museum when the Louvre was created – universal, except that in the 21st century we stretch it even more.
“The collection of the Louvre in Paris stops in 1848, so to finish, to continue the story, you have to go to the Musée d’Orsay. After Musée d’Orsay, after 1907 I guess, you have to go back to Centre Pompidou, if you want to speak to the world, to be comprehensively universal.
“If you just have the Louvre collection, you miss Asia. The Asian collection is in the Guimet. If you want the Americas, Oceania, Africa, a little more Asia you need the Musée du quai Branly, etc. So with the Louvre name we got an idea stretched. I think that’s why it’s so unique. I think that’s why it’s an Abu Dhabi project, an Abu Dhabi entity, with its own existence.”
The new museum’s managers have been at pains to stress that LAD is not a franchise of the Paris Louvre. The relationship between the two museums is, rather, a contractual one, which allows LAD to use the Louvre’s name for 30 years and six months, to borrow French museum pieces for 10 years and to stage exhibitions for 15 years.
Termination dates like these provoke questions about LAD’s long term continuity. Rabate? is sanguine.
“Thirty years and six months is a long period,” he said. “For me, we will do something incredible. It’s a generation more or less, 30 years. It’s about transmission, building something, working locally. I’m not afraid of a lack of continuity. I read these 30 years as a strong commitment on both sides. This is where we are. We will demonstrate and then another generation maybe will take over.”
Three decades does indeed seem a long way off and museum managers have set in motion the machinery of several independent projects.
Opening Dec. 21, the museum’s next exhibition is titled “From One Louvre to Another.” Co-curated by Louvre president and director Jean-Luc Martinez and the museum’s prints and drawings curator Juliette Trey, the show will relate the history of the Paris Louvre.
Before the public can assess the objects on show in LAD’s opening exhibition, it must confront the structure Jean Nouvel designed to house it.
LAD’s permanent galleries are made up of 12 exhibition halls that are designed to replicate “the madina” – the “old city” of squat structures joined by narrow alleyways that has become emblematic of the Arab world.
More spectacular is the structure Nouvel devised to shelter the galleries. Destined to be among the architectural landmarks the emirate will use to define itself internationally, Nouvel’s museum is topped with a dome devised of an eight-layer metal latticework, pierced by nearly 8,000 perforations to admit natural light day and night.
Beneath Nouvel’s dome, visitors will encounter evidence of LAD’s first commissioned works.
Jenny Holzer’s “For Louvre Abu Dhabi,” 2017, is a series of three monumental limestone reliefs. One reproduces a 4,000-year-old bilingual (Sumerian-Akkadian) Mesopotamian creation myth. Another excerpts “The Muqaddimah,” by Ibn Khalun (1332-1406), the father of Arab sociology and historiography. A third reproduces a manuscript page from Michel de Montaigne’s “Les Essais,” from 1588.
The other commissioned artist, arte povera pioneer Giuseppe Penone, has made his own three-part work, “Germination,” 2017. “Leaves of Light” is a towering bronze tree whose mirrored branches reflect the direct light of Nouvel’s dome. “Propagation” is a wall of porcelain tiles inspired by the fingerprint of Shaykh Zayed, the UAE’s founding father. Both elements of the vase and pedestal pairing making up “Earth of the World” are made of UAE-area clay.
“We have some beautiful projects in the pipe,” Rabate? said of the LAD’s commissions program. “We’re interested in exploring the world.”
LAD’s premiere show itself mingles a selection of works from the museum’s 200-odd acquisitions and 300 borrowed pieces – most on loan from French institutions, including the Paris Louvre.
The array of exhibits in Charnier’s exhibition ranges from stone-age hand-axes and antiquities from the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe to iconic works by European (and some American) masters and pieces by noted modern and contemporary artists.
There is a pedagogical aspect to this show. Anyone who’s taken a Western Civilization class in college will encounter works (or the names of artists) that have casually dropped into curricula.
Da Vinci’s “La belle ferronnière,” 1490, is here, as is David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” 1801-05, and Van Gough’s “Self-portrait” of 1887.
Among the 20th-century works is a Magritte (“The Subjugated Reader,” 1928), a Mondrian (“Composition with Blue, Yellow and Black,” 1922), and a Warhol (“Big Electric Chair,” 1967).
“A Global Stage,” the gallery devoted to contemporary art, includes Ai Weiwei’s “Fountain of Light,” 2016, positioned immediately below one of Nouvel’s skylights.
Complementing these iconic Western works (and artists) are a host of less familiar pieces from Asia, Africa and the Americas. As seems appropriate for a show like this, the curator has selected a number of (Western and non-Western) works devoted to depicting “the other” – whether European orientalists depicting Chinese or Japanese tableaux, or African and Chinese renderings of Portuguese traders and their armed retainers.
At times, as with Osman Hamdy Bey’s “A Young Emir Studying,” 1878, we encounter an “oriental” artist emulating the practices of his European contemporaries.
Retracing his steps back through LAD’s exhibition, this journalist noticed a couple of other accredited foreigners – their badges swinging back and forth from their necks as they exchanged indecipherable comments – striding through the exhibition halls.
Abruptly one of them paused, bent over and rubbed the sleeve of his sports coat over the floor. He stood, assessed his sleeve and glanced at his colleague. “It is dusty.”
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