From Abu Dhabi Art: Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s Declaration of Curatorial Intent

This is an era defining period for Abu Dhabi. The international institutions and world-class museums, soon to be congregated on Saadiyat Island, loom large on the horizon. Last year, The Louvre trailed their forthcoming offering, at this year’s Abu Dhabi Art, it is the turn of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi who are showing Seeing Through Light.

The exhibition, the first of works from their accumulating collection, has depth and variety. It is both an innovative curatorial success and a compelling statement of intent, suggesting what the museum’s programme will be when it opens in 2017, hinting at how it will be displayed.

With all its symbolic associations of new beginnings, light is a fitting inaugural theme around which new works have been clustered. Conceptually, and physically, light cannot be held still, inherent in its perceptual existence is the subjective viewer. This show successfully propels that viewer through phased experiences of the medium, with an ambitious pursuit of the very fragments of its ephemerality, themed around five ‘kinds’: activated, celestial, perceptual, reflected and transcendent.

Lightness and light is the conceptual binary to weighty concreteness and opacity. The shift away from the object to articulate how we perceive was a pre-occupation that became the primary pursuit of two groups of artists on opposite coasts of America in the 1960s.

Robert Irwin, Untitled

Robert Irwin, Untitled 1967–8, courtesy Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Taking this as a point of departure, the exhibition selects significant moments throughout contemporary art history, beginning with one of the early proponents and a member of Los Angeles’ informal Light and Space movement, Robert Irwin. His piece Untitled 1967 – 8 balances on the wall, precipitous in a moment between presence and absence. The work is one of the earliest that will be held by the museum, with its collection commencing in the 1960s. The movement through the exhibition from this point is thematic, not chronological; a fitting means to extrapolate a universal artistic preoccupation with the most elusive of mediums.

The curation successfully documents light as a primary aesthetic principle in art. Beyond the visual intrigue, the distillation of this radiant energy’s beguiling qualities makes for a show that is, at turns, an exhilarating and introspective experience. The curatorial intent behind the ‘highest’ forms, celestial and transcendent, are not a far cry from that which the names suggest. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room from the celestial phase of the show is an epically beautiful immersive installation. Standing in the midst of this void space, filled with a scattering of lights with each reflected an infinitesimal number of times, is overwhelming. The piece has enraptured fair visitors as evidenced by the literally thousands of in-situ selfies flooding our Instagram streams.

If we wanted to be obtuse, we might ask, what of this more inane perceptual engagement with the art object? Broadly, digital perception, or more specifically, and tediously, through the Instagram lens / feed. What does this imply about the importance and relevance – or lack thereof – of museums today? But, I transgress, and I’m guilty of a shameless Kusama selfie too – and it lacked all the beauty, all the excitement of real life perception and experience – that which is caught and distilled so effectively by the artists drawn together here.

Yayoi Kusama Selfie


Not just light in art then, but light concentrated and conducted through art and into our lives. Much like Dan Flavin’s untitled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg) lent by sister institution the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. This is a fiercely elegant installation, putting some ‘ordinary’ neon strip lighting to arresting and playful use. A startling rendition of a readymade, the piece modulates its context, calls into question temporality, the art object itself and even authorial Vs. curatorial intent – though here shown as in its first installation, variations on the piece have been shown at different times in different spaces.

Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin, unititled (to Jan and Ron Greenberg)

These are all implicit questions begged by the show, and the attempt to get a grip on light, unquantifiable and uncontrollable as it is, is nuanced effectively though this thematic, curatorial approach.

The curation is accomplished, and promises much, but one question is left tantalisingly un-answered: how will the Gehry space work? The exhilarating potential of an institution like the Guggenheim, here, in Abu Dhabi is manifold, but two key aspects seem apparent from this showing: first, the permanence of such a large institution with an ambitious collection (it’s going to have to be to fill that 860,000 sq ft Gehry-designed space) and, significantly, a collection that is global in its scope.

On the former, Kusama’s piece was inundated when shown at David Zwirner in New York. Here, as part of a permanent collection, its lure will draw in many who will have the opportunity to experience it.

On the latter, there is a pleasing elision demonstrated, between Western and Middle Eastern artists, with many works by Middle Eastern artists rightfully inserted into the chronology of this traced movement. It’s worth pointing this out, though somewhat artificial to draw the distinction given it is not made in the show, with pieces curated for content, organised thematically, not with a view to ‘context’, nor with an all too lazy ‘origins’ approach.

This global, thematic curatorial approach is latent with potential, and, if successful, could be more than era defining for Abu Dhabi, but for the art world as a whole.

By Rachel Bennett

Originally published on Art in the City Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 00.18.35

About Rachel Bennett

Rachel Bennett is a writer and cultural producer based in London. From 2012–2019, she lived in the UAE where she wrote on art, culture, and urbanism, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Before that, she spent five curious years speculating wild futures, developing brands and strategies for luxury projects.