28 September 2014
Before coming to Venice, the future interns were put through training sessions that were meant to prepare us for the upcoming experience. Over a period of a month, we were not only briefed on the actual exhibition but also given a crash course on local architecture along with the history that it is rooted in. Even though the training was months before I would get to the pavilion, I thought I was prepared. I had done similar things in the past and was sure that this would be no different – except for the fact that I’d be in Venice!
For the most part, the pavilion matched my expectations. Through pictures I had seen from the previous interns, I already had a sense of what the place looked like. I could tell that the exhibit was set up so that every minute detail was taken care of. When I walked in for the first time, it seemed familiar but I was nevertheless excited to finally open up all the drawers myself, and discover just a little bit more about my country’s rich heritage.
In my opinion, representing the country through a pavilion such as this while taking into consideration the design and final look and feel, is not only bold but also a breath of fresh air. When one usually imagines what an Emarati display or pavilion would look like, images of grandeur and gold would generally come to mind. Why I feel that this set up is something new, is because it is such a departure from what has unfortunately become the mainstream image one would have of the UAE.
By embracing the atypical, I think that the curator has almost taken us back in time. While I’m sure that it is intentional, it’s not necessarily a connection all the visitors would make. One would have had to experience firsthand the UAE of the past to know that the structures – especially the houses, were very simple on the outside, with intricately decorated interiors. Our pavilion mimics that in the sense that it has a very simple exterior, but once that is breached the visitor comes across an intricately adorned interior in the form of information, pictures, installations and actual pieces of history such as the coral, etc.
By virtue of being extremely interactive, the display invited visitors to take their time exploring the exhibition. Each drawer unveiled something new, with neighboring drawers presented in unique formats – prompting the visitors to open just one more. This playful way of presenting the information helped the visitors stretch their imagination beyond the fancy burjs and shopping malls the country has become popular for. I’ll be the first to admit, that I learnt a lot just by looking through all this information. While I thought I was well versed with the history of many structures in the UAE, I was shocked at how little I actually knew, and I’m sure that people coming from different parts of the world who visited the pavilion were just as surprised.
I was surprised by the number of visitors who came to the pavilion but hadn’t visited the country before, but were genuinely interested in finding out more about this tiny Gulf state making a lot of noise. I felt that the display kept people intrigued, and received a lot of positive feedback in general. More importantly, I think the pavilion helped dispel a lot of the negative preconceived notions that people might have had – only because it’s an Arab country that has been blessed with oil.
Through its displays and videos, it is made clear to the visitor that the structures that exist in the UAE today are a product of many years of evolution. Like in countries all over the world, the social and political environment in the UAE shaped the architecture and carried it forward in different directions. By narrating the many stories of the varied structures present in the country today, the visitors are taken on a journey. The most interesting thing for the visitors to the pavilion was when this journey actually began. Most were taken aback by the fact that the country actually existed before the Burj Khalifa was constructed, and that some of the earliest records date back to the late 20th century.
Just like so many people who visited our pavilion and were surprised by the kind of history the UAE has under her belt, I too was greeted by a wealth of information at various other pavilions.
This entire experience was refreshing in ways that I can’t describe. By stepping out of my comfort zone and the daily routine that accompanies it, I was taken back to my university years. Living in a foreign land, while not really being a resident forces you to try and assimilate into the fabric of the country you are visiting. Through this process you are made aware of your own boundaries – and which of those you are willing to break through, and eventually emerge a more informed person on the other side.
I would definitely recommend this experience to anyone who is willing to open up just a little and see what the world has to offer. In the time I spent working at the biennale, I had the chance not only to represent my country on foreign ground – which in itself is quite an honour, but also learn just a little bit more about the rest of the world.