Louvre Abu Dhabi: Cultural Growth or Publicity Stunt?

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If you’re an NYU Abu Dhabi student, you’ve probably already scrolled past a version of this photo on your Instagram or Facebook feed: a well-coiffed classmate in neat semi-formal clothes, smiling candidly amongst azure waters and the pristine white blocks of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

It’s a photoshoot that’s hard to resist. Not to mention that the whole photoshoot setup was a deal whose name alone sold for more than 1.8 billion AED alone. The costly world-class museum was born out of an 2007 intergovernmental agreement between the United Arab Emirates and France, and finally opened on Nov. 11, 2017 to much fanfare.

Lauded as the “first universal museum in the Arab world”, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s slogan is “see humanity in a new light.”

The Louvre’s curatorial philosophy focuses on the interconnectedness of art around the world and shared bodies of thought, resulting in thematic galleries. Examples include, Universal Religions and The First Great Powers, each arranged according to chronology rather than national tradition.

Indeed, sheltered under the seemingly weightless 7,500-ton dome designed by Jean Nouvel, the museum’s collection boasts Greco-Roman sculpture, Chinese pottery, Shiva statues, Renaissance painting and Islamic calligraphy, and the likes of individual greats such as Rothko, da Vinci, Ai Weiwei, van Gogh, Kandinsky, Delacroix, Calder, Monet, Pollock, Gauguin and Rodin.

Despite the rich ensemble of artworks, you would be forgiven for thinking that this immaculate floating museum consisted of only Instagrammable exterior locations. Upon exiting the galleries, one observes almost every visitor inhaling sharply and whipping out their phones to capture the magnificent effect of the light dancing through the latticework of the dome, or the stark scene of turquoise waters lapping against solid marble. As James Langton aptly reported in The National, “Louvre Abu Dhabi is a building for the age of the smartphone and the selfie, its startling architecture and angles perfectly designed for Twitter and Instagram.”

Every museum-goer has their smartphone in hand; several asked the security guards inside the museum how to get to the open space underneath the dome. As far as I know, you have to pass through the exhibits first. Arguably, this clean-cut aesthetic — azure waters, pristine white blocks — is the most iconic aspect of Louvre Abu Dhabi. Perhaps, curiously, even more iconic than the works housed within.

Located just ten minutes away by taxi from the NYUAD campus, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has quickly become a favorite student spot, particularly for photoshoots. When I visited on opening day, I noticed a sign at the security gates forbidding selfie sticks. Most museum-goers left the obnoxious sticks at home, but not the selfies.

The choice photo spots of the day were in front of Napoleon’s portrait or da Vinci’s La belle ferronnière, directly under the dome, and around the bridge overlooking the view to the sea. Notably, not many visitors chose to hog the spots in front of non-Western artworks or lesser-known pieces — and I’m sure many tried their best to crop out the lifeguards and cleaning staff working on site. There are politics involved in what we choose to take photos of.

The experience begs questions about the way we interact with art and the reasons behind it. Perhaps taking a photo of yourself with art, as if you were part of the art, breaks a certain code of conduct for treating a museum as a revered and sacred space. In the Internet age, how do we engage with sites of great artistic beauty?

Selfies and Instagramming may take away from the actual museum experience. There are no easy answers to questions revolving around power, privilege, culture, aesthetics and art. However these questions are relevant to understanding the nuances of how we consume media in general, especially in the image-saturated media environment today.

The case of Louvre Abu Dhabi, however, is reminiscent of other major art museums. When I visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence this January, the alarms near the Botticelli’s, Cimabue’s, and Giotto’s kept setting as tourists got too close during their personal photo-shoots. In a bathroom stall in the women’s toilet, an angry museum goer had scrawled and underlined in white-out pen: YOU CAN GOOGLE THE PHOTOS WHEN YOU GET HOME!

To some extent, I agree with the disenchanted graffiti. At times, the pressure to take a photo for posterity sometimes referred to as, Pics or it didn’t happen, is simply absurd. We know that we don’t need a photo of the Birth of Venus to prove to ourselves that we existed in that moment. We can Google a high-definition photo later, and it is very sad to think that, for whatever reason, some people never actually put down their cameras and see the million-dollar masterpiece with their own two eyes.

However, I don’t think Instagramming inherently means disengagement; it could be a prelude to closer study, remixing, reworking. I have pictures of my suitemates and I visiting the Louvre Abu Dhabi. One of my friends is even an artist who enjoys taking unusual angles of artworks in museums and cropping them until they are nearly unrecognizable.

In reproducing the original artwork in new ways, Instagramming could incite important discussions on why certain aesthetics are privileged over others. This only happens if the tool is used purposefully and metacognitively, not just for cultural capital and showing off to others.

What matters most is that we ask ourselves why we are so tied up in taking pictures at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, or any other museum, and what those photos really show. It is true that the nature of art is radically changing with developments in technology, and we are all constantly exploring our roles in that relationship.

 

Photo courtesy of Karolina Wilczyńska
This piece was originally published in The Gazelle.

Notes on Tourism, the Museum, IKEA, and Capitalism

Reproducibility of experience

Outside the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica, approximately 300 people are lined up in 24 degrees of spring heat. This is the line to enter the Renaissance-era Basilica, apparently also the biggest church in the world. The heat is excruciating. Having completed a tiring night of travel and changing-clothes-on-the-road, I am carrying a huge backpack. A train ticket in my pocket has become soggy from my sweat. After almost 2 hours of waiting under the sun, my friends and I are allowed into the Basilica. On our way in, a security guard scans us and our bags.

Entering the Basilica should excite us, but instead we are exhausted. We sit down by a water fountain next to a path that leads to the Basilica’s dome (this is a pricey affair, regardless of whether you take the elevator or the stairs to the top). The cool marble makes me want to fall asleep. I’ve recently jinxed one of my friends, so those of us who can talk are using this opportunity to taunt her. A half-hour passes. Okay. We move to the church, which is, I must admit, grand. There is a kind of natural sublime that it wants to replicate. Designed by Michelangelo, among others, this Renaissance Church is central to the Catholic order of the city. The place is full of people who are intent on taking pictures of the church’s grand arches, its frescoes. Each of these people, I imagine, have waited for more than 2 hours in intolerable heat to enter this church. I’m not a big photo-taker, but even I feel the need to capture my experience with a photo (which is the only accessible and quick medium available at this point to me), to capture in a nutshell the experience of having completely and successfully achieved this feat of tourism.

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St. Peter’s Basilica

A ‘feat of tourism’, then, is a typically touristic activity that, when fully realized, is paradigmatic of the tourist’s experience of the place, museum, city she has visited. Thus the Basilica is my feat of tourism, as it is the feat of the 300 and more people who had waited in line behind me. The fact that such a feat has been achieved is usually captured by a photograph (or, one might point out, a Snapchat or Instagram video, a Facebook post, etc., all of which, I believe, are still captured by the term ‘photograph’, suggesting that a visual medium is involved). Tourists who visit the Basilica are either going to take their paradigmatic photo in the Basilica’s dome or in the Church; each of these photos are reproducible in the sense that the supposed subject of the photo, i.e. the tourist, can be replaced without harming the overall sense of the photo. Should we assume from this that not the tourist but the Basilica itself is the subject of the photo? Let’s consider a conversation we might have with one of these tourists, who will share that they found the Basilica absolutely beautiful, that it was an extraordinary piece of art and architecture; a Catholic tourist might even share a personal sense of comfort and peace they felt at this Church, I really felt God. In that sense, the Basilica is indeed the most prominent subject of our conversation. The Basilica as a permanent thing in the world is indelible, whereas this specific tourist’s description of the Basilica is erasable. But were we to ask our tourist if we could replace her photo in front of the Basilica with an identical photo but of another tourist, we imagine that she would not agree. Upon asking her why, she might answer, Well, it’s my experience, it’s my photo in front of the Basilica, it’s my money that I spent to get there, my camera that I used to take the photo, my life’s events which are conveyed through the photo. So tourist’s experience is at least intrasubjectively unique even though the tangible objects that have come to capture this experience (the photograph, a fridge magnet from the Basilica’s souvenir store) are completely reproducible.

 

The Museum and Ikea

IKEA, the Swedish multinational furniture and home accessories company, has massive stores in many of the world’s important cities. I have visited an IKEA in Abu Dhabi and, more recently, in Paris. Each store is organized so as to compel visitors to visit the entire store before they can pick and purchase what they’ve come for. During one of my visits to Abu Dhabi’s IKEA, for instance, what could have been a 5-minute trip to the store (to buy just one item) turned into a 45 minute walk through the entire store, ending in a huge warehouse that then opens up to the cashiers. The visitor is guided through the store by signs as well as arrows on the floor. Often due to the visual stimuli available in the store’s colorful selection of kitchen utensils, pillow cases, beds, chairs, tables, one loses track of the arrows or the signs. I usually find myself looking not for signs to tell me where items can be found, but for the items themselves. After having walked through the store, the culmination of the visit in IKEA’s huge warehouse instigates a feeling of intense liberation. The empty space, the cold air, and the gray-brown ambience of the warehouse is reminiscent of a walk through a crowded forest ending in a plain, empty grassy field that opens to the sky. The warehouse is, to me, an attempt at recreating the natural sublime. Upon reaching the warehouse, the visitor forgets the imposed curatorial vision of the IKEA store and the commercial activity of buying (and contemplating buying) items at the store, and is instead consumed by the immensity and vastness of this end area. Inevitably at the cashier’s, of course, she is reminded again of the commercial activity.

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The IKEA warehouse

The Vatican Museums leading to the Sistine Chapel, I pointed out to my friends, are organized like the IKEA. After a crowded series of galleries, organized in an altogether arbitrary way through the Museum, upon reaching the famous Chapel which features many of Michelangelo’s most famous works, the visitor is supposed to experience the Chapel’s enormous collection of frescoes. Observing all of the frescoes is an impossible task due to the overwhelming nature of the visual stimuli which constantly redirects and re-redirects the eye, never allowing it to spend too much time fixated on one fresco or one set of frescoes.

But after further contemplation I have come to the conclusion that an IKEA is significantly better organized and curated than the Vatican Museums. At the Vatican Museums, I was guided not by the various paintings (many of them wonderful works that I would have liked to appreciate) but by the signs that govern the visitor. The curatorial vision is imposed in such a way that it overshadows the viewer’s experiences of the very curated objects. At the IKEA, curation manages to hide behind the ability of its objects to stimulate the viewer, whereas at the Vatican Museums, curation is the most prominent and often the only identifiable stimulus for the viewer. Furthermore, the ending warehouse of the IKEA prompted a feeling of liberation, ironically but subtly constrained by the financial and capitalistic aspect of buying. At the Vatican Museums, there is no liberation from the curator or from the Museum. Even the sense of sublime that one would expect the Chapel’s great art to incite in the viewer is undermined by the fact of imposed curation. The Chapel does not invite the visitor to rest her eyes on the frescoes, and the frescoes themselves are designed in such a way that it requires the viewer to jump from one to the other. These two overwhelming directions for the viewer/visitor ultimately drive her out of the Chapel and down a long path to the Museum Souvenir Store.

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The various frescoes at the Sistine Chapel

An IKEA is ultimately a commercial venture, while we imagine the museum to not be one. The excruciatingly clear question, it seems to me, is why our museums are organized like IKEAs. The answer revolves around this notion of the reproducibility of experience. All tourism wants to curate experience so that the tourist has achieved all paradigmatic feats of tourism. Thus the museum, a touristic venue, is curated in such a manner that the tourist who is guided by the signs of curations arrives at the cumulative point – the realization of a feat of tourism.

That experience can be reproduced is a harmful notion. It presupposes that the average tourist is not capable of constructing her own experience. It turns the tourist into a receptacle of experience rather than an agent of experience. This analysis is, as has already been implicitly suggested by the comparison between IKEA and the museum, rooted in a critique of capitalism and the consumerist culture that it encourages. The tourist, by experiencing reproducible experiences, is a laborer in a capitalist mechanism that allows the tourist experiences in exchange for capital. ‘Allows’ is an operative word here because it is not just that the capitalist mechanism is the tourist’s guide (in that sense of ‘allow’) but also her jailer (in that sense of ‘allow’). Tourism, for the tourist, is as would be a lunchbreak in the factory cafeteria for the laborer. Each laborer, who in this factory is treated as though a prisoner, is only allowed to have their lunch after completing a certain amount of work. The lunch is identical for each laborer: each has the option to either finish the entire plate, or to discard the food on the plate. Those who choose to finish the plate are our typical tourists; those who choose to discard the food are those tourists who are critical of the way their experience is selectively organized. But just as the laborer who discards her food remains hungry, the tourist who criticizes her reproducible experience is stripped of any other opportunity to experience in an already established mechanism of capitalistic tourism.

 

Synthesis

This analysis of the reproducibility of experience is undoubtedly in its infancy and is constrained by this figure of the tourist. Ultimately I want to be able to suggest that capitalism wants all of experience to be reproducible. This is a strong claim to make, since we have historically imagined capitalism to be an offshoot of radical individualism. It is the exact opposite. Capitalistic reproducibility diminishes the uniqueness of the individual’s experiences. In another article that is not evadingly titled ‘Notes’, I will try to expound more on this notion of the reproducibility of experience and its consequences for our understanding of capitalism.

 

The Palace Museum

There is a tapestry there, in the palace museum. A million little threads woven with gold. Where hands are linked and nature is all around. People are free to go where they want and the river flows.

I can’t search for her at night.  That’s because the scarecrow paces those long marble hallways setting sticky paper down for mice. One time I came out at night and I saw him rip a mouse off the paper while it was still alive. I swear he giggled. It’s not that I’m afraid of him. Only I can sometimes still hear the sound that the mouse made when he did it. So instead of looking for her, I lie under a fancy bed and play with the dust bunnies. I wait for sleep to come and I hope the scarecrow has forgotten about me after all this time.

It’s 6am when I wake up, like I always do, to the happy sound of clattering keys and shiny-shoe footsteps. I don’t know his name, don’t speak his language, but when he talks it sounds like low piano keys crawling out and gently patting sleepy children on their heads. He talks to himself, or sometimes he hums. I think he may be lonely. I wonder.

Just like me, he loves the river tapestry. He always pauses in front of it and stares at those flowing threads. Sometimes I wonder if the scarecrow is keeping him here too. I wonder if he’s been to the river like I have. I watch him stare at it each morning. If he could see me on those security computer screens his jaw would hit the floor so fast. 

I roll onto my belly and pop my head out from between the frilly bed skirts. Look left. Look right. You might think it’s silly. A grown woman sleeping under the bed, but this is what it takes to stay in such a palace. It’s really a lovely place.

I slide out on my stomach and I’m sure to fix the ruffles in the bed skirt. Then I crawl along the length of the wall and try not to sneeze from the dust bunnies hip-hopping around my face. They nuzzle me with their whiskers and make my eyes water until I have to brush them away. Outside the wavy glass I can see the sun bouncing beams across the courtyard. I try to remember how outside feels. Is outside a real place or a moving picture? Sometimes the river in the tapestry moves.

I sneak into the bathroom. A public one. Every day I long to take a bath in the golden, claw-footed bathtub in the queen’s chambers, but water doesn’t actually run there. Perfumes and flakes of gold and the tears of fat ponies used to be poured into that bathwater and the queen would sink in and let a rare smile pop out of her porcelain face.

I am no queen. I wash myself in the public sink with the pink liquidy soap and scratch the plaque off my teeth with my fingers. I keep my fingernails very clean. Once a week I wash my hair with that soap and now it is very brittle and angry with me. One time someone left their hand lotion on the edge of the sink and the cleaning lady didn’t throw it away so my skin was happy but then I ran out.

The cleaning lady is very tired all the time. She has a big job and her phone is always ringing. Sometimes, before the palace opens, her phone sings out through the marble and her voice rises and falls like an ocean in a storm. I get to perch in one of my hidden places and listen to her voice chopping up and down.

Her voice reminds me of mine when I used to speak to my Mother. I think she must be speaking to hers because sometimes she laughs and it sounds like the first drops of rain that kiss the sidewalk before a shower. Then sometimes she whispers with a high note of desperation, the way a violin sounds when you choke it too much. The cleaning lady has a beautiful voice but it’s not as nice as the lonely man’s piano keys. Sometimes he talks to her and the sound of them speaking is like a song. I think they might be in love because he only sounds happy when he talks to her and sometimes when he talks to himself he says her name.

I lost my Mother. In this palace. Not like she’s dead, but she’s just lost somewhere. I can’t leave until I find her but I could if I wanted to. I remember the journey we took here like yesterday; it was the deadly quiet nighttime and I was still a child. My Mother wrapped me in layers and layers and strapped me into the front seat of our car beside her. We always played music but today was quiet like one army listening for the footsteps of another army. She kept smiling at me but her eyebrows were pointed up like little arrows to her worried brain, whirring.

It seemed that all those silvery ghosts had finally gotten to her. I used to think they were beautiful, like silver scarves hanging. They found their way into our little house through the smallest cracks and they whisper-sang. Sometimes she would scream at them and banish them, beating them with a broom and they would swoop away with mouths like little o’s. Sometimes she would turn our stereo all the way up and we would make a pillow fort to pretend we couldn’t see them. Sometimes they piled on her and she lay in bed holding them in her arms. My mother hated it the worst when they would smooth my hair back and cup my chin with their silvery fingers. It made me shivery but was also soothing like wind.

One night we got into the car and it was silent and she had a smile painted on her face like our Christmas nutcracker. She knew exactly where to go that they wouldn’t find us. So we drove to the river and I helped my Mother push our car in so that everyone would think we drowned a beautiful death. Then she carried me through the forest and up the hill to the palace. Everything was white and gold.

A man opened the doors for us and he seemed so nice but I still didn’t like him. He looked like a scarecrow. He said we would be very happy here. He didn’t mention that there was no water for the bathtub.

Now it is daytime and the palace opens soon. I hide in the bathroom stall until lots of feet have come and gone and there is a small crowd in there. Women love bathrooms because we can go in and talk about all the things we don’t want men to know. If you want to hear about anything that’s really important, you can check two places. One place is the margin of a notebook two students pass back and forth while the teacher isn’t looking. The other is the women’s bathroom.

I come out of the stall and nobody pays much attention to me. During the opening hours, I’m free to search for her. So I start with the kitchen. It is preserved the way it used to be in the old days. They have fake food on the table and a cook mannequin with her back to the viewers. That is not my Mother. When the room is empty I crawl under the long table to look for her. I do a very thorough search because I don’t remember what she looks like. Sometimes I even check under the legs of each chair in case she’s squished under there.

They serve free snacks with the ticket into the palace but you have to eat them in that one room. I take a croissant and a coffee and I slip an apple and another croissant into my pocket. If someone thinks it’s strange that I’m visiting this museum every day, they don’t say anything. Sometimes the security guard and I stand side by side staring at the river tapestry. He never looks at me twice.

I search for her whenever people aren’t looking. I roll under beds. I check the drawers of ancient dressers. Once I found a mouse and I clutched the poor brown thing in my hand asking “Are you my Mother?” over and over and when she didn’t answer I shook her and she bit my hand and little droplets of blood fell on the ancient carpet so I threw her all the way across the room. I never checked to see if she was dead.

I search for my Mother in the faces of the marble statues in a hall that has a mirror covering the whole wall. The statues have heads that turn when you aren’t looking so you have to go right up to them and stare into their eyes to really know that they aren’t her. One time I saw my Mother inside the statue’s eyes so I pushed it hoping it would fall and break open and she would emerge like a little chicken from an egg. But the statue didn’t budge and I lost sight of her in there.

I used to ask the women visiting the museum if they were my mother because they had high heels and pretty fingernails like she did. But they would get worried and one tried to hold me and call a security guard so now I just watch them carefully to make sure they are not her, searching for me.

I think she must be searching for me, both of us going around and around the palace museum but never bumping into each other. Like two children on a carousel, unable to see each other.  Sometimes I turn around and walk the opposite way, in case she’s been following me the whole time. Then I imagine she had the exact same thought that I did, and she turned around too and now I’m following her. Sometimes I think I see her ankle or the swish of her hair turning a corner and I race up to find her but the room is empty.

It is night. I’m sure my Mother is lying under a bed somewhere too, wishing she could search for me but the scarecrow is stopping her. Tonight, I am brave because I haven’t heard the scarecrow’s footsteps at all since the lights went out. He must be away. I hush the worried dust bunnies and I crawl out along the wall. Where should I search?  If my Mother remembers me at all then she’ll come to the tapestry because she’ll know that I used to love the river before. I go to it in the dark with moonlight bouncing off my face and making a silver pool around my feet. I am alone, staring at the place where people are free to do what they want, and the river flows and flows. I have never gone out at night like this.

I notice a little hanging thread, not sewn into the tapestry, a friendly finger wiggling to me. There is nobody to see. I touch my finger to the finger. I wind it around, the way my mother used to wrap her finger around a loose thread on my clothes.

She is not here.

I tug. The thread pulls up and up and other little threads pop out with it. I pull more and the golden snakes wiggle out, sick of being stuck in this tapestry tank. They start to coil at my feet, hissing. The tapestry starts shuddering and waving and heaving. The threads move their tired joints. I tug and tug and there’s a sound like a live mouse being pulled off of a sticky paper. I pull until the tapestry is nothing but a pile of wiggling threads at my feet. I will never have to look at that fake tapestry again.  With people linking hands, and nature all around.

There is no such thing as a river or a place outside of this one.

 

 

Artwork by: Norman Rockwell “Girl at the Mirror”