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The Long-Awaited Louvre Abu Dhabi Just Opened. Expectations Are High, but Can It Deliver?

Katrina Kufer By Katrina Kufer Published on November 10, 2017

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Jean Nouvel's Louvre Abu Dhabi/photo Mohamed Somji

The long awaited Louvre Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates' Saadiyat Cultural District opened mid-November, with weighty expectations in tow.

Tickets for the first week sold out before the opening; an indication of the powerful promise of the institution which was officially inaugurated by French President Macron with Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed. But given the hungry public that has been waiting for this moment for a decade, is the Louvre Abu Dhabi prepared to deliver?

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The museum is the result of an agreement between the Agence France-Muséums and the UAE government, which paid €1 billion for the Louvre’s brand and expertise over a period of 30 years and 6 months. Designed by starchitect Jean Nouvel, who was already involved in the project before the Louvre entered the picture to turn the structure into a museum, it takes its inspiration from the Emirati Madina format; a non-pastiche appropriation of passageways and hidden corners that allow the impressive structure to function more as a village. Built literally in the middle of sun, sand and water, and dialoguing with each, its ‘buoyant’ location had France stipulate that all artworks must remain at least four metres above the water level at all times. Working around practical concerns, 

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Nouvel drew from his fascination with Islamic geometry and architecture, which began in the 1990s when he first worked with its principles on the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris. The clearest and most iconic embodiment of this is the 80-metre dome consisting of 8 overlapping geometric layers to create the oft-referred to ‘rain of light.’ Nouvel recounts how he was inspired when out in the desert by the overlapping palm fronds and the way the sun trickled through to create shadow play that mimicked the effect of rain. The result, aside from somewhat tempering the arid, and for a few months, brutal, temperature, “is all about light,” said Nouvel, who added that the structure “plays with the inertia and structure of the Madina, empowering Emirati identity through reinterpretation,” even if he is introducing a play on rain in a geographical zone notoriously devoid of it.

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Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum

In many ways, the sci-fi-like, serene and strikingly atmospheric space of white and pale grays, backlit cutouts and granite and basalt floors with accents of bronze appear to compete, if not entirely overshadow, the point of it being a museum with 600+ artworks. Without the crowd, or perhaps even with it, the space is easily read more as a surreal architectural force than a hub for art history. Nouvel designed every element of the space, from the chairs through to even the display vitrines, which he lined with bronze to “free” the art and “add rhythm to let objects breathe”, despite this potentially causing visual discord when gazing across a room. As a self-declared “architect who does design”, Nouvel’s touch resonates through every facet of the museum, employing canons that embody “a noble definition of architectural components through a succession of novel spaces.” The lead-up has nary gone by without a mention of “Nouvel’s Louvre”. Until now, that is.

The Louvre’s carefully acquired permanent collection and loans (some of which have not left France in two centuries) are bringing their weight to the table with a debatably radical approach. Aside from presenting anticipated classics such as Egyptian relics, van Goghs, dancing Shivas from the 10th century, and da Vincis, contemporary pieces by artists such as Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock, and outdoor installations by Giuseppe Penone and Jenny Holzer will be on view. Then there are a few contentious curatorial choices that are reinvigorating local and international practice, such as, said Jean-François Charnier, scientific director and chief heritage curator at Agence France-Muséums, ‘classics’ that would traditionally not otherwise be seen in the UAE or any Islamic nation. “It’s a return to the narrative,” he clarified. “The 12 chapters that compose Louvre Abu Dhabi’s museum trail have been chosen to reflect the universal story of humanity. From the hours on a clock face to the signs of the zodiac, culturally and historically, the number 12 has been symbolic across various civilizations.”

The conceptual foundation of the Louvre is built around flexibility. Smaller rooms adorned with bronze panels that resemble a cabinet, that will display tangential themes, flank the 12 main gallery halls.

“Each moment or chapter required a reflection on the sequence of history, asking which significant interlinking steps best capture the universal nature of humanity and our common connections through time, from pre-history to the contemporary world through a series of chrono-thematic galleries,” explained Charnier of the rigorous research behind the choices. “Each main gallery will display five or six topics, transcultural or monographic. This was not only a historical theoretical reflection but a study connecting history with aesthetic and cultural production, since our story is told through artworks and museum collections.”

As such, the spaces have been custom-built around the works inside: specific platforms for sculptures, paper works and paintings. While loans will rotate annually and the paper works will change every three months, the hanging of the space itself will remain relatively consistent, at least for the foreseeable future. The overarching themes are designed with a lifespan of four to five years in order to attempt to sidestep novel curating and continue to draw visitors, but it is yet to be seen if the relatively concise space and consistent hanging will provide enough visual differentiation and intrigue to captivate over and over again. However, Charnier clarifies that “the collection does not set out to be encyclopaedic.”

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The Louvre Abu Dhabi is also making “globalization” less of a dirty word, championing a unique fusion of cultures and time frames within its 23 permanent galleries spanning 55 separate buildings. Peter Frankopan, in his recent publication The Silk Roads, discusses how “the age of the West is at an end; it’s a new world that we live in,” and that institutions such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi are overturning hierarchies. “The great art collections of the future are being built in the Middle East and China,” he writes. “Cynics might say that art patrons are just trying to raise the profile of somewhere like Abu Dhabi, but you can’t be a successful financial center without culture. London developed in the same way; it’s a logical process. People who have got money, resources and ambition in Asia now want to cherry pick the best bits of Western culture in exactly the same way that European aristocrats on the Grand Tour bought and collected objects from Rome, Venice, Florence, Athens and beyond. It seems like an elegant solution if the art of Louvre is lent—rather than sold off.” In this regard, concerns of fast-forwarding through cultural development prove a practical, logical and even savvy move.

Abu Dhabi, established as a city in 1971, and the UAE in general, has quickly grown a mix of imported and homegrown arts centers, from Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi to Alserkal Avenue and Dubai Design District in Dubai, through to the Sharjah Art Foundation, amongst several others, that satisfy the roles of commissioning entities, non-profit spaces, commercial venues, artist residencies and the like. A museum to elevate notions of art education, research, display, storage and handling hadn’t yet existed. Rather, biennials and art fairs such as Art Dubai and Sharjah Biennial often stepped in to fill this void. The Louvre, while the new kid on the block, is wearing big boy shoes, and has already indicated that “it represents a sea change in art historical education in the UAE, and we are already seeing the effects in schools, universities and beyond,” said Charnier, echoing a sentiment that has been acknowledged as a key area of growth by key figures and speakers on the Emirati landscape. “If Louvre Abu Dhabi can feed into this intellectual debate,” continued Charnier, “then it will be fulfilling its role.”

It remains to be seen if the new Louvre Abu Dhabi will give the UAE an institution for educational and intellectual stimulation it has been missing, bringing in heavy-hitting artworks that will turbocharge the local arts and culture scene. 

Photos courtesy Mohamed Somji

Katrina is a contemporary arts editor/writer and TCK based in the Middle East with a special fondness for abject art, gourmet cheese and asking too many questions.

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