3rd Dimension talks to the internationally renowned Palestinian artist, Yazan Khalili, about his fascinating site-specific installation, The Island.

Khalili in collaboration with Icelandic artist, Arnar Ásgeirsson, has created The Island, an Absolut Art Bar installation for Art Dubai 2015. In essence a flat two-dimensional photographic print supported by scaffolding, The Island is an idealized mountain, both surreal and visionary in its context of the brash, futuristic city of Dubai and the surrounding barren desert.

khalili the island
1. Yazan Khalili, The Island at Art Dubai 2015
(photo: courtesy of Absolut)

What was your response to the location of the Art Bar?

When they told me the setting of the Art Bar, to be sited on the Fort Island, I was intrigued and excited – as one immediately has a mental image of a stereotypical island. However I was dismayed when I realised it was totally fictional, a fake island within a fake landscape. I like the word ‘fake’ as it characterizes this accurately, but it is problematic to employ irony as this setting is already innately sarcastic. To engage with this, our response was to challenge with a real mountain – that is actually not real at all (fig.1).

khalili the island
2. Yazan Khalili, The Island at Art Dubai 2015
(photo: courtesy of Absolut)

The work creates an illusion, hovering ambiguously between reality and artifice, natural but unnatural. Can you describe the gestation and evolution of the work…

For me, it was definitely conceived as a sculpture from the outset, the process of designing and then ultimately building the structure reflects this initial impetus. The design went through several phases as my collaborator, the artist Arnar Ásgeirsson, and I developed our ideas. Initially we conceived an actual three-dimensional mountain, but it went over our allocated budget, and also we thought that we wanted to do something more sarcastic and fake. Ultimately, our resolution was to have two images, one from afar where it appears to be an object in the round (fig.2), the other is acknowledged when you approach – as your eye adjusts and accommodates to its subtly lit scaffolding and flat surface (fig.3). I am fascinated by that thin line between the fake and the real, in this slippage – the sculpture emerges.

khalili the island
3. Yazan Khalili, The Island at Art Dubai 2015
(photo: courtesy of Absolut)

Ironically, although the mountain itself is prefabricated and flat, the idea of surface, texture and form still resonates – the visionary, crystalline stone mountain contrasting with the harsh geometric steel scaffolding, a seeming juxtaposition between the natural and the man-made and functional

Yes, the sculpture works on so many levels. As you say, it seems so real that there is that dialogue between the surfaces, so the viewer has a sensory response to the work – and again that contributes to that confusion of the natural and real. I am also very attuned to that idea of a support structure and what its relationship to the facade might convey – there is that reliance and dependence. When you arrive in front of the structure, although the illusion of the mountain is shattered, there is physical sensation that you are entering the real core of the sculpture (fig.4). You move effortlessly from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional experience.

khalili the island
4. Yazan Khalili, The Island at Art Dubai 2015
(photo: courtesy of Absolut)

You are primarily known as a photographer, but do you see yourself as a multidisciplinary artist?

I regard myself as a multidisciplinary artist. As a photographer interested in landscape, this also felt like an opportunity to use photography in a particular way, to create a photographic structure, and to use photography as a sculptural medium.

Can you explain your attitude to landscape and photography and how it has affected this work?

A question I always like to ask is – what does it mean to photograph a landscape? Isn’t a landscape produced through the image making? The relationship between the medium and its product. This concept is embodied in the medium of painting and also photography. In a way one can argue that landscape does not exist outside the image, space does not exist outside the image. When we were asked to do this commission we decided to reproduce and create a landscape for the image to happen. Yet when you get closer a change occurs – it is spatial, but in a physical sense, overshadowing that initial visual experience (fig.5).

khalili the island
5. Yazan Khalili, The Island at Art Dubai 2015
(photo: courtesy of Absolut)

Did you conceive The Island as a public artwork, and how is the essence of public art different in Dubai?

On one level, I see this piece as a work of public art. However, that public is exclusive, and limited to those involved in Art Dubai, a commercial enterprise focusing on those that have come to purchase art – yet it does range from directors to bar staff and cleaners. I see public art as striving to communicate with the public, so that they can engage with the work and understand it, within its space and context in Dubai. When an artist considers making public art in the Gulf States, it is not the same as creating public art for a European city – there are always political undercurrents. There were two works in the Sharjah Biennale in 2013 by SUPERFLEX and OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen. which exemplified an understanding of this need for a relationship to this specific audience. One was a playground in the heart of Sharjah and the other was an urban oasis in the city.

Can you discuss the significance of The Island as a sign? Billboards in Dubai are an intrinsic part of its cultural image and identity, can you explain your concept of ‘Past/Futures’ in this work?

I like the idea of the natural mountain being produced through technology and the relationship which emerges from that. It is made from a very basic billboard fabric material. When you drive around the city, all you see are billboard signs promoting ‘Future Dubai’. Dubai changes so fast that you are always in its past, and whatever you see will always change in the next five to ten years – nothing is ever permanent.

A sense of dissatisfaction with the past and restlessness in the present…

Exactly, almost a mistrust of the past, that’s it’s out of date. The city is always looking at its future. You already feel as if you are living in past, as you are saturated by advertisement signs with promises of a new city to come. When you talk to the city’s older inhabitants, they speak of Dubai changing so fast, that in one generation, there are two or three different Dubai’s with new major centres and ports – places that are closely attached to a city’s identity. Our mountain reflects this, as it alludes to a natural mountain, something permanent – yet in this context it is a billboard sign representing promise, informed by that endless search for the ideal – the best future. I always think of the joke, what is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist. The pessimist says, ‘This is the worst situation ever…’, while the optimist always says, ‘Relax people, the worst is yet to come!’ There is no one identity – it is always ‘to come’.

Main image: Panorama, Yazan Khalili, The Island at Art Dubai 2015 (photo: courtesy of Absolut)