Greening the desert: Total Landscaping at Warehouse421 looks at Gulf urbanism through plant life

I usually remember living in the desert during the high heat of summer. The UAE’s urban structures, its skyscrapers and multi-lane highways have obscured the original landscape that preceded this development. Additionally, most of the Emirates business and residential areas such as Dubai have manicured lawns, mini-parks, gardens and tree-lined streets.

In fact, many of Dubai’s real estate projects and suburbs have been named to conjure up images of green – The Greens, The Springs, The Meadows, The Lakes, and others speak of ranches and hills and oases. Flora is almost certain to be present on billboards and architectural renderings of new developments. The longing for green in the desert is omnipresent.

This desire becomes clear when I see Layan Attari’s series Mild Life (2016), in which the artist uses photographs to capture artificial representations of nature in the UAE. The illusion of green is interrupted by small details – an ivy-covered wall, for example, turns out to be a printed tarpaulin due to the waves in the material; a group of palm trees is just a sticker that is betrayed by a tear. Attari’s works are part of the Warehouse421 group exhibition Total Landscaping, which deals with the relationship between urbanization and flora, especially in the Gulf and in the global south.

The exhibition, curated by Murtaza Vali, is the third in a four-part series on urbanism in the Gulf entitled Substructures: Excavating the Everyday. “[Total Landscaping] examines the way nature is experienced in golf cities, as a scene, as a prop, as a canvas and not as a form of life, ”he explains in a video tour of the show.

Much of the work in Total Landscaping works like Attari’s, where a second look reveals other meanings behind the picture. In Yee I-Lann’s The Orang Besar Series YB 1-10 (2010), a series of photographic vanitas, boutonnieres of tropical flowers worn by various dignitaries in the artist’s native Malaysia, they appear bright and alive, but actually wither .

The Filipino-American artist Stephanie Syjuco, on the other hand, discolors flowers in Neutral Orchids, a work from 2016. Covered with gray spray paint, the plants are transformed into sculptural digital 3D models, the artist’s criticism of the species that thrive in tropical climes , was called “exotic” and used as a symbol of prosperity.

Treating plants as mere ornaments is also seen in collective GCC’s Ceremonial Achievements in Flowers, a 2013 installation that includes a flower arrangement and an iPad slicing through a slideshow of ceremonies. Similar to the wreath, which turns out to be three-dimensional, the ceremonies are mere display.

‘Ceremonial Achievements in Flowers’ by GCC, an artist collective from the Gulf. Alexandra Chaves / The National

One of the key works of the show is Ho Rui An’s lecture performance Screen Green from 2015, a recording that is played in a loop. Inspired by the use of green screen technology by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a national holiday rally in 2014, Ho looks at how urban greening projects also serve as a projection screen for political aspirations and the state’s ambitions to become a “garden city”. and recently “a city in the garden”.

“Ho discusses the way these two types of screens, the digital green screen and the use of nature as a backdrop, are intertwined within the narrative of Singapore and that they are used to market the city as a tropical landscape, however not wild, but tamed and controlled, ”explains Vali.

Urban greening and projects by private sponsors take a similar form in the Gulf. Here, green spaces communicate more than just beauty. They represent a kind of victory, a pride in being able to turn the sterile into something generous. In Vali’s curatorial text, he refers to the book Paradoxes of Green by landscape architect Gareth Doherty, in which green “stands for prosperity and progress, privilege and power” in the context of Gulf urbanism.

Many regional projects have focused on undermining the climate – the buzz of “skiing in the desert”, the ability to build an indoor rainforest or grow a “wonder garden”.

Such endeavors date back to the very beginnings of the United Arab Emirates, as described in the texts by Todd Reisz accompanying Hind Mezaina’s fascinating Dubai Gardens (2017), cyanotype prints of leaves and flowers collected from the emirate’s green spaces. Reisz shares vignettes of various attempts to create green space in the UAE, from the arrival of British farmers to Sheikh Rashid’s appointment of a Pakistani gardener, Mr Saari, to the Greenscape Port Rashid.

Detail from Hind Mezainas
Detail from Hind Mezaina’s “Dubai Gardens” (2017) in Warehouse421. Alexandra Chaves / The National

The texts Bookends Mezaina’s captivating “botanical portrait” of Dubai, inspired by the work of the photographer and botanist Anna Atkins. The exhibition text states that Mezaina’s patterns come from green spaces that are “both natural and man-made, public and private, decorative and functional”. In these ghostly white outlines in front of dark blue prints, the species are made unrecognizable, can discard political and power-bound ties and instead focus on the forms of nature.

Total Landscaping can be seen through July 4th at Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi. More information at

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