... On Tor Seidel's Dubai Photographs...

Martino Stierli

...The pictures gathered together in this book were taken by the German photographer Tor Seidel between 2008 and 2014, before, during, and after the financial crisis that hit Dubai with full force in 2009. Seidel’s photos are to a certain extent documents of an extreme situation, providing evidence of the impact it had on Dubai’s urban space and topology. However, it would be shortsighted to label Seidel’s photographs as mere contemporary records or as quasi scientific instruments of a visual urban analysis, although they by all means are. I would like to suggest that these impressive photographs—digitally reworked in an elaborate process—be read instead as an artistic examination of the visual aesthetics and codes of which Dubai’s “official” cityscape makes use in its well-known suggestive visualizations. To the extent that Seidel consciously deals with such strategies of visual seduction and counteracts them in his own pictures, he makes room for a critical reflection that viewers are in invited to pursue if they so desire. At first sight, Seidel’s photographs lend themselves to aesthetically motivated contemplation. But the suble irritations in his pictorial compositions open up a critical discursive space which the official images of the city as a rule want to subdue.
Examples of such moments of irritation are the numerous photographs depicting the construction sites of ambitious building projects that were quite obviously brought to a halt as a result of the financial crisis. The half-finished objects hover in curious limbo between the desire to be completed and the state of anticipated ruins. The processual nature significantly characterizing a construction site’s aesthetic appeal has been abruptly interrupted by an invisible hand; still unfinished, the sites are already endangered of falling prematurely into disrepair. In the meantime, numerous skyscrapers begun before the financial crisis actually been completed, and Dubai seems to be undergoing a guarded second spring at the moment. Seidel’s recent photographs provide evidence of this development as well.
Other photographs, by contrast, make an almost post-apocalyptic impression, for example the aerial view of Dubai’s so-called Business Bay district where the skyscrapers’ half-completed concrete skeletons dissolve in a murky pool of sand and fog. No less suggestive is a photo of the Tijara Town project that was stopped in 2009. Here, concrete pillars crowned by reinforcement steel protrude from the desert floor alongside a few scattered bushes and shrubs that managed to recapture a piece of living space for themselves in this inhospitable environment. Pictures like this one have a certain archeological quality. The anticipated ruins appear like documents of a long-extinct civilization that strangely enough sought out one of the most ecologically precarious spots on the Earth’s surface to build its monuments: the desert of the Arabian Peninsula. Incidentally, this fact goes a long way toward explaining the extreme artificiality Dubai is regularly reproached for: the city in the desert is exposed to an ecosystem that is quintessentially hostile to life, sometimes even aggressively so, and it can only be contained by the continuous deployment of high technology. Everything here, up to and including regional and environmental planning, is extremely artificial, shaped by human hands.This artificial character is nowhere better expressed than in the (indoor) photographs of a gigantic aquarium in the equally gigantic Dubai Mall or the ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates—two enterprises, as large as small cities, that effortlessly accomplish the transition from mere luxurious shopping centers to full-fledged amusement parks. These photographs simultaneously represent counter-images to the construction ruins as Dubai celebrates its unbroken optimistic view of the future in them...

Prof.Dr. Martino Stierli: Brave New World. On Tor Seidel's Dubai Photographs, published in: Uncube Magazine, Terpentin Magazine, 2014

Martino Stierli is Philip Johnson Chief Curator for Architecture and Design at the MoMA, New York