Five Videos is an online series "hosted" by Rhizome, in collaboration with FACT, responding to the Liverpool Biennial's theme, The Unexpected Guest. Each week throughout the Liverpool Biennial, an artist will curate five videos about hospitality. We begin this series with Adham Faramawy's selection, considering science fictional luxury and hypercapitalist imagery from hotel adverts in Dubai.
Burj Khalifa, Dubai
In response to the Liverpool Biennial’s theme of ‘Hospitality’, I decided to take a look at an aspect of the hospitality of a city that has become important to me, Dubai.
Dubai is one of the emirates of The United Arab Emirates. It is both a city and a corporation where the government has set up industry specific free zones exempting companies from the usual tax laws. As a city, Dubai exemplifies neoliberal business and culture. Watching the development of this emirate has been like watching a myth in process.
I’m Egyptian, based in London, born in Dubai just before the economic boom. My mother and sister both live in Dubai and work in the Media City free zone. Some of their work as journalists involves attending product launches and receiving corporate hospitality in the hope that they will cover new products, spas and beauty treatments. For me this has meant looking at a lot of Facebook pictures taken in hotels and the occasional chance to tag along for an interview with a businesswoman or the first lady of Malaysia at Atlantis on The Palm.
Some of the videos I’ve selected were produced by the Jumeirah Group to advertise their facilities. All the videos employ utopic science fictional visual language to display spectacular ‘luxury’ experiences.
In these videos, the hotel experience is constructed in terms of the superhuman. With the laissez-faire attitude of Randian capitalism, the idealism of an athletic body post-Riefenstahl is sublimated, defining the very character of the building it inhabits. The architectures in these short narratives are set up, as with every successful advert, to create a (potentially phallic) lack in the prospective consumer. As such the neoliberal luxury experience of the spa is offered as the filler to satisfy that lack, a near spiritual solution to the stresses and speed of corporate business.
It is here that I would like to point out the similarities between the video adverts for the Talise Ottoman spa in the Zaabeel Saray hotel and videos of the Damanhurian Temples of Humankind, located inside a mountain north of Turin, Italy. Both spaces appear to refer to an arabesque style in their backlit stain glass windows, which alongside their skyscape frescos act as a nexus between Islam, ancient Rome, and new age spiritual systems.
As much as these spaces and the videos advertising them draw on a nascent spiritualism to attract consumers, they also use images of the active body and celebrity.
In 2008 Andre Agassi and Roger Federer played tennis on a specially turfed court on the helipad at Burj Al Arab. In an exciting and peculiar display of integrated spectacle, the content produced is part advert, part celebrity reality-curio fashioned for television. The pair ascends the building in a glass elevator, invoking the childlike awe of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, as they discuss the impressive scale of the hotel to a soundtrack of The Never Ending Story, appealing to childhood fantasy narratives more directly.
A diver leaps from the top of the Burj (Arabic for tower). Descending, we view his form across the rooms of several fully glazed duplexed floors. We see him through the glass exterior walls from lobbies, private rooms, bars and even a yoga class. The body is simultaneously objectified and deified, though libido here is referred to in absence, a drive subjugated to capital.
To paraphrase the Jumeirah website, these videos ‘encourage us to dive or otherwise immerse ourselves in unparalleled luxury’, but to what end? The material I’ve re-presented indicates an extreme position. I take no issue with Jumeirah Group; they are leaders in their field. Their facilities are excellent and deliver everything they offer. I have nothing against the offer of luxury per se. I am happily complicit, enjoying the spectacle that the hotels, spas, and malls of Dubai have helped to initiate. However, I question the kinds of elitism and exclusivity (especially with regard to social restriction and mismanagement of resources) the concept of luxury engenders.
Facilities proposing ‘luxury’ leisure experiences and goods cater to a neoliberal elite offering excess as a foil to the stress and long hours demanded by the workplace. The products indicate a mentality, which values and strives for an unrealistic, unending and thus unsustainable (economic) growth. We live with limited resources and although the forms of hospitality seen here are only symptomatic, they do point to a wider problem.
My position with regard to development in the U.A.E. is complex. I support the cultural advances that economic growth has enabled. I am nevertheless critical of the speed of unregulated economic expansion. The rate of development in Dubai in particular has meant that once the toxic investment American, European, and Chinese banks indulged in infected the (so called) Middle East, there was little to no security for investors and those buying property. Admittedly the accelerated development of Dubai slowed after the 2008 financial crash, but the economic crisis has not resulted in either practicable regulation or an adjustment to the fervent desire for capital.
The adverts I present have much to offer the Islamic context in terms of initiating a critical dialogue concerning the body. But if these videos behave symptomatically, as I believe they do, then I suggest the aspirations contained in them can and should be adjusted. Ideally the successful advertising strategies employed could operate to recode ‘mega-renewable’ energy technologies such as the Desertec project, associating it with qualities currently affiliated with luxury lifestyle products and experiences.
Dubai has performed as a construction site created as a fantasy narrative. The city occupies the timeless duration of a moment of uncertainty before the viewer/consumer elects that what they are seeing is either imagined (fictional) and thus uncanny or real (observed) and thus marvellous.
The acquisition of the luxury experience momentarily fills a projected lack with a cinematic image of wholeness. It suggests an economy of hospitality that advocates the formation of and continual recapitulation to an unsealable fissure, a lack fashioned and supported by a divisive and untenable fantasy fiction.
Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel - The Palm Jumeirah, Dubai
Talise Spa at Jumeirah
Burj Al Arab, an 11-minute advert
Agassi & Federer play tennis on the Burj Al Arab helipad
Burj Al Arab, Leave the Ordinary Behind
— Adham Faramawy