Paint splatters on the wall in front of me, followed by those distinctive brushstrokes that have always fascinated me. I look down at my feet and see the floor come alive with colours. Slowly, Vincent van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’ takes shape. The massive room I am standing in is awash with shimmering blues and yellows as the music crescendos. It’s all a bit overwhelming, so I lie down on the floor and look at the ‘sky’ and imagine Vincent painting the scene outside his asylum room window in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
The original hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, of course, and I have seen it several times. However, this is the first time I have had the chance to fully immerse myself in the painting, appreciate its vibrant colours, and admire those brushstrokes up close (without a museum guard asking me to step back!) Can you believe this surreal experience is located in the middle of Dubai Mall? Infinity des Lumières is an innovative digital art centre, the largest and most advanced gallery of its kind in Dubai—and in the GCC.
Think of Dubai and you picture a futuristic city full of buildings in varying shapes, sizes, and styles; some might even call it art. But amidst these soaring skyscrapers, there is an emerging art scene with galleries showcasing home-grown and international talent, a full calendar of art festivals, and even an international art fair that is now in its 15th year.
I begin my exploration at Alserkal Avenue, a former warehouse area in the Al Quoz industrial district, which has been transformed into a thriving art and culture space. Established in 2008, it spans 500,000 sq. ft. and houses over 70 galleries such as Ayyam Gallery, Leila Heller Gallery, and Grey Noise (which is currently showing Mumbai artist Shreyas Karle’s ‘Shifting the Center Table’). I spot familiar names such as Jitish Kallat at Ishara Art Foundation and Volte Art Projects (formerly a Mumbai gallery), which is currently showing Raghava KK’s ‘The Guernica Project’. There’s also Concrete, an adaptable, multi-disciplinary exhibitions space, which often hosts cool events. If you want to rest your feet a bit, there are plenty of cafes to choose from; I recommend Kave, a charming upcycling boutique plus coffee shop where you can pick up a handmade souvenir or participate in a creative workshop.
Alserkal Avenue also hosts the annual Quoz Arts Fest every January when contemporary art exhibitions are coupled with live music performances, food trucks, a midnight movie marathon, and much more. Or you can plan your visit in March when the Alserkal Art Week is in full swing, including one day of Alserkal Lates when all the galleries stay open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. This is a great time to meet the artists and curators, attend thought-provoking talks around contemporary issues, and participate in workshops.
Also taking place every March, Art Dubai is the U.A.E.’s biggest art fair. Held over three days at Madinat Jumeirah, the 15th edition of the fair in 2022 featured more than 100 contemporary and modern galleries from more than 40 countries as well as its first ever digital art section. Artworks were displayed across three sections—contemporary, modern, and Bawwaba (Arabic for gateway), the latter featuring works made specifically for the fair in the past year. This included Indian galleries like TARQ from Mumbai and Nature Morte from New Delhi, which were presenting for the first time at Art Dubai. The Art Dubai Digital section explored the digital and NFT art worlds and hosted a series of conversations on cryptocurrency, digital media, and NFT art in partnership with Singapore cryptocurrency exchange Bybit.
Dubai has plenty of stand-alone galleries as well as outposts of international ones, including Opera Gallery at DIFC, Oblong Contemporary Gallery on Bluewaters Island, and Gallery One, which is an art gallery and design store rolled into one. Don’t miss Jameel Arts Centre on Jaddaf Waterfront, which also has a stunning sculpture park. For a dose of street art, head to 2nd December Street in Jumeirah where thanks to the Dubai Street Museum project, drab façades have been converted into an open-air gallery with murals reflecting Dubai’s Bedouin heritage. Also in Jumeirah, La Mer is awash with playful murals and colourful decorative art.
Of course, the highlight of my arty itinerary is at that mecca of retail therapy, Dubai Mall. Infinity des Lumières is located on its second level, a sprawling 2,700-sq.mt. space where a combination of 130 laser video projectors and 379 screens brings art to life. This cutting-edge concept is a collaboration between UAE-based InfinityArt and France’s Culturespaces Digital, which is a specialist in immersive sound and art shows. My experience begins with ‘Dreamed Japan’, a virtual reality world of 19th-century Japan where Katsushika Hokusai’s prints (including the famed ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’) blend with enchanting landscapes and animations of geishas and samurai warriors. Another exhibition Verse showcases the beauty and harmonious movement of the cosmos combined with a soaring orchestral piece.
But I am here for van Gogh. Over 30 minutes, I am mesmerised by his artworks that come to life through a blend of light, movement, and sound. I walk around the exhibition space, sit on one of the few seats, even touch the walls and see the colours and shapes dance on my hand. ‘Sunflowers’ bloom while the ‘Almond Blossom’ withers, the river ripples in ‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’, even the bleakness of ‘The Potato Eaters’ is palpable. Self-portraits with those familiar piercing eyes and that ginger beard make an appearance, as does one of his letters beginning “Mon cher Theo”, written to his beloved younger brother. ‘The Bedroom at Arles’ with its blue walls and butter-yellow sheets seems somehow more intimate—I have never felt closer to art, or to Vincent.