The Dubai-based artist discusses making work that mobilizes peoples, objects and symbols
Amy Sherlock Let’s start by talking about your early project HHSM , which situates your work neatly both geographically and in terms of certain ideas about circulation and authenticity that you often address.
Lantian Xie The work comprises a dozen reproductions, in oil paint, of a state portrait of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum [the monarch of Dubai]. It’s a ubiquitous image here – seen on the walls of hotel lobbies, company headquarters, restaurants etc. – and, as is often the case with such things, it’s essentially authorless. You see it every day on your way to school; you see it every time you leave or arrive at the airport: it’s a thing that shape-shifts, insofar as it follows you around. I suppose my idea for HHSM was to pretend to be the author of the work, as a way of entering into the movement of the image. The portrait reproductions were made by Chinese art workers in Dafen, the village outside of Shenzhen where all the fake masterpieces are painted. I was thinking about copy politics, which is something that’s talked about a lot in Dubai. People always come here and accuse the place of copying aesthetics, of imitating modernity from elsewhere. I think such claims are lacking in generosity and not very attentive to the inventiveness of Dubai. Also, what do we even mean by ‘copying’ in the context of a place like this, which is a non-sedentary condition, a condition that evades the idea of its origin?
AS What do you mean by that?
LX I mean that most conversations about or attempts to understand Dubai assume a spatial logic that presumes urban settlement as a permanent, sedentary condition and populations of a given place as intergenerational. That is not the case here. There is also a predicating of civics, publics and rights-based frameworks – none of which are operating principles in Dubai, either. Those of us that live here, however, have no sense of the loss of such things, because they were never here to have been lost. There’s no feeling of nostalgia. Dubai residents who moved here with their parents may have a sense that some other place was left behind, but those of us who were born and grew up here never left anywhere.
AS Where are your parents from?
LX They’re from China.
AS And you have lived your entire life in Dubai?
LX Between Dubai and Bahrain. It’s important to understand that there’s no immigration or assimilation process here; we all keep our fathers’ passports. So, there’s no diaspora or diasporic politics: there’s not this thing of first generation, second generation, hyphenated identities. In a sense, there’s no landing, there’s no arrival; as a result, you can’t experience nostalgia for a place that has been lost.
AS Your work often happens in interstitial spaces, waiting spaces. You’ve held reading groups in hotel rooms [Water, Gas, Electricity, Rent, 2018] and posted announcements in hallways [Notice, 2016]. Your work for the 57th Venice Biennale last year was a series of actions that took place across the city, which visitors – or tourists – may or may not have come across; one of them was a band playing in a hotel lobby.
LX Of late, I’ve been trying to think about making things happen, as opposed to making things. It’s become increasingly important to me to try to make work that is able to move people around and get people visas. During the press conference for the 11th Shanghai Biennale in 2016, Jeebesh [Bagchi, of Raqs Media Collective, who curated the exhibition] said that he thought of my work as making itineraries. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but I would like to hope so. So much of participating in a show – attending site visits, installing – starts out with a visa application. If you look at any given object on display, a vast amount of movement is implicated in it, even if it’s pretending to be still. Increasingly, this kind of churn is of interest to me. And it just so happens that Dubai exists in what might be called a junction condition: things don’t land; they near-ground to be fuelled and accelerated on elsewhere. I was describing this to a friend the other day. We were in Seoul, where it was cold and gloomy, and I was hungry to get back to some sunshine. I explained to him that I was flying Emirates and that, as soon as you step onto an Emirates plane, you’ve already arrived in Dubai. You’re in the condition. I always try to tell people that you don’t even need to come to Dubai, really, because it has occurred to you already – as an image, or as a flight, or as a particular way that something moves. People who haven’t been here often have assumptions about it that reveal their own anxieties relating to capitalism, origin or authenticity. It’s funny, people always come here and say: ‘Oh, but I miss walking; I miss streets.’ As if that is something we are supposed to do. But, for us, everything that people think is not culture, is culture. And everything that you think is not happening, is: it’s just happening in a way that you can’t see. I find great joy in that.
AS Who is ‘us’?
LX When I say ‘us’, I mean Dubai kids, and when I say Dubai kids, I mean people who don’t share skin or lineage or origin. People who share only that share nothing: the mutually constituted condition that is Dubai and a lingua franca which a friend of mine calls ‘duty-free English’.
AS Isn’t that, in fact, a condition of not belonging? The population of Dubai is 85 percent expat and migrant workers; you keep your father’s passport; you don’t have citizenship. Is there a sense of always occupying an outsider position?
LX But the insider position is a fiction anyway, right?
AS A very powerful one, though – if you look at the forces shaping contemporary geopolitics.
LX Absolutely. But I think the position of someone who feels at home in their own home is somehow fundamentally unethical. When I refer to Dubai kids, I simply mean people who do not know their place – in every sense of the word. That might imply a certain kind of buoyancy or even obnoxiousness. Citizenship is only one logic of belonging. There are many others.
AS We’ve discussed the way in which people moving is central to your work, but I also wanted to think about how images and cultural forms move. How important are ideas of appropriation or even cultural colonialism? To take the example of The Sidewinder, a piece that was installed outside the Shanghai Biennale in 2016: it’s a Volkswagen Santana car, originally made in Germany in the 1980s, but which became a huge success in China, where they are ubiquitous as taxis in big cities like Shanghai, and where they were still being produced until 2012. Inside the car, American jazz is playing, alternating with Egyptian jazz. I guess what interests me is the direction in which symbols move. You alluded to this before in terms of the very dismissive notion of Dubai as a replica city, always approximating the modernism of other places. Is this something you’re thinking about in relation to other cultural forms, as well?
LX I try to do away with the top-heavy vertical politics of originals and copies, to think outside of that pervasive – but, in fact, very provincial – idea. One of the songs playing in the car is ‘Egypt Strut’ , by Salah Ragab, who is often considered the grandfather of Egyptian jazz. The arrangement from that track is almost exactly the same as ‘The Sidewinder’ , by Lee Morgan, which also plays. There’s a LIFE magazine in the car, as well, flipped open to an image of a missile flying through the air.
AS A Sidewinder?
LX Yes – so called because it mimics the motion of the snake. You know, there’s a joke here that the roads change every day. It causes some people a great amount of distress because you have to find a new way home every night. But, really, how remarkable, right? So be it: we will find a new way home every night! And, because the roads change every day and because people are coming to Dubai from so many different vehicular logics, you see this thing all the time: right before a fork in the new road, there’s a slight pause, where the car almost shudders, as the driver tries to reconcile these changes. Then they make a quick swerve, almost like a sidewinder. I’d like my works to always keep moving; it’s something that used to cause me anxiety, but now gives me a lot of delight.
AS This slipperiness of interpretation?
LX Slipperiness can be a great logic or operating principle. I was thinking of my work more in terms of a tickle or a wink but, in fact, those are both slippery, too. They move us away from binary states or binary positions into a landscape that is more permissive of the ways in which everyone actually lives their lives. Which seems to me to be slipping and spilling around every day.
AS Are you ever concerned that all of this movement, all of this churn, will increasingly lead to a state of blandness in which people dressed similarly move between similar-looking places eating similar ‘global’ cuisine? Many have theorized this as the end point of advanced global capitalism: the so-called non-place, the shopping mall, the hotel bar, the airport lounge.
LX I don’t think late capitalism has a monopoly on movement – people have always moved – but nor do I picture myself in some kind of Marxist utopia. Being in the contemporary, with all of its disjunctures, is something to be celebrated. I don’t want to avoid being implicated; I want to be more implicated. To go back to the airports and the shopping malls: in Dubai, we grew up in those things; they are the city for me. They don’t replace or erase something that was here before. Part of my wariness of the capitalist critique is that it is often deployed by way of a postcolonial discourse that I find outdated and also highly complicit in the very flows and circulations it posits itself against. For example, you get a lot of curators who come here looking for ‘natives’. And you often hear: ‘Oh, but you don’t look like you’re from here. Point me to the natives.’ How do you explain to these people that, before 1971, there was no idea of ‘local’, as such? The thing about Dubai, when you grow up here, is that it teaches you to be suspicious of logics of inheritance. I’m very wary of ‘field authenticity’, because it fixes a person. It takes a cosmos and reduces it to a cartography – lineage, inheritance, birthplace – which produces, to my mind, a fictive ontology of a subject who is then granted some kind of emancipation through self-representation. We see so much misuse of this, especially in contemporary art.
AS What is your relationship, in terms of China, to the question of home or homecoming? Will your parents go back?
LX The retirement age here is 65. After that, you can no longer hold a work visa and the idea is that you go back. I say ‘back’ in quotation marks. For folks like my parents, that’s always been understood: there is a kind of contract that is entered into. But if you’re a kid, you didn’t sign anything. If I can, at all, have any control over this, I would like to die in Dubai. Even then, there is an expectation of repatriation: that your body will be flown back to the country of your father’s passport. Death is not an end: it simply produces more movement.
Lantian Xie is an artist from Dubai, UAE. His work is currently included in ‘A Beast, a God, and a Line’, curated by Cosmin Costinas, at Para Site, Hong Kong. The exhibition was first shown at Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh, and will travel to TS1 Yangon, Myanmar, and Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, Poland, later this year. He has upcoming shows at SongEun Art Space, Seoul, Korea, and Grey Noise, Dubai (both September 2018). Earlier this year, his work was included in ‘Access through a Detour’ at Magician Space, Beijing, China. He is editor-at-large of Dubai-based publishing practice THE STATE.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, June/July/August 2018, issue 196, with the title 'Swept Up'.
Main image: Lantian Xie, HHSM, 2012, oil on canvas, state mandate, installation view at Traffic, Dubai. Courtesy: the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai
First published in Issue 196