Brave New World. On Tor Seidel’s Dubai Photographs

Martino Stierli

Author’s preliminary note: The following text was originally written on the invitation of the German photographer Tor Seidel for his book The Dubai, which has just been published with Hatje Cantz. What first seemed to be on good track took an unexpected turn shortly before going to print when I was informed that there were some “problems” with the Arabic translation because my text contained “unusual phrases” that did not translate easily into Arabic. Shortly thereafter I was informed by Tor Seidel that my essay could not—also to his regret—be released in its current form as one of the book’s sponsors had threatened to otherwise withdraw their support on the grounds of the text’s (allegedly) too politically controversial character. Apparently, they were afraid that the text’s publication would incur irritations with their clientele from the Gulf Emirate, or even the loss of customer relations. I rejected the “offer” to adapt my essay according to the sponsor’s wishes as an attempt at censorship, and subsequently decided to publish the text independent of the book. On one hand, because it may contribute to answering the question how a phenomenon such as Dubai may be captured photographically. On the other, because the text’s difficult history opens up the fundamental question of the entanglement and mutual dependency between politics, economical interests, and art, and, in consequence, that of the conditions, possibilities and limits of artistic autonomy and integrity.


When the global financial crisis reached the Gulf emirate of Dubai in 2009 and the autocratic state that is basically run like a corporation could only be rescued from collapse by a major injection of funds from oil-rich Abu Dhabi, a feeling veering between quiet satisfaction, spiteful schadenfreude, and unconcealed glee made the rounds in the West. To many, Dubai’s rapid urbanistic development from small pearl-diving settlement to futuristic metropolis with a population of several millions within only a few decades seemed unsustainable and misdirected; an example of hollow gigantism on the part of a uncontrollable investment madness that was literally built on sand. And in fact numerous press photographs were subsequently disseminated showing gigantomaniac construction projects that had to be abruptly interrupted, awaiting an uncertain future. From the perspective of the temporarily rediscovered virtue of (financial) austerity, a development such Dubai’s was unthinkable in the long run and now it was time to pay the piper.
  A moral argument was also being made accompanying the economic and ecological considerations: Was it not reprehensible that the attempt to realize this feverish dream of a brave new world was basically being carried out on the backs of a largely disenfranchised host of migrant laborers from Southeast Asia? It is hard to reconcile the modern form of serfdom operative in Dubai and in the other Golf states with the image of a forward-looking and technologically advanced society that the glossy brochures and billboards convey, advertising Dubai as a modern trade center for the globalized world of the twenty-first century. Behind its highly polished surfaces, Dubai has a less attractive dark side that visitors almost never get to see. It is in fact quite easy to criticize the political and economic system on which Dubai is founded.[1] Less comfortable is the thought that the Dubai model is so passionately despised and hated primarily because Dubai, with its phenomenal dynamics, holds up a mirror to industrial societies in the West and to their own unstated aspirations.
  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. (fig. 1) 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.

Stierli_DubaiFig. 1

  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. (fig. 2)

Stierli_DubaiFig. 2

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.[2] 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. (fig. 3) These photographs simultaneously represent counter-images to the construction ruins as Dubai celebrates its unbroken optimistic view of the future in them.

Stierli_DubaiFig. 3

Perhaps even more impressive in this regard is the picture of the cyclopean bridge piers built for the development of the artificial Palm Jebel Ali archipelago, the construction of which has been on hold since 2009 (the piers thus might fulfill their intended function sometime in the distant future). (fig. 4) That some of Dubai’s building projects turned out to be a bit too ambitious for the moment is incidentally also documented in Seidel’s photos of enormous billboards, some of which pay homage to the cult of the local ruler, but many of which have nothing to convey. (fig. 5) As such (to freely paraphrase Marshall McLuhan), the medium has become its own message, an endless self-referential feedback loop; the blank projection surface of past and future aspirations.

Stierli_DubaiFig. 4

Stierli_DubaiFig. 5

Palm Jebel Ali was planned after the successful completion of Palm Jumeirah; together with Palm Deira it is intended as a further artificial archipelago, created using the method of land reclamation and protruding into the Persian Gulf along the coast of Dubai (a related, likewise stopped project is The World, a group of artificial islands that reproduce the image of a map of the world when viewed from an aerial perspective). The structure of these “palms,” with their long branches lined by narrow channels of water, is owed simply to the economic rationale of gaining a maximum of additional beachfront with as little fill-up as possible. All of the villas, meticulously placed in a row like a pearl necklace, have their own private access to the sea. The Palm Islands naturally owe their name to the view visitors have when they are seen from the air. This certainly quite eye-catching method of iconic urban planning emblematically echoes the natural desert habitat by marshaling all available technological resources. The example of The Palms very clearly indicates the extent to which urban planning is conceived and realized from above, detached from reality. This model gives the planer (or the project’s invisible mastermind in the background, which in Dubai is usually the family of its ruler, Sheik Muhammad bin Raschid Al Maktum) the role of a demiurge for whom urban and regional planning represents a kind of abstract formal exercise. The logic of this approach is most clearly revealed in the model photographs of the gigantean Dubailand project, only fragments of which have been realized to date. (fig. 6)

Stierli_DubaiFig. 6

It is perhaps helpful in this context to point to the critical difference between “milieu” and “space” as defined by the American geographer Denis Cosgrove (albeit with a view to the landscape of the United States).[3] While “milieu” designates the detailed, socially complex structure of European cities that have developed historically over time and as such incorporates human proportions, Cosgrove characterizes “space” with such terms as “vastness” and “scale,” abstract concepts relating to the technological mapping of the world. The aerial perspective symbolizes this abstract interpretation of planning. Particularly in Dubai it has become an instrument of planning and design with which entire tracts of land are shaped according to the imaginations of potent investors.
  Tor Seidel’s Dubai photographs are largely uninhabited. It is possible to find the one or other person involved in some sort of activity on them, for example the preparatory work for posting placards on billboards or securing a race course. But the enormous efforts involved in constructing and maintaining this imperfect artificial world are not shown, and the Southeast Asian laborers who do a lion’s share of the work remain largely invisible. This curious absence turns Seidel’s pictures into photographs of crime scenes. While hardly any people are at hand in the photos, the traces they leave behind over the course of doing their work are most definitely present. Seidel’s pictures consequently invite the viewer to participate in a forensic reconstruction of the events as they might have occurred. Auspicious examples of this include the photographs of the scantily whitewashed, impoverished, one-story dwellings of the simple inhabitants that are beset by towering skyscrapers. These are pictures that clearly visualize the battle for living space in a real-estate industry fueled by petrodollars. Or the view of the rooftops of high-rise apartment buildings that are scarcely furnished as temporary housing for the invisible attendants working in the building, traces of a homeless and essentially disenfranchised, merely tolerated existence.
  By restricting himself to the (re-)presentation of such urban situations, Seidel refrains from making a moral judgment. The individual photographs come together to form a complete picture that allows the viewer to take a look behind the scenes of the polished marble and glass surfaces. One group of pictures, however, does not obey the precept of omitting the presence of persons, namely, the series of “staged” photographs that represent a kind of counterpoint to Seidel’s urban and architectural pictures. (fig. 7)

Stierli_Dubai          Fig. 7

All figures are shown from behind, more staffage than individual personalities who might otherwise serve as a kind of identificational figure for the viewer. The visual rhetoric in evidence here seems to be familiar from marketing brochures for luxury lofts. But Seidel subtly circumvents this advertising aesthetic in his photographs, generating in the process one of those situations of irritation discussed above. An elegant woman dressed in white depicted in a luxurious interior, for example, seems lost between a multitude of seating accommodations while looking out over an unreal world, instead of feeling comfortable within her own four walls. Once again Seidel photographically approaches the themes of homelessness and the uncanny from a different point of view.
  Between all of this one can find, acting as confounding factor and allegory at the same time, a digital montage of The Waterfall, a sculpture at the Dubai Mall. (fig. 8) However, unlike in the original arrangement at the shopping center, the multiplied diving figure in Seidel’s picture does not plunge down the waterfall but seemingly hovers horizontally with outstretched arms over an indefinable surface. We recall the dream of flight and Icarus, who, overcome by high-flying ambitions, flew too close to the sun and paid the price for his hubris by plunging into the sea. Resembling avatars, the perfect figures could easily be the outcome of genetic engineering as well, just as Dubai is ultimately a transmutation of what we used to call a city. Brave new world.

Stierli_DubaiFig. 8


[1] Already written before the financial crisis, the seminal text dealing with this critique is Mike Davis, “Fear and Money in Dubai,” New Left Review 41 (2006), pp. 47–68. For a general introduction to Dubai’s history and the strategies for future growth, see Christopher M. Davidson, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success (New York, 2008). As representative example of the proliferating literature dealing with urban planning and planning theory, see: Al Manakh: Dubai Guide – Gulf Survey – Global Agenda, vol. 12, ed. Ole Bouman, Mitra Khoubrou, and Rem Koolhaas (Amsterdam, 2007); Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued, vol. 23, ed. Rem Koolhaas, Reinier de Graaf, and Iyad Alsaka (Amsterdam, 2010); Yasser Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle (London, 2010).

[2] I owe these ideas to Wolfgang Kemp’s observations of two other decidedly “artificial” cities: Las Vegas and Venice. See Wolfgang Kemp, “Venedig – Las Vegas: Zwei künstliche Städte, zwei künstliche Umwelten und mehrere kunstvolle Annäherungen,” in Las Vegas – Venedig: Fragile Mythen; Flugbilder von Alex MacLean (Munich, 2010), pp. 9–27.

[3] Denis Cosgrove, “The Measures of America,” in James Corner and Alex S. MacLean, Taking Measures Across the American Landscape (New Haven, 2000), pp. 3–13.

Fig. 1
Tor Seidel, 25°04‘28“N 55°14‘32“E: Dubiotech, 2013
© Tor Seidel

Fig. 2
Tor Seidel, 25°02‘46“N 55°25‘41“E: Canceled Construction Site, 2014
© Tor Seidel

Fig. 3
Tor Seidel, 25°07‘05“N 55°11‘51“E, Ski Dubai, Mall of the Emirates, 2014
© Tor Seidel

Fig. 4
Tor Seidel, 24°59‘09“N 55°01‘02“E, The Palm Jebel Ali, constr.site on hold since 2009, 2014
© Tor Seidel

Fig. 5
Tor Seidel, 25°10‘47“ N 55°18‘18“E: Mega Billboard, Street 66, 2013
© Tor Seidel

Fig. 6
Tor Seidel, 25° 03‘ 32“ N 55° 14‘ 45“ E: Model of Dubailand, 2011
© Tor Seidel

Fig. 7
Tor Seidel, 25°12‘26“N 55°16‘38“E: The Bar, 2014
© Tor Seidel

Fig. 8
Tor Seidel, 25°11‘42“N 55°16‘47“E: Flight, 2011
© Tor Seidel

Martino Stierli is the designated Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and holds a Swiss National Science Foundation Professorship at the Institute of Art History at the University of Zurich.