Installation view of “White Cube…Literally” at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai, 2016. Courtesy Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde. 

White Cube…Literally

Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde
United Arab Emirates

The “white cube” gallery space has been countlessly analyzed within social, political and historical contexts. But what if that space itself literally exists in a spatial layout of a white cube? The group exhibition “White Cube…Literally,” curated by Amanda Abi Khalil at Dubai’s Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde (IVDE), reopens a debate posed by art critic Brian O’Doherty in his book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976) and forces us to tackle a complex and decades-old topic centered around artistic practices vis-à-vis the exhibition space. Situated in a contemporary art gallery district not even ten years old, IVDE challenges its visitors to reconsider their position within the recently renovated complex and potentially redefine the space through new conversations and mediums.   

All the artworks in the exhibition resemble a cube, both formally and conceptually, ranging in genre and time period from Western and non-Western to site-specific installations to works created during the mid-20th century. There are also collapsible and deteriorated sculptures and post-conceptual performances, made of various media such as sediment paints, cotton balls, sugar cubes and light bulbs.

VIKRAM DIVECHA, Casting Failure, 2016, matte white paint and cast-iron cube molds, six cube molds: 15 × 15 × 15 cm each. Courtesy Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai.

Transforming the exhibition’s spatial context into the content itself, the “white cube” becomes an observable specimen, reduced to its scientific properties and into something that is organic, living, breathing and adaptable to its environment. Most striking is Vikram Divecha’s Casting Failure (2016), which was installed a day before the exhibition opening and features a cube mold filled with paint that has dried and is shrinking in form. Inspired by the industrial processes in the United Arab Emirates, Divecha highlights the failure of paint to perform its intended function as an artistic medium or execute the task of becoming a cube. Instead, the paint sinks in, transforms and is completely subsumed by its environment, or the exhibition itself.

Recognizing the cube as an entity within our environment further drives us towards defining it by systematic dimensions. Determined to calculate the cube in terms of size, artist Mohammed Kazem created Measuring (2015), for which he carefully measured the length of lines that he drew across a cube. Also in the exhibition, Kazem appears in his own work in Wooden Box (1996), comprising images of a post-conceptual performance where he places his head between two levels of a vertical shelf unit of his exact height, which he reproduced for the exhibition. Through Wooden Box, Kazem, who served for 23 years in the UAE army, comments on the repetitive nature of placing documents on shelves and the alienation felt within the everyday workplace. Kazem’s preoccupation with documenting our existence addresses human nature’s propensity towards repetition and restoration.

MOHAMMED KAZEM, Measuring, 2015, painted stainless steel, acrylic and LED lights, 40 × 40 × 40 cm. Courtesy Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai. 

Ultimately, redefining the “white cube” space involves disorienting the playing field and deconstructing our own systemic narratives. Such deconstructed space is investigated by Chris Cornish and Alison Moffee’s Cube 001 (2009) and Annabel Daou’s Unloaded (2015). Not only do these works alter the cube form, but they also help one notice the gallery’s subtle structural arrangements. Stretching across the gallery space is a corrugated platform with smaller cubes nestled within some of its curves. On careful inspection, the platform is revealed to be an elongated and disassembled cube situated amidst other similar forms. Standing from a distance, one can see the fragmented walls, pulled apart and left slightly opened at some corners.

:MENTALKLINK, supersoftwhitecube, 2015, four soft boxes with 200w light bulbs on a heavy-duty light stand, dimensions variable. Courtesy Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai.

The “white cube” continues to be the modus operandi in today’s art world, since its inception by the Bauhaus movement and the first occasion of its use in “Cubism and Abstract Art” (1936), at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Earlier, in a 1930 article entitled “Weiss, alles weiss,” art critic JE Hammann, addressing the novel exhibition format that would later result in the “white cube,” theorized that “One no longer wishes to be closed off from the exterior world, from nature, in a sentimental romantic dimness. Rather, one seeks [the exterior world] through the breadth created by the illusion of white paint. The human being of today wants freedom, air, and light; distance from his thoughts and ideas. In the whitewashed, almost empty room there stands today the minimum . . . as if one were outside.” Criticized for elitism and commodity fetishism later on, the “white cube” format today needs to resurrect the very essence of its original design and intention. Isabelle van den Eynde’s “cube” is, in deed, stimulating the conversation needed to redefine the concept of gallery space in Dubai. Step into her “white cube” and you will experience timelessness, contemplation and the freedom to address society’s values within a neutral space.

“White Cube…Literally” is on view at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai, until March 3, 2016.