At the 2013 World Government Summit, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates debuted a new hand gesture. He raised his hand as if in benediction, and extended his thumb, index, and middle fingers. It was nearly identical to the “Serb Salute,” used by nationalists in the former Yugoslavia, or the Schwurhand from Christian iconography. For the sheikh the three-digit salute signifies “win, victory, and love,” the new brand values of the UAE. It represents a promise of self-actualization in partnership with an increasingly corporatized municipal apparatus, a direction also suggested by the slogan for Dubai’s Smart Government program: “Together for your happiness.”
The sheikh’s salute recurred throughout “Positive Pathways (+),” the first exhibition at Mitchell-Innes & Nash for GCC, a collective of eight artists who are citizens of countries in the Gulf region. (The group’s name is identical to the acronym for the Gulf Cooperation Council, an intergovernmental bloc whose branding and visual vocabulary are mimicked by the artists.) The show charted the flourishing popularity in the Gulf of “positive lifestyle” practices—encompassing anything from yoga and healthy eating to New Age spiritualities—as well as their instrumentalization by governments as technologies of control. With sedentary populations disproportionally prone to obesity and diabetes, the gamification of weight loss has become a tool of governance in the region; the UAE, for instance, hosts an annual competition where participants win a gram of gold for every kilogram lost. The appified pursuit of wellness has become a primary aim, and it’s easy to imagine a near-future in which one’s technologically tracked daily steps are policed and cheered by local municipalities.
The exhibition hewed to its premise as tightly as it did to its maroon-and-white palette, which was borrowed from the flags of Bahrain and Qatar. Its anchor was Positive Pathways (+) (Version II), 2016, a reprise of a sculptural installation that GCC debuted at this year’s Berlin Biennale. In it, a woman is shown leaning over a young boy, performing the energy-summoning Quantum-Touch therapy, which is similar to Reiki. The figures, made of plaster, are encircled by a rubberized red running track—of the sort that authorities across the Gulf have installed at public parks and corniches in an attempt to get residents moving. The hijab-clad woman could be from anywhere, but the boy’s flowing thobe broadcasts his status as a Gulf national. Sand surrounds the track and piles up in a gallery corner, threatening to overwhelm the room and nodding to the way in which even the most high-tech, hermetically sealed interiors in the Gulf cannot keep the desert out.
“As Arabs, we have a great history. So why do we follow others?” a female voice-over purrs soothingly in a sound piece that accompanied the installation. She goes on to extol the virtues of Quantum-Touch and the three-finger salute. Left unsaid is the fact that holistic ideologies generally originate in the East but have to be rebaptized as New Age in the West before they can be considered palatable—more scientific, less pagan, or un-Islamic. Her ASMR-inducing voice is soft as shorn velvet, like the seductively plush flocked thermoformed reliefs that constituted the rest of the exhibition, depicting scenes culled from instructional YouTube videos about the healing movement in the Gulf: a reporter saluting the camera, an annotated diagram illustrating pressure points, hands healing a boy’s neck or loosely cupped, supplicating in the Islamic manner. Discrepancies between Arabic and English subtitles that appear on the reliefs invoke the identity crisis of these governments as both societies of control and consumerist paradises open to international commerce. Like the sculpted woman and child, the figures in these works have unsettlingly vacuous eyes and provide no succor. They may not be happy, but, appearing in shallow relief with high-sheen surfaces, they are decidedly on-brand.