The Dubai Effect

A private storage area at Arcis Fine Art + Collection, New York. Courtesy Arcis.

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THESE DAYS, an artwork might go straight from studio to storage without ever being shown. Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a cursory turn on the auction block. I’ve begun to think of this as straight-to-storage art. It’s a funny term in that it encompasses both work that never sells and maybe never garners any interest at all, as well as work whose primary function is as a unit of inflated value. They say that museums are where art goes to die. But it might be more apt to say that of storage facilities—from an artist’s bedroom closet to multibillion-dollar freeports found chiefly in Geneva, Zurich, Luxembourg, Monaco, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Freeports are duty-free storage facilities for goods in transit. Also called special economic zones, export processing zones, or free trade zones, they are either designated areas of ports and airports or stand-alone entities in their own right. For example, cars might be shipped from Japanese factories to the Shanghai Free Trade Zone before being loaded onto a ship bound for Marseille. Because the cars never leave the freeport—that is to say, they never enter Shanghai proper—the manufacturer never pays Chinese import taxes and is liable only for EU taxes on the French end.

Perhaps the best analogy is the part of an airport you enter after passport control and security. Citizens of most countries would be able to follow the same itinerary as the cars, flying from Tokyo to Marseille with a transfer in Shanghai. Without Chinese visas, they are unable to leave the secure area of the airport and enter Shanghai, but they do not have to pay for transit visas either. Originally, freeports were similarly intended for short-term transit, but they are increasingly being used as long-term repositories for art, wine, and precious metals. Yes, you cannot live with and enjoy your painting or vintage, but for investors who buy art purely on speculation, the combination of security and tax incentives—if the work is sold at a freeport, owners are usually exempt from transaction taxes—makes it the perfect storage solution. It is also important to note that freeports are generally considered to be outside the jurisdiction of their parent country. As such, these “secrecy jurisdictions” (as tax havens are often called), which effectively shield transactions from concerned government authorities, have gained a reputation as sites of money laundering, tax fraud, and smuggling. In 2003, following the bust of an antiquities smuggling ring, Swiss authorities announced that they would return artifacts and mummies stolen from Egyptian excavation sites and tighten Geneva Freeport regulations to require more precise inventorying. Yet a raid of the same facility—spurred by the 2016 release of the Panama Papers—resulted in the recovery and eventual restitution of a Nazi-looted Modigliani, suggesting that the enforcement of these new laws is lax at best.

Until recently, the United States had only one ostensible artport (as art-specific freeports have been dubbed), a facility in Delaware. In 2017 it was joined by Arcis, a flashy new artport in Harlem. Yet neither of these is a freeport in the global sense: state and local taxes still apply. When you enter the Arcis facility, you leave the United States without ever leaving New York City. Additionally, all art imports into the US (unlike into Europe) are tax free, so the Foreign Trade Zone1 status of these sites is nothing more than clever branding.

In May 2018, reporter Eileen Kinsella visited Arcis and described its high-tech safeguards against the effects of natural disasters, thousand-dollar lightbulbs in beautifully austere viewing rooms, and irreproachable security involving retinal and vascular scans.2 If that sounds like a shinier version of the security theater of international airports, it’s a fair comparison. Arcis’s decision to scan body parts suggests that its aesthetics—“like something out of a Bond movie,” Kinsella writes—might be at least as important as its actual security.

In her 2017 book Duty Free Art, writer and artist Hito Steyerl analyzes the phenomenon of freeports. Given their mimicry of offshore financial centers and the paradox of goods that are technically in transit finding permanent homes in these bastions of accumulated wealth, she cogently views the art freeport as “a zone for permanent transit.” She adds that “the freeport contains multiple contradictions: it is a zone of terminal impermanence; it is also a zone of legalized extralegality maintained by nation-states trying to emulate failed states as closely as possible—by selectively losing control.”3

In 2011, when I moved back to my hometown, Dubai, a city replete with tessellated freezones (as they are known there), it was still feeling the aftereffects of the 2008 global financial crisis that decimated the emirate’s economy and the purchasing power of its collecting classes. So I was puzzled by the appearance of continued success at a handful of galleries. Champagne and canapés still abounded at their openings. None of the well-dressed attendees seemed to give the art a second glance. I learned, in hushed tones, that these galleries were running on Arab Spring Money—the funds that anxious elites whisked away from politically unstable regions. Compared to art, other investments had become volatile and financial transactions were being newly monitored for signs of potentially funding terrorists. Furthermore, high-end gallery patrons didn’t even need to find a place to keep the art. It could stay in its crates in the gallery’s warehouse forever.

Immediately following the Arab Spring, Dubai saw a lot of schlocky decorative art, all gilding and geometry and calli-graffiti, along with the first waves of Iraq War art. This was neither the Beirut standard of the Lebanese Civil War photographic archives, as exemplified in the work of Fouad Elkoury, Akram Zaatari, and the Arab Image Foundation’s milieu, nor the rather opportunistic Syrian Civil War porn that would bubble up years later. Of course, the works on view in Dubai referenced relatively “safe”—which is to say, comfortably geographically or temporally distant—conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, and maybe Egypt, even as artists shied away from the brutal suppressions of would-be revolutions in nearby Bahrain. Work that criticized neighboring regimes was being made, however carefully, but I would see it in London, not Dubai.

In 2012 I watched a panel about art and money at the Art Dubai Global Art Forum. A Financial Times columnist positively trilled about the hot new asset class that everyone was talking about. Silver, wine, art, and gold: SWAG. Back then, I thought it was funnier each time she said it. But in retrospect, having realized just how entwined art and global finance are, I find it chilling.

 

IN FALL 2017, Aaron Flint Jamison mounted a remarkable multipart exhibition, “The Stored Work,” at Miguel Abreu in New York. Like many other commercial spaces, the Manhattan gallery keeps part of its inventory in offsite storage facilities. The first part of Jamison’s intervention was to take works from participating artists from offsite storage and put them on display, still crated, in Abreu’s two Lower East Side spaces. Additionally, all on-site storage rooms and closets, usually off limits to visitors, were opened up for perusal. Literature available at the show included a map showing these locales. Surprisingly, they weren’t specialized high-tech facilities but workaday self-storage complexes, offering the kind of lockers you might rent to keep excess furniture, clothing, or camping gear: five units at American Self Storage in Brooklyn, three units at SOS/Flexible Warehousing in suburban New Jersey, and a unit each at DAD Trucking Inc. and an unidentified facility on Boone Avenue, both in the Bronx.

Of course, the works included were, for the most part, unsold, and not all the artists on Abreu’s roster were willing to take part in this potentially embarrassing exercise. The Art Newspaper reported that a quarter opted out. As Abreu explained: “They said, ‘Why are you putting me in this position? I don’t want to be in a position where I have to decide whether I’m in or out, or where it’s revealed that I’m out or in.”4 The final lineup included 373 works by Yuji Agematsu, Liz Deschenes, Sam Lewitt, Scott Lyall, Jean-Luc Moulène, Florian Pumhösl, R.H. Quaytman, Raha Raissnia, Jimmy Raskin, Blake Rayne, Pamela Rosenkranz, and Jamison himself; a quick comparison of the list of artists and the gallery’s roster would make it clear who’s missing.

Data storage was addressed, too; the artist designed a new interface for Artbase, the proprietary database management software that the gallery uses to keep track of its inventory. Each of the works in the show was tagged with a location tracker, and the collected data was used to populate a new database generated by the artist’s custom software.

“The Stored Work” didn’t just render this network of off- and on-site spaces visible, it crucially made the wrapped and packaged works physically accessible, too. During open hours, a conservator unpacked each work, inspected it, and updated gallery reports on its condition. Viewers could request that any of the works be opened for viewing—a process usually reserved for intimate tête-à-têtes with collectors. Would gallery visitors spend longer with a work, now that someone had gone to the considerable effort of unpacking it? Or would they take more time simply because it was a far more intentional act of viewing, analogous to picking a song to play instead of listening to the radio? I regret not having given it a try.

The show itself was quietly lovely, an almost monochrome study in texture and form. It comprised thin rectangular boxes and crates, mostly, but also various cylinders, mysterious blobs, and telltale conical packages that could only hold the sculptures of Jimmy Raskin. The palette ranged from the buff and taupe tones of cardboard to the lighter shades of blond wood, interspersed with the occasional grayish white of a box, a polystyrene block, or a bubble-wrapped object. The crates bore stamps, labels, and addresses, sketching a map of their provenance. Only an A4 printout on each object, with a picture and caption, revealed what was inside, creating an intriguing interplay between image and packed object.

Jamison also spent nine months working with Abreu staff to design climate-controlled facilities for a new centralized and streamlined storage site. Unfortunately, the sublease that the artist was negotiating fell through, and he is currently searching for a new site. Still, the project had a lasting impact on the way the gallery stores work. In a 2017 email, Abreu said, “Our logistics team because of the daily challenges brought about by the exhibition now generally handle objects with more consideration of their long-term storage needs.” He added that they have since hired an insurance broker and changed their shipper, improved their archiving by supplying a more robust taxonomy for each work, and streamlined their image archive by simplifying file naming conventions.5

But it’s hard not to feel a pang of remorse when thinking about the gallery giving up all those self-storage lockers. TV shows like “Storage Wars,” “Storage Hunters,” and “Auction Kings” have stoked a collective fascination with these facilities and the treasures that may be buried within them. In a funny parallel, they mirror the suave prospecting of wealthy speculators buying up works in hope of a quick flip. Like Jamison’s show, the whole televised storage locker game suggests a certain democracy. And then there’s the sheer stress engendered by consuming, accumulating, being surrounded by things; perhaps it’s accompanied by a faint, uneasy fear of becoming a hoarder. Is there a more typical late-capitalist problem than having too much stuff and nowhere to put it?

 

LOCK UP INTERNATIONAL is an itinerant project sited in storage lockers around the world by artist Lewis Teague Wright. The units are places where art can be seen rather than hidden. Wright cleverly leverages introductory offers—$1 for the first month, for example—to minimize the overhead of running an exhibition. Since its launch in 2015, Lock Up International has held twenty-five short, weeklong shows in London, Frankfurt, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Istanbul, Tokyo, and Sydney; exhibited artists include Yuri Pattison, Isabel Yellin, and notorious British prisoner Charles Bronson. Wright emphasizes the experience of the viewing, which begins with booking an appointment, then making your way to the storage facility. There, Wright greets visitors and leads them through a maze of units before revealing the show.

Artists who take part in the project don’t have to work within the usual limitations of space or location: the appropriate storage unit can be found anywhere. Wright believes that this format lets artists experiment in ways that the fixity of a gallery doesn’t. “I had always seen storage units as an opportunity, through their availability and anonymity,” he wrote in a 2017 email.6 He considers them a new version of the white cube: “Storage spaces are universally accessible and conform to similar aesthetics. They’re an almost dead zone, that allows for a certain privacy among inactive objects.”

While storage facilities tend to be found on the cheap peripheries of a city, Lock Up International’s locations have ranged from city centers to their industrial outskirts. Being in permanent transit, Wright doesn’t worry about gentrification as a more permanently situated gallerist might; instead he embraces storage spaces’ temporary, interstitial nature: “Storage units act as an annex of a dwelling, but never an extension of comfort.”7

In November 2018, a number of shows opened at 55 Walker Street, the recently vacated New York address of Artists Space. I was particularly taken with a piece by Peter Wilson, location photos 1984-2006 (2015–), in an exhibition organized by the curatorial collective Manila Institute. The artist purchased a storage locker that had once been owned by a movie location scout. But there was a satisfyingly “Storage Wars”-esque intermediary: Wilson acquired the locker from a Los Angeles memorabilia dealer who had in turn bid on the lot at auction, hoping that it contained celebrity photos (it didn’t). Rather, it overflowed with files featuring potential spots to film. Although Wilson has shown individual folders and small clusters of them in the past, the whole archive of fifty thousand images in two hundred boxes was on view at 55 Walker.

The folders were stacked upright in uniform green and white boxes, to be browsed like vinyl at a record store. As someone who encounters file folders only on screens, I was shocked to realize where the metaphor of “tabs” comes from. Like in Jamison’s show, notes were affixed to each box, describing their contents—in this case, they were Post-Its bearing a number and some keywords: “Roads, rural, country,” “office exteriors,” “residential, artists lofts” “forests, coastal, bridges.” There was something wonderfully poignant about this static, stored list of aspirational movement, of all the places you could go but probably won’t.

Yet I find myself still thinking about Dubai, which is arguably the world’s preeminent tax-free site of permanent transit. It boasts thirty of the UAE’s forty-five free trade zones. These freezones include the Dubai Biotech Research Park, the Dubai Design District, the Dubai Outsource Zone, and the Dubai Silicon Oasis.

Global capitals like New York and London are increasingly moving in the same direction, as income disparity accelerates and neighborhoods fill up with empty apartments bought with oil money. These metropoles have more in common with Beijing or Sydney than they do with other cities in their own countries. Various phenomena have been labeled as the “Dubai effect,” from the dredging of islands to the construction of spectacular architecture to the eager technocratic embrace of new surveillance technologies. But perhaps the real Dubai effect is the condition of simultaneous mobility and stasis best summarized by American urbanist Keller Easterling: “Goods in freeports are technically in transit, even if in reality the ports are used more and more as permanent homes for accumulated wealth.”8 Storage art presents a glimpse of this reality.