The Dystopia of the Now

by Lesley Gray

– Contemporary Art in Qatar

In the rapidly developing cities in the Arabian Gulf, time is in flux. The breakneck speed in which the cities are being constructed, the rapid development of new cultural institutions in a region that until very recently has no art scene to speak of, and the almost complete destruction of the pre-oil landscape had created an environment where time carries great symbolic value: old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, good vs. bad. However, as modernity and contemporaneity have not followed a linear path in the region, with the Bedouin lifestyle within living memory, there exists an environment where disparate temporalities are experienced simultaneously by everyone all the time, creating a problematic present. Within this context, the supermodernity of the Arabian Gulf has provided the canvas for the materialization of the dystopic fears of Western science fiction: a landscape of machines and metal where human beings are increasingly detached from the natural environment, increasingly isolated and autonomous. The present becomes unlivable, fetishizing the alternatives of the idealized nostalgia of the past or the anticipation of the utopian future of the completed built environments of the cities, restoring order to the chaos of the present. Contemporary artists working within this context are just beginning to explore their own relationship to the temporality of the Now. Using science fiction literature and Gulf Futurism as theoretical lens, this paper explores the supermodernity of the Arabian Gulf through two recent exhibitions by Qatari and non-Qatari expatriate contemporary artists in Doha, Qatar: Liquid Portraits at the Katara Art Center and Here|There at the Al Riwaq Exhibition Space, both which hint at the deep insecurity of the lived experience of incongruous temporality. In an environment that resembles a construction site rising from the ruins of a cultural apocalypse, how do we make sense of the present?


Lesley Gray is an American museum studies researcher based in Doha, Qatar. In addition to her undergraduate and graduate work in anthropology and art history, she holds an MA in Museum and Gallery Practice from University College London Qatar and previously worked in higher education in Qatar. She has been enrolled with University College London for a PhD in Museum Studies since 2015. Her research interests focus on the development of contemporary art scenes in the Arabian Gulf and Caspian Sea regions considered within the context of current art and social science theory and the growth of non-Western art centers. She is currently carrying out research on the impact of contemporary art and cultural development as an agent of cultural dialogue in both regions.