The Blob is back – though this time it’s coated in gold.
Culture police: I’d like to report a mass-robbery. And the primary culprit is Dubai. That pre-pubescent quasi-desert/quasi-theme-park/quasi-mall-of-America/quasi-mosque is unashamedly pilfering anything authentically “Eurocentric” it can lay its gold-leafed fingertips on, leaving us with what can only be described as the world’s messiest cultural junkyard. Maybe this would be OK if nobody had to actually inhabit the godforsaken place, but for those unfortunate few with family or a past/present/future there – this is the part where I am forced to take my dazzling rings off and unwillingly raise my hand – this cracked-up city of malls, simulated ski-resorts, skyscrapers and a sea of hijabs is leading to acute cases of cultural schizophrenia. Let me show you what I mean.
Ever been to that kitsch and comically over-priced frozen yoghurt joint ‘Snog’ in London? With a bright lighting scheme rivaling the intensity of the sun, this fluorescent pink haven of green tea ‘fro-yo’ is sort of like a mix between Hello-Kitty and a tub of neon rave paint. Playing frivolous house-music till around 1am, it’s also notably become a bit of queer hang out zone during Soho’s buzzing weekends. Hence all the flirtatious slogans – ‘Naughty Snogs available all night,’ or ‘The hottest place to Snog is London.’ Poetry, I know.
The brand has also become a huge moneymaker. Therefore it’s no surprise that the green-eyed appetite of the cultural embryo that is Dubai has greedily latched itself onto the yoghurt-producing tit of Snog so that citizens of its rather perplexed womb can become somehow impressed with something ‘authentically’ Western. Wide-eyed from the bright colours and something ‘really from London,’ locals flood into Snog and chuck their tax-free cash into tubs of the stuff. Somewhat incredulously, and sat at the centre of Dubai’s busiest shopping mall, the shop window is adorned with a MASSIVE poster – almost directly replicating the London image – emblazoned with this: ‘THE HOTTEST PLACE TO SNOG IS DUBAI.’
What’s quite amazing is that it’s in fact illegal to ever ‘snog’ anyone in public in Dubai. Ever. A Brit was jailed for it just a few years back. Almost comically, the fact that the ‘Snog’ aesthetic is self-consciously ‘queer’ – it uses the LGBT rainbow flag spectrum to jazz up the ceiling – has been irrevocably lost in translation through this cross-continental flight. Just in case you didn’t know, homosexuality is punishable by death in the United Arab Emirates. So the image of Muslim women ‘snogging’ away, covered completely in their burkas in a space that for Soho is a gay pick-up joint leads to what I can only describe as a schizophrenic cultural rupture. When licking merrily away at my Snog at The Dubai Mall, I felt almost as if I was back in London for a second or two, until I was jolted back into (hyper)-reality by the daily call to prayer from a nearby mosque.
I hate to refer back to our now old friend Jean Baudrillard – I know I bring him up constantly, and I swear I’m not in love with the guy – but his diagnoses of ‘simulation’ as a key facet of postmodern culture is particularly apt for describing this form of appropriative mistranslation. Indeed, the term ‘simulation’ refers directly to the phenomena by when an image is copied or appropriated with no respect for its original meaning/critical gesture. With Dubai having been re-built completely from scratch over the past two decades, it has unashamedly simulated anything ‘Western’ with a total disregard to cultural etymology. Hence among its minarets on the skyline, the Dubai landscape is peppered with a pseudo-European metro service, a sort of Vegas like pyramid hotel, and in just a few years time, it’ll have its very own Louvre and Guggenheim just next door in Abu Dhabi. In a way, the city provides a sort of schematic ‘Western’ stage-set for its now mixed communities of religious muslims and European/American business folk. The problem is that acting liberal in a ‘Western’ sense can cause dramatic problems, at times invoking illegality, and hence cultural fissures between the ex-pat
community and religious locals are birthed. In a way I sort of like to think of Dubai as a 4-year old girl playing with a clitoral stimulator without having any idea what it actually is. To the external onlooker, it’s a bit of a problem.
If Dubai were to be a movie character, it would be The Blob – that infamous retro film monster from outer space that kept moving, eating anything its path, growing exponentially, eating more, wasting more, growing more, eating more, wasting more… To conceptualise this image of Dubai as a greedy, thoughtless, infinitely expanding alien organism, I turn to Rem Koolhaas’ somewhat petrifying though illuminating 2001 essay, ‘Junkspace,’ which, though appearing to have been written in an almost paranoiac LSD-induced state, for me perfectly characterizes ‘The Global City,’ of which Dubai is the quintessence.
Whereas the 20th century modernist city was ideologically constructed on a utopian premise, impelled by a rational imperative, notions of universality, full of hope, meaning and progress, junkspace is modernism’s ultimate meltdown – the literal waste of cultural advancement shoved into one place. For Koolhas, ‘junkspace is the sum total of human achievement’ – i.e. like every balanced energy-flow diagram, our compulsive will to create, to be original, to produce meaning, to leave our trace on the landmark of time, exists in equilibrium only through it’s excrement. In a sense, then, Dubai is Western culture’s glorified toilet. And its internal parasites are harvesting exponentially.
Koolhas points to air-conditioning as a stimulant of this expanding quality to junkspace. Whereas architectural structures gain their autonomy and a portion of their meaning through their physical separation by air, air-conditioning allows buildings to co-exist as one meaningless entity, giving rise to the infinite structure– Dubai’s fetish for air-conditioning is no doubt directly linked to its proliferation of the largest shopping malls on the planet. While carbon dioxide and oxygen stimulate plants to thrive in nature, air-conditioning is junkspace’s reproductive enzyme – buildings expand like excited penises, and the cultural debris of the West is used like Lego. Meaning is lost for literal space – Café Nero’s sit next to prayer mat shops, McDonalds adjacent to a Halal Meat Grocer.
And if you’ve ever been to a Dubai shopping mall, its labyrinthine quality is overwhelming. It can take forever to find an exit. And when you eventually do, you’ve probably just found the entrance to another mall. For Dubai, the mall is a microcosm of its macrocosm – the city is one endless shopping mall. For the misinformed tourist hoping to gain a tan and to escape the claustrophobia of the Western capitalist city – you’ve come to the wrong place. It’s colder and more claustrophobic here. You’re thrust from one space of air-conditioning to the next; you’re more like a skydiver in a simulated wind tunnel than one actually jumping out of a plane.
When interviewing a few family friends on why they loved Dubai so much, the main answer I got was akin to this: ‘but, Amrou, it’s got everything Europe and America has, and it’s all in one place. We have everything you could ever need as a person!’ Shit. What about authenticity? Real experience?
The sublime in nature, the sublime in meaning, the sublime in morals, religion, beliefs – all are sacrificed for one thing: what Koolhas labels as ‘the corporate sublime.’ Nietzsche diagnosed the cultural void left by the dissolution of Western morality quite some time ago, but would he have ever predicted this as the thing to fill that gap? Dubai is a city that is fueled by, and even celebrates the corporate; the corporate becomes its entertainment, its main tourist attraction. “Wow, look how expensive that fountain must be!” exclaims the onlooker in bemused rapture.
The other day, my Dad took me for dinner to one of Dubai’s most popular restaurants. Come dessert time, the painfully choreographed waiter questioned ‘would you like gold with your sorbet?’ Confused, I said yes, thinking it’d be some sort of Arabic chocolate. How wrong I was – my vanilla sorbet arrived, literally coated in edible gold leaf. The corporate as entertainment. The corporate as food. Where does the waste go? Back into junkspace.