The handshake is an ancient gesture, dating back thousands of years, that has evolved into a universally accepted greeting. Image coaches and business websites offer advice on the “art of the handshake,” helpfully listing the many criteria by which to evaluate a proper handshake: strength, vigor, duration, eye contact, and completeness of grip. The Perfect Shake is firm, energetic, brief, and includes eye contact with the recipient. It may be pumped once or twice. If done properly, it communicates sincerity and purpose.
The handshake is a recurring theme of the nine artists in GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), whose first New York show,Achievements in Retrospective, is now on view at MoMA PS1. It appears photographed in close-up against a beautiful Swiss backdrop, shot with the glowing, harmonious aesthetic of a stock photo. It appears again in an array of commemorative trophies arranged on a faux-marble display. It also appeared in the recent #DISown show, in the form of a bar of soap.
This collective of Persian Gulf artists offers a peek into the bureaucratic culture of the region, which is better known (to Western audiences) for its ravenous art buying than for its art making. GCC is interested in the language of diplomacy, in all the vague gestures and ceremonies, carefully executed, open to interpretation, whose goal is to imply as much as possible without actually saying anything. They refer to themselves as a “delegation”. Their press releases mimic long-winded ministerial language. In their work, handshakes are offered and accepted, gifts are exchanged, ribbons are cut. The emphasis is on ritual, the façade, the superficial.
The first room of the show is outfitted with shiny tiles, a wall of clocks, and a promotional video full of CGI spires and fireworks. The second room gives more hints as to their intentions. The trophies take on various forms (besides the handshake): the helm of a ship, or an oyster containing a diamond-shaped pearl, both referring to a not-so-distant past when pearl diving was the main industry in the gulf, prior to the discovery of oil. A tiny, hexagonal conference table, shrunk to doll-size, is awkwardly displayed at knee height. The big reveal is an installation behind frosted glass at one end of the room, providing a (literal) window into contemporary Gulf culture. We see a trompe l’œil office environment, complete with obsolete computers, crumpled newspapers, and an old coffee pot on a hot plate.
The show overall operates on a feedback loop: GCC is a collective whose main goal is to commemorate itself, creating a retrospective of work that hasn’t even been completed, trying to exhaust language that has already been exhausted. Fighting emptiness with more emptiness is a questionable strategy, but on closer inspection GCC is slyly toying with identity. Male members of the group appear in female dress, on a Swiss balcony, hovering over their tablets. They re-imagine the lifestyle of the global elite as a form of capitalist drag. They intentionally set their origin story in the VIP lounge at Art Dubai, and once used a Rolls Royce as the setting for a sound installation in a London show.
On the one hand, this is a much-needed look into contemporary Gulf society, which seems to function as an incubator for global capitalist ambitions, with its instant sim cities popping out of the desert, sites of accelerated history and daring urban experimentation, sucking up the world’s best museums, universities, and hospitals. On the other hand, Achievements in Retrospective is too polite to be satire.
Consider the hilarious potential of Dubai, with its record-breaking skyscrapers, multi-million dollar vanity plate auctions, seven star hotels, man-made islands in the shape of the world (sinking of course), and canoodling Australian tourists who suddenly find themselves behind bars. Or Qatar’s “vagina stadium”. Or imagine a Persian Gulf version of “The Office”, set in a tourism bureau––how do you attract visitors to a country where everything considered fun by the Decadent West (sex, drugs, alcohol, topless sunbathing) is severely punishable? It’s the fascinating perversity of a region that combines some of the worst excesses of capitalism with arch-conservative values.
However GCC is not looking to be sensational or political. Their focus is on the “undocumented” culture of the region, the banality, the many small gestures that accumulate over time. Their mission is diplomatic. Like a good handshake, Achievements in Retrospective is welcoming, full of promise, and non committal.