Inaugural Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale Showcases the Flowering of Saudi Art in a Global Context

Maha Malluh, World Map, “Food for Thought” series, 2021, 48 trays of 80 cassette tapes each, totaling 3840 cassette tapes, 848 × 330 × 60 cm. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Ahmed Mater, Desert Meeting (installation view), 2021, video installation, motion photographs on five cathode-ray tube televisions, 130 × 60 × 43 cm. Image courtesy of the artist, Lakum Gallery, and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Bricklab and Mammafotogramma, Through the Looking Glass (installation view), 2021, murano glass and steel, dimensions variable. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Xu Bing, Background Story: Streams and Mountains Without End (installation view), 2014, natural debris attached to a frosted glass panel, 270 × 122 × 60 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Zahrah Al Ghamdi, Birth of a Place (installation view), 2021, light fabric and mud, 120 × 50 × 20 cm. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Sarah Abu Abdallah and Ghada Al Hassan, Horizontal Dimensions (installation view), 2021,  acrylic, ink, pencil, and papier-mâché on canvas, 250 × 170 m. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Abdullah AlOthman, Manifesto: The Language & City (installation view), 2021, neon, LED, found wooden signage, 800 × 500 cm. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
John Gerrard, Leaf Work (Derrigimlagh) (installation view), 2021, simulation, LED wall, polished-mirror pavilion, 400 × 400 cm. Image courtesy of the artist, PACE Gallery, and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Simon Denny, Real Mass Entrepreneurship (installation view), 2017, installation, locally sourced commercial display elements, airbrush and acrylic on synthetic plaster and wood, plexiglas, fluorescent lamps, 4K video. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Lawrence Lek, Nøtel (Red Sea Edition) (installation view), 2021, open-world video game, gaming PCs, controllers, monitors, video loops, sound by Kode9, 640 × 640 × 200 cm. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation; original edition commissioned by arebyte Gallery, London, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist; Sadie Coles HQ, London; and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Sarah Brahim, Soft Machines Far Away Engines (installation view), 2021, projection-mapped video performance, dimensions variable. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Lulwah Al-Homoud, The Alphabet (installation view), 2021, programmable LED black strips on each sheet, steel frame, mirrored background 332 × 253 × 320 cm. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Larry Bell, Iceberg, 2020, French blue, capri blue, periwinkle, and turquoise laminated glass, 244 × 432 × 497 cm. Image courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

The creativity of Saudi artists has been unshackled by the recent cultural liberalisation in the Kingdom, and the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale gives it context within a wide variety of works by global artists

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of various and Diriyah Biennale Foundation

 

The title of the first Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, “Feeling the Stones”, references a local 1980s slogan about crossing a river as a metaphor for the desperately needed change in Saudi Arabia’s highly conservative society governed at the time by strict religious edicts. Since 2018, change has come, allowing an unprecedented liberalisation of culture. In 2020, Ad Diriyah, a historic town on the edge of the country’s largest metropolis Riyadh, was officially chosen to host an art biennale, and the Diriyah Biennale Foundation was established to run it with an agenda which its CEO Aya Al-Bakree says aims to generate “international dialogue and provide opportunities for discovery and connection to Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning cultural scene”.

The Biennale’s global dimension was underlined with the appointment of a heavyweight name as curator—Philip Tinari, director and chief executive of Beijing’s renowned UCCA Center for Contemporary Art. Of the 63 artists exhibiting, 27 are Saudi and 12 are Chinese, mainly Beijing-based. The works range vastly across media, from installations and paintings, to digital mediums and live performance. The location of the Biennale is the JAX District, a light industrial neighbourhood where humdrum warehouses have been refurbished and vibrant murals painted to indicate its re-invention as a creative district. The Biennale covers six connected buildings.

 

Ahmed Mater, Desert Meeting (installation view), 2021, video installation, motion photographs on five cathode-ray tube televisions, 130 × 60 × 43 cm. Image courtesy of the artist, Lakum Gallery, and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Bricklab and Mammafotogramma, Through the Looking Glass (installation view), 2021, murano glass and steel, dimensions variable. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

 

The first of the Biennale’s six sections is named “Crossing the River”, the subject of the metaphor in the Biennale’s name. Not surprisingly, it features works by several pioneers active before the recent liberalisation, such as Riyadh-based doctor and artist Ahmed Mater. Mater has explored the Saudi experience through a multidisciplinary practice for 20 years, and here, his Desert Meeting (2021) displays videos of Saudi history on banks of retro television monitors. Tinari saw a parallel between these artists and Chinese artists emerging after Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 reforms, and the Biennale includes works from provocateur artist Huang Rui and conceptual artist Wang Luyan, both avant-garde veterans from that time. Also included are seminal Europeans who expanded the boundaries of art. British land artist Richard Long reproduces his work Red Earth Circle, a simple, rough ring of mud 4.5m across applied by hand to a wall, which was first exhibited in Paris in 1989. This time, Long used Saudi red clay. The Biennale’s oldest works are priceless images from 1969–71, in which radical Italian collective Superstudio challenge architecture and consumerism. There are more contemporary names in this section too, such as Saudi architects Bricklab, responsible for much of the JAX District renewal, who created Through the Looking Glass (2021) in collaboration with Milan-based designers Mamafotogramma, in which dazzling curving shapes of Murano glass are suspended in a steel frame.

 

Xu Bing, Background Story: Streams and Mountains Without End (installation view), 2014, natural debris attached to a frosted glass panel, 270 × 122 × 60 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Zahrah Al Ghamdi, Birth of a Place (installation view), 2021, light fabric and mud, 120 × 50 × 20 cm. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

 

The next section, “Experimental Preservation” questions ideas around the conservation of heritage. It includes Xu Bing’s work Background Story: Streams and Mountains Without End (2014), which is like one of those old museum vitrines with an illustrative backdrop. In this case the backdrop is a classical Chinese landscape, but made of trash. A work by Saudi land artist Zahrah Alghamdi, who once filled the British Museum’s Great Court with a village of sand, is called Birth of a Place (2021), in which she has shaped a stunning cluster of sharp peaked forms like unnaturally steep mountains, all made of Bedouin tent canvas.

 

Sarah Abu Abdallah and Ghada Al Hassan, Horizontal Dimensions (installation view), 2021,  acrylic, ink, pencil, and papier-mâché on canvas, 250 × 170 m. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

 

The “Peripheral Thinking” section challenges the preconception that artists innovate in the metropolitan centres where the art world’s collections and discourse are traditionally based. Again, artists working in wildly different media are presented, from the photography of Shanghai duo Birdhead to a new, untitled set for participatory performance by the audience by Singapore-based Zou Zhao. The Saudi multidisciplinary artist Sarah Abu Abdallah, whose often startling works may be triggered by chance observations or stories, has collaborated with Gharda Al Hassan to produce a long, hanging abstract work on cloth, Horizontal Dimensions (2021). It is strangely calming and its gentle undulations draw the viewer into it.

 

Abdullah AlOthman, Manifesto: The Language & City (installation view), 2021, neon, LED, found wooden signage, 800 × 500 cm. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

 

How artists interpret, inform and inspire society underlines the section “Going Public”.  It includes Abdullah Al Othman’s Manifesto, The Language & City (2021), a sculptural montage of logos and notices that looks like an Arabic update on 20th century neons from somewhere like Las Vegas. The Biennale’s opening week saw the performance of Marwa AlMugait’s This Sea is Mine by ten local dancers, and they will return in the closing week. But as elsewhere, the spread of artists in this section goes far beyond Saudi Arabia.

 

John Gerrard, Leaf Work (Derrigimlagh) (installation view), 2021, simulation, LED wall, polished-mirror pavilion, 400 × 400 cm. Image courtesy of the artist, PACE Gallery, and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Simon Denny, Real Mass Entrepreneurship (installation view), 2017, installation, locally sourced commercial display elements, airbrush and acrylic on synthetic plaster and wood, plexiglas, fluorescent lamps, 4K video. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Lawrence Lek, Nøtel (Red Sea Edition) (installation view), 2021, open-world video game, gaming PCs, controllers, monitors, video loops, sound by Kode9, 640 × 640 × 200 cm. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation; original edition commissioned by arebyte Gallery, London, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist; Sadie Coles HQ, London; and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Sarah Brahim, Soft Machines Far Away Engines (installation view), 2021, projection-mapped video performance, dimensions variable. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

 

“Brave New Worlds” may be the most stunning section of all. It addresses the new realities that have come with the Anthropocene, the current era where humanity’s activity has left an indelible mark on the Earth. Stand out works include Leaf Work (Derrigimlagh) 2021 by Irish artist John Gerrard, known for installations incorporating hyper-real digital imagery. The work is a cube on which LEDs create a crystal-clear window onto a landscape where a performer, enveloped in leaves like the Green Man of ancient legends, expresses nature’s sorrow in the face of Anthropocenic change. Berlin-based New Zealander Simon Denny, whose work scrutinises commerce and trade, offers Real Mass Entrepreneurship (2017), an installation using film and product-based sculptures to represent Chinese manufacturing, while model animals hold vigil. London-based Chinese artist Lawrence Lek, whose luminous installations create a “Sino-centric” Matrix-like reality, presents Nøtel (Red Sea Edition) (2021/2018). Intentionally or not, the hotel room he creates suggests a contemporary echo of Kubrik’s time-transcending room in the penultimate scene of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In complete contrast, Riyadh-based choreographer and dancer Sarah Brahim’s Soft Machines/Far Away Engines (2021) presents utterly seducing, intimate images of choreographed interactions between silhouetted people.

 

Lulwah Al-Homoud, The Alphabet (installation view), 2021, programmable LED black strips on each sheet, steel frame, mirrored background 332 × 253 × 320 cm. Commissioned by Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Larry Bell, Iceberg, 2020, French blue, capri blue, periwinkle, and turquoise laminated glass, 244 × 432 × 497 cm. Image courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

 

The final section, “Concerning the Spiritual”, should resonate with Saudi Arabia given its sacred places and its position as the heart of Islam. Works include Lulwah Al-Homoud’s installation The Alphabet (2021), which takes Islamic geometries to create ethereal works of light, while Los Angeles-based Larry Bell crafts his trademark coloured glass sheets into the shape of the title’s work, Iceberg (2020).

The flowering of Saudi art is already known beyond its borders, but what curator Tinari has done is made the contextual connection with the global art scene. He does this in two ways. First, he highlights the parallel with the earlier liberation of Chinese art. Secondly, he demonstrates that contemporary Saudi art is not isolated from the world, but is already part of the global art scene which he samples in the sharp choices of participating artists. As for the Saudi artists, it’s inspiring to see so many women amongst the very strongest. Diriyah’s first biennale is world-class in quality as well as content.

 

Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale: Feeling the Stones
11 December 2021 – 11 March 2022
JAX District, Diriyah, Saudi Arabia

 

 

 

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