The 60+ artists invited to be a part of this catalytic biennale came from different nationalities and generations, providing each visitor with fresh experiences and perspectives. The unifying thread running through the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, in each of the newly refurbished warehouses housing the exhibition and public programming was our theme, Feeling the Stones.
“Feeling the Stones“ was drawn from a saying that emerged during the 1980s as a metaphor for action at a time of social and economic transformation, ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’, which encapsulates considered progress – transformation through intelligent actions, echoing Diriyah Biennale Foundation’s core mission of empowering artistic spirit as a force for meaningful change.
Feeling the Stones was inspired by the cultural fever that swept through China in the 1980s, a decade that saw avant-garde art and social reform take center stage as newly translated ideas helped open society’s minds to new concepts and thoughts.
However, just like social reform, art is a process – incremental, tentative, and, ultimately, directed improvisation. Our theme, Feeling the Stones, was a metaphorical journey through the nuances of artistic production and ideas, unfolding over six sections:
Crossing the River
As its starting point, the Biennale looked to the resonance of historical experiences between a newly reforming China and the world that began in late 1978. That year, decades of oppressive state command was overcome by new economic and cultural movements, providing a fascinatingly modern springboard for artistic expression driven by open questions: Is there an aesthetics of reform? How might disparate experiences of historical transition speak to one another? Are there certain questions or characteristics common to moments of epochal change? Some of the works had directly addressed questions of economic transformation and social progress, while others highlighted artists who played a role in their societies’ own artistic emergence.
Can we better understand the past by considering it an unstable product of the present? Inspired by the work of architect Jorge Otero-Pailos, this section looked at a complicated dilemma common to rapidly developing contexts: How to embrace new technologies, practices, and ideas while retaining that which has characterized a culture or a context until now? Artists often come to function in such situations as unreliable narrators: they interrogate monuments, tell stories untold or untrue, and fabricate new realities. Over and against the notions of “heritage” and “tradition”—and in light of ongoing global struggles—how can art set up alternative sites of memory, deconstructing even as it commemorates, questioning even as it articulates?
The modern era has forced us to rethink time, space, and the relationship between different cultures as a means of universal connection without compromising on sovereignty. A fundamental paradox, however, remains, even as we look to understand gradients of influence and trace lineages of inspiration, we must remind ourselves that all artists retain autonomy and specificity. This section asked how we could think critically about multiple modernisms across nations, regions, and temporalities in light of more recent discussions of intersectionality and multipolarity. What kinds of new conversations might arise, and which old ones might resurface? Which of the paradigms of contemporary art are globally relevant or viable? How do we understand the relations between locales, eras, and styles in times of connectivity and instability?
Art possesses a unique power to convene communities and envision new forms of solidarity. Especially since the turn of the twenty-first century, artists around the world have turned to social practice, moving beyond earlier ideas of the autonomous work of art and towards art as a language and platform for collective thought and engagement in response to specific circumstances. Through their projects, they create everything from fleeting relations and constructed situations to durable organizations and activist institutions. This section looked across geographies and generations at how artists have worked to spark reflection, format experience, convey knowledge, transmit skills, and ultimately bring people together for a larger purpose.
Brave New Worlds
If the COVID-19 pandemic made anything clear, it is the fragility of the order that preceded it. As we emerged from a global event that has afflicted the global systems out of which it has grown, we began to imagine new realities. For years already, artists have been contemplating the Anthropocene and proposing other possibilities in the face of untenable consumption, acceleration, and warming. Faced with new restrictions on mobility and a heightened consciousness of human vulnerability, artists asked: What might a future look like that builds on the lessons of this transnational crisis?
Concerning the Spiritual
Artists today work beyond the horizons of a specific history or geography, often examining, channeling, and convening with the transcendent. Some work and innovate in established religious lineages, while others seek sustenance from unlikely sources. In a nation of sacred places, art’s special relationship to the deeper, lingering questions of human existence resurfaces in new and powerful ways. This final section looked at how artists, particularly at times of upheaval and transition, have attempted to make sense of their worlds and the beliefs that structure them.
Philip Tinari / curator
WEJDAN REDA / Assistant curator
SHIXUAN LUAN / assistant curator
NEIL ZHENG / assistant curator
The program drew inspiration from the biennale exhibition, and the art and culture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and beyond, facilitating educational explorations and the sharing of knowledge and best practices with access to leading voices in the field.
The camp experience offered stimulating activities for kids from age 7 to 16. The camp’s all-day activities focused on arts and crafts classes as well as design-thinking and problem-solving exercises to promote emotional, physical, and mental strength and intelligence through creative empowerment.
Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1981 and recipient of the 1983 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the prestigious Hajj Terminal is now home to the world’s first Islamic Arts Biennale. The Biennale is poised to further enrich the Hajj Terminal’s functional and spiritual relevance, transforming it into a hub for celebrating Islamic arts and culture, and fostering Jeddah’s local arts ecosystem throughout the year. This landmark artistic event sprawls over a purpose-built 70,000m2 venue, complete with a theatre, exhibition spaces, workshops, classrooms, as well as retail and dining spaces. Read More
DB ART 101
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JAX is a developing cultural center with ambitions to host year-round programming, educational opportunities, and connect visitors to interactive and engaging artforms.
The environment for the Biennale was conceived through collaboration, with Jeddah-based architecture firm Bricklab leading on the design of the Biennale spaces, and US-based firm wHY leading on the Biennale’s scenography.
One area of the JAX site was repurposed to create a custom-made art space to present immersive contemporary art exhibitions, offering an interactive experience for visitors to engage with.