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Will the new Ad-Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale tackle the fundamental issues of this time?

As Saudi Arabia announces its first art Biennale as a part of its cultural growth plan, we need to keep in mind that the post-pandemic art world needs to operate in new, sustainable modalities
Ad-Diriyah Biennale in Saudi Arabia
Ad-Diriyah Biennale in Saudi Arabia

As the pandemic starts to wane down in some parts of the world, art audiences are getting ready to pack their bags and get ready for the new seasons of art events, involving art fairs, biennales, exhibitions, auctions, hopping on planes. In the art world, there has been a lot of discussion about how the pandemic has changed the system, or how the system needs to change according to the lesson the pandemic taught us. But the truth is that most initiatives—at least, in the parts of the world which are able to get back on track—are resuming as if nothing had happened.

A much awaited event from a country which is looking at economic and cultural growth is the first edition of the Ad-Diriyah Biennale in Saudi Arabia, which has recently announced some of the participating artists. With the title, "Feeling the Stones", the Biennale will take place at JAX district in Diriyah from 7 December 2021 to 7 March, 2022. It is the first Saudi Biennale initiated by the government (there had been another recent Biennale in March last year called "Desert X AlUla", but it was a travelling one, originating in California). The name of the Biennale comes from the saying "cross the river by feeling the stones", and it alludes to a way to go through change carefully, with sensitivity, seeking stability by feeling the stones under one's feet.

The event was created by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Diriyah Biennale Foundation in line with the Saudi Arabian government Vision 2030 plan, which aims to diversify the economy, foster tourism and convey a more open image of the country. Art-wise, the Ministry of Culture has also planned another new art initiative, the Diriyah Islamic Arts Biennale for 2022, having the two new biennials run in alternate years.

The curator of the upcoming Biennale, Philip Tinari, is an American writer, critic, art curator and expert in Chinese contemporary art, who has been based in Beijing since 2001. Being chief executive of UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Tinari is no stranger to the non-western trajectories of the art world.

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Pre-pandemic, Tinari visited Riyadh and Jeddah three times to meet with artists and arts professionals, including Zahrah Alghamdi, Muhannad Shono, Ayman Zedani, Lulwah Al-Homoud and Dana Awartani, who will present works at the Biennale alongside international artists such as Simon Denny, Lawrence Lek and Monira Al-Qadiri. The other curators involved in the Biennale are Wejdan Reda, founder of Sahaba Art Consultancy in Jeddah, Shixuan Luan, curator at UCCA and Neil Zhang, assistant curator.

Tinari says the art scene in Saudi Arabia is at a crucial juncture, and he sees art has an important role to play in reflecting on key issues of the moment. He has hopes that this event will expose new generations of viewers to global contemporary art, not just as a mode of visual expression but as a space for critical thinking—especially in a country that has not yet developed fully-fledged art system. Beyond the official statements, knowing the Biennale is taking place in a very conservative country, we are left with many questions: Will there be room for real critical thinking from the artists invited to the Biennale, both local and non-local? Will we witness episodes of censorship and outrage, like those which happened in Sharjah in the past? Asked if he has concerns about the issue of censorship, Tinari is cautious: "The opportunity is to do as much as can be done at this time and in this place." Again, feeling the stones.

Witnessing the newly found government-led support for the arts, the most enthusiastic commentators hailed the creative momentum and witnessed how even a global pandemic has not been able to slow down Saudi's plans for growth. But is this a good thing? In Saudi Arabia, just like in other countries that are developing their art infrastructure post-pandemic, this is a unique opportunity to get structured in different modalities right from the get-go, especially if the approach to the art industries is a top-down approach, like the one we are observing here.

It is worth noting that, since their inception, art biennales were designed to catch the spirit of the times. If we look at the marks of the zeitgeist, we can mention three that stand out. The first is, of course, the global pandemic— and those epidemics that are doomed to follow if we do not change our ways. The second is strictly related, and it is the environmental emergency, including global warming. Finally, the many effects of technology and its entangling with bureaucracy and economics. In the past few years, we have seen all the big art events coming forth, from the Venice Biennale to the Taipei Biennale, having their curatorial concept based on these three different themes, with variations.

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Thematically, the Diriyah Biennale, too, will touch on these themes. The exhibition will unfold in six sections, examining themes that include memory and preservation; cultural transmission; social engagement; the Anthropocene, namely the time during which humans have had a substantial impact on our planet and the spiritual. However, the premise seems to be more of economical growth, rather than sustainability. Aya Albakree, CEO of Ad-Diriyah Biennale Foundation, said that Saudi Arabia's first art Biennale is an important milestone and builds on the unprecedented cultural transformation underway in the Kingdom, part of a wider plan to transform Ad-Diriyah into a global arts destination.

What we often forget is that a few of the Biennales that present the problems of the environment and mindless globalisation are unsustainable, in themselves. Having Biennales talking of sustainability while having visitors, art professionals and artworks shipped and flying across the globe to art events is like talking about a littering problem while throwing our chip bag out of the car window.

A new Biennale which is quite exemplary in this regard is the first edition of the Helsinki Biennial, which took place this year. Called "The Same Sea", it explored concerns around our interconnectedness, nature and sustainability. Most importantly, the Biennale calculated and trimmed its climate footprint every step of the way, intending to become the first carbon neutral Biennale by 2035. It seems that the art events that will really make a mark and stay for the long run will be those that will tackle these ideas, not just as themes for artists to muse on, but as real commitments to have the art environment being harmonious, rather than at odds, with nature. The hope is that Al-Diriyah Biennale will be one of those.

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