Ute Meta Bauer on curating the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024: ‘Saudi Arabia is going through a seismic transformation’

As the second edition of the biennale comes to the revitalised JAX district near Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, we talk to its artistic director about the works on show, their sources of inspiration, and the significance of the event for the wider region

Ute Meta Bauer, artistic director of the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024

Ute Meta Bauer, artistic director of the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024. Photo: Christine Fenzl / VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2024

Running until 24 May 2024, the second edition of Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale is taking place just outside Riyadh, in the JAX district, a former industrial zone that has been redeveloped as a creative hub. Under the title After Rain, the biennale aims to promote discussion on the region’s cultural past, present and future, as well as showcasing its contemporary art scene.

The artistic director of the project is German curator Ute Meta Bauer. With a reputation for staging ambitious, multidisciplinary shows, she has served as founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore and held posts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, London’s Royal College of Art and the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. She has also curated two Venice pavilions, for the USA in 2015 and Singapore in 2022.

Formerly an industrial area, the JAX district of Diriyah is now a hub for Saudi Arabia's creative industry

Formerly an industrial area, the JAX district of Diriyah is now a hub for Saudi Arabia’s creative industry. Photo: Courtesy of JAX

Here, Bauer speaks to Christie’s about the inspiration behind the biennale, as well as what she hopes it might achieve in the long term.

What does After Rain refer to?

Ute Meta Bauer: It’s a sense of revitalisation and renewal, recalling the fresh scent of the air after rain has fallen. It also acknowledges the vitality of water for all living beings, and its resonance for a city like Riyadh, which is situated in a desert climate.

After Rain presents 177 works in total, by 100 artists from 43 different countries, bringing together drawings, paintings, sculpture, installations, photography and time-based works such as performance and film. Throughout the biennale’s six halls and outdoor installations in the JAX district of Diriyah, certain artists focus on the cultural histories of natural resources, at times looking at multi-sensorial aspects of materiality, like taste and smell. Other artists explore urban conditions, like issues around access to food, water and shelter.

Saudi Arabia is going through a seismic transformation of a scale and scope we still need to understand. After Rain takes place in the midst of this reformation, as a witness and actor at the same time. That makes it a really unique venture.

Can you talk about the cultural history of Diriyah, and why it’s an important heritage site?

UMB: The JAX district is a growing creative and cultural hub, filled with art studios, galleries and other cultural institutions, including the Saudi Arabia Museum of Contemporary Art (SAMoCA). It’s near At-Turaif, a UNESCO site which was home to the Saudi royal dynasty and the country’s first capital city between 1727 and 1818. It’s also adjacent to Wadi Hanifah, a seasonal riverbed directly linked to centuries of Saudi history and to the natural landscape of the Najd region.

Installation view of Taus Makhacheva, Charivari, 2019, in After Rain, Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024

Installation view of Taus Makhacheva, Charivari, 2019, in After Rain, Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation

This rich topography provides fertile ground for research and a deeper understanding of Saudi Arabia’s culture and history. Echoing this, our curatorial framework also expands into different layers of time, engaging with artistic practices that draw from historical, archaeological, architectural, environmental and ecological concerns.

Tell us about some of the biennale’s new commissions.

UMB: We have 47 commissions and reproductions of artists’ works in total. One of them is from Jeddah-based Sara Abdu, whose new work is composed of three towers made with handcrafted soaps. Embedded with parts of sidr and camphor trees, the sculptures reference the cleansing rituals that prepare corpses for burial, and grapple with that which is no longer present.

Installation view of Sara Abdu, Now That I've Lost You In My Dreams Where Do We Meet?, 2021/2024, in After Rain, Diriyah

Installation view of Sara Abdu, Now That I’ve Lost You In My Dreams Where Do We Meet?, 2021/2024, in After Rain, Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation

We also commissioned a work from the Norwegian artist Sissel Tolaas, who has been researching and documenting scents since 1990. She has created a special scent derived from petrichor, the smell of fresh rain, which is produced when the natural oils of plants and soil mix with moisture. It’s said to boost levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in humans. This scent is dispensed in mobile diffusers at the entrance to each hall.

Mariah Lookman, A Mirage: rivers meet the sea, 2024, at Shamalat, Diriyah

Mariah Lookman, A Mirage: rivers meet the sea; fresh and salt waters may intermingle; an ocean remains distinct, and Poets have forgotten words for love, 2024, at Shamalat, Diriyah. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation

The Pakistani artist Mariah Lookman created a work that weaves together the historical spice trade with traditional healing practices that span South and Southeast Asia and the Arabian Peninsula.

At our off-site location, Shamalat — which was developed by the leading Saudi artist Maha Malluh — Lookman’s installation is a water channel shaped like a meandering river that cuts through Riyadh’s signature limestone. It symbolises the ancient paths travelled by pilgrims, sailors and caravans, and is accompanied by narrated stories captured along the spice routes. The work, located near the seasonal river Wadi Hanifah, is permanent and will remain after the biennale ends.

What about the documentary the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater is making on Saudi Futurism?

UMB: Saudi Futurism — another commission — is a collaboration between Ahmed Mater and the Italian photographer Armin Linke. Presented as an installation, it’s a project that documents the country’s changing infrastructure and future visions, beginning with the introduction of cement to Saudi Arabia in the 1940s, up to developments proposed for 70 years into the future.

Installation view, Armin Linke and Ahmed Mater, Saudi Futurism, 2024, in After Rain, Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale

Installation view of Armin Linke and Ahmed Mater, Saudi Futurism, 2024, in After Rain, Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation

Mater and Linke also examined some of Saudi’s landmarks, including the Saudi Space Agency and parts of the new megacity Neom, which is currently being built. This project is a long-term investigation into the visions of cities that are being realised across the region.

After Rain also features work by participants from other disciplines, including writers, poets and scientists. Why?

UMB: Artistic practices do not exist in solitude and are always informed by — and in discussion with — other practices, histories and forms of knowledge production.

This biennale’s focus has been shaped through several research trips across Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries. These journeys led to ongoing exchanges and fostered collaborations between practitioners from diverse disciplines, like artists, architects, craftspeople, farmers and biologists. These seemingly unconventional gatherings inspired many of the new projects, and catalysed so many new perspectives and ways of thinking.

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What is also unique to this biennale is the curious and engaged audience. To see people of all walks of life and ages here is completely energising. In these challenging times, this sense of hope and of looking to the future matters.

The Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024, in partnership with Christie’s, is taking place in the JAX district, near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, until 24 May

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