10 must-see pieces at Noor Riyadh: the installations lighting up Saudi Arabia's capital city

Lights, camera, action! The festival of light is illuminating the kingdom's capital until April 3

The Noor Riyadh festival of light and art is running until April 3, held at sites across Saudi Arabia's capital city.

An exhibition of historical artworks that use light, from international explorations in the 1960s and 1970s to more recent works from the kingdom, is also on until June 12 at the King Abdullah Financial Centre.

Here are our picks of pieces not to miss, in no particular order.

1. 'Palace of Light' by Robert Wilson (2021)

Location: At-Turaif World Heritage Site

Robert Wilson PALACE OF LIGHT, 2021  Aluminium, copper disc, lights, video projection and music 10000 x 2500 cm Courtesy the artist Photo © Riyadh Art

It might be no surprise that Robert Wilson slots into this list: the veteran artist has become well known for his work across light, dance, music, art and theatre since the late 1960s.

The award-winning American theatre director and visual artist proved himself a match for At-Turaif, the historic palace where the Al Saud rulers first made their home in the 1700s. Now in partially restored ruins, the sand-coloured citadel rises up on a hill overlooking the Ad Diriyah wadi.

For Palace of Light, a video of crashing waves is projected onto the walls of the heritage spot, with music that rises and falls in sync with the foamy water. The British composer and sound designer Nick Sagar signs the original music track for the installation, featuring the voice of Sierra Casady.

The ground in front of the palace is covered in reflective foil, while a copper sun sits amid the installation, creating the illusion of a silvery, fantastical landscape.

2. 'Earthseed' by Ayman Zedani (2021)

Location: King Abdulaziz Historical Centre

Ayman Zedani, Earthseed, 2021, 3-channel video installation.
Courtesy the artist. Photo © Riyadh Art

One of a number of younger artists who are wrestling with the effects of environmental change on the Gulf, Ayman Zedani looks to naturally occurring forms to imagine a future in which humans have learned greater respect for animal and plant species – perhaps the hard way.

In a two-part video, shown within one of the heritage houses of the King Abdulaziz Historical Centre, the Saudi artist creates a lush, red-infused scenario, with a script done in collaboration with the poet Wided Khadraoui, which pictures a future of evolved migration.

3. 'The Cupola' by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2003)

Location: Murabba Square, King Abdulaziz Historical Centre

Ilya&Emilia Kabakov The Cupola, 2003 Mixed media 1400 cm diameter Courtesy the artists Photo © Riyadh Art

Noor Riyadh is based on traditional son et lumiere festivals, once a staple of European cities, where sound and light were used together to spectacular effect. With this in mind, the Russian couple Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who are known for their intricate architectural installations, created a cupola that plays glorious works of classical music, such as Handel's Sarabande.

The colours of the cupola slowly change, from purples and blues to reds and pinks, edged in dark black panels that give the effect of stained glass windows. The cupola is in the Murabba public square, with space in front for visitors to enjoy the full experience.

4. 'Diwans of the Unknown' by Dana Awartani (2021)

Location: Light Upon Light, King Abdullah Financial Centre

Dana Awartani, Diwans of the Unknown, 2021 (c) Riyadh Art

Arranged like a miniature screen, in Diwans of the Unknown the Palestinian-Saudi artist Dana Awartani projects lines of poetry from female poets of the pre-Islamic age to the 12th century.

The phrases are stitched into gauzy sheets of silk that are lit from the side, so that the words float like ghosts from another age.

The work is a continuation of Awartani’s 2018 large-scale sound installation, in which the whispers of these poems swirled around gravestone-like silk cloths, embroidered in complex geometry.

5. 'The Mind Ship Exodus' by Muhannad Shono (2021)

Location: JAX District

Muhannad Shono The Mind Ship Exodus, 2021 Steel mesh and shredded steel wire with video projection, sculpture and film 2700x1620 cm Courtesy the artist Photo © Riyadh Art

"You take one idea, and keep following it, keep moving it up," says Muhannad Shono of his new work. The Riyadh artist has proved himself to be a master of working at scale and his The Lost Path at Desert X Al Ula, a long, snake-like line of glistening black coils, was a standout of the festival last year.

For Noor Riyadh he responds to the gargantuan size of the warehouses that comprise the JAX district. Mind Ship Exodus is inspired by the moment when Moses saw the burning bush, which Shono conceives of as a psychedelic encounter. The installation is made up of around 37,000 kilograms of shredded steel wire, onto which red lights are projected, to visceral, almost alarming effect.

6. 'Searching for Darkness' by Rashed Al Shashai (2021)

Location: Light Upon Light, King Abdullah Financial Centre

Rashed AlShahai Searching for Darkness, 2021 Kinetic sculpture Variable dimensions  Courtesy the artist and Hafez Gallery Photo © Riyadh Art 2021

This elegant artwork charmed nearly every critic who visited it at the Light Upon Light exhibition. Searching for Darkness is comprised of seven vertical spirals of light, animated on rotors so that they formed swirling columns of dancing lights, all moving at fluctuated speeds in a blackened room.

The result was entirely joyful, eliciting smiles and gasps of laughter as people entered the room, and relating, the Saudi artist says, to the theory that the galaxy is formed in a spiral shape.

7. 'Glowing Nature' by Daan Roosegaarde (2021)

Location: King Abdullah Financial Centre

Daan Roosegaarde Glowing Nature, 2021 Installation_experience with light emitting algae Courtesy Studio Roosegaarde Photo © Riyadh Art

The Dutch Roosegaarde studio, which bridges sustainability and design, created an experience for visitors that is lit only by phosphorescent micro-organisms that light up as a stress response.

The studio, led by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, underlaid a watery floor in which the organisms float, in such a way that as one walks on the plastic sheeting, one's steps agitate the lifeforms and cause them to glow.

Rows of glass bottles containing the species line the room, which visitors can shake to wake them. The work fills one with admiration for the creatures – but also with a little guilt, as you rouse them out of their happy invisibility.

8. 'Mitochondria: Powerhouses' by Ahmed Mater (2021)

Location: King Abdullah Financial Centre

Ahmed Mater, Mitochondria: Powerhouses, 2021
Tesla coil machine, fulgurite sculptures, sand.  Courtesy the artist. Photo © Riyadh Art

This work is not for those whom self-isolation or lockdown has lulled into a stupor, and are now likely to jump at a sound so ordinary as a knock on the door. Ahmed Mater’s intervention – the rare artwork that deserves that art-speak term – into the King Abdullah Financial Centre consists of a large circle of sand, fenced off from the public, with ungainly stone-like sculptures twisted into place.

The scene looks serene, if strange – and then zap. Huge bolts of light emerge from a central metal pole onto the structures, buzzing through the air. The scene then recedes into normality – your blood pressure, maybe less so. The work is inspired by the phenomena in the desert that forms the twisted sculptures on show, and relates, the artist says, to the radical transformations weathered by Saudi society since the discovery of oil.

9. 'SKALAR' by Christopher Bauder and Kangding Ray (2021)

Location: Riyadh Front

A 38-minute sequence tucked away in the Riyadh Front mall, Christopher Bauder and Kangding Ray's SKALAR is a mix of synchronised coloured lights, moving mirrors and a soundscape of multi-channel electronic music.

The work by the German artist and French musician has toured to multiple locations and comes in a customised form here: the high-ceilinged room has been transformed into another world, and visitors have been lingering there, exhibition organisers say, in a meditative state.

10. 'The Sun, Again' by Mohammed Al Faraj (2017)

Location: Light Upon Light, King Abdullah Financial Centre

Mohammad Alfaraj The Sun, Again, 2017 Video projection  Variable dimensions Courtesy the artist, ATHR Gallery, Jeddah and Saudi Art Council Photo © Riyadh Art 2021

This video highlights a bifurcation glimpsed throughout the exhibition. Artists of an older generation – such as Urs Fischer, Sultan bin Fahad and Maha Malluh – teased out of light the idea of memento mori, or art as a reminder of one’s mortality. But younger artists, such as Zedani, Sarah Abu Abdallah and Al Faraj focused more on light as a feature of an ecosystem that is vulnerable and under stress.

In Saudi artist Mohammed Al Faraj’s video, a woman in an abaya wends through reeds and palm trees as a sun bears down overhead. The colouration gives the scenes a harsh cast, making the heat of the day and dryness of the environment almost palpable – and making the slowness of the world’s response feel that much more reprehensible.

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