Bienalsur, a roaming biennial art exhibition originally conceived in Buenos Aires, has returned to Saudi Arabia. This time, it has taken over the Khuzam Palace (Qasr Khuzam) in Jeddah, a former royal residence that houses the Jeddah Regional Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography.
For its third outing, Bienalsur features the works of 23 artists and centres on our ever-evolving relationship with time and space in the context of our physical and virtual worlds.
The previous biennial event titled Recovering Stories, Recovering Fantasies, was exhibited at The National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh in 2018 and featured the works of 18 artists.
Organised by Bienalsur general director Anibal Jozami and artistic director Diana B Wechsler, the new show, titled Echoes, A World Between the Analogue and the Virtual, not only presents works that contemplate on our present, but has also deftly integrated itself into the Khuzam Palace, offering a synergy of concept and space.
One of the many consequences of the pandemic is a new form of hybridity, the idea of physical and virtual worlds complementing each other as we navigate new spatial dynamics. But after almost two years of looping lockdowns and restrictions, isolation and digital immersion in the form of Zoom calls and online events, there’s also been a reframing of the real.
The curators call this a “time-space displacement”, looking at the way the pandemic has reconfigured the tempo of our daily lives, as well as the notion of being present, in person or online.
How do we attempt to bridge that gap between the analogue and the virtual, defined not only in the sense of physical and online experiences, but also of the tangible and the conceptual? Echoes goes further than time and space, looking at how the lines between fiction and reality are continually blurred today.
When entering the Khuzam Palace, visitors are slowed by Cecile Bart’s Off-screen Circles, dangling cotton and wool threads of various colours, held down by fishing weights. It acts as a soft jolt, reorienting us within our bodies and the surrounding space, a contrast to the vastness of our online experiences, where one link to leads to another, then to a video, then to an endless feed on our screens.
Other works in Echoes also play well with the space, such as Joel Andrianomearisoa’s hanging sculptures Dancing with the Angels installed on the landing of the first floor. The pieces, made from artificial flowers coated in black paint, appear to float, producing a strange magical effect.
Next to these is Anais Lelievre’s Sandstone series, where discarded printed pages are taped to the floor and stairs of the palace. There are also boulder-like shapes scattered on the steps, allowing visitors to enter into the artist’s visual language.
The show also throws into question notions of time, how it is perceived and materialised, as in Muhannad Shono’s The span and the divide, installed on the palace grounds. At first glance, it appears to be only another element of the place – a sloping sand structure made of compacted earth and soil. As it is exposed to the elements, the structure gradually changes in minuscule ways. It is a slow, contemplative way of timekeeping, proving that time contains multitudes of invisible forces that continuously alter our realities.
Similarly, Hugo Aveta questions how we mark time with his video work Ante el Tiempo (In the Face of Time), an imaginative reimagining of the inside of an hourglass. In a dark room, sand rushes backwards into the ceiling, delineating the way we process the ticking of the hour. Created in 2009, the work assumes new meaning in the context of the pandemic, where time has seemingly been stretched across long periods of anxiety, but has also been recalculated in terms of the pre- and post-Covid worlds.
Meanwhile, Darren Almond splits the clock with Perfect Time and In Reflection, the former featuring 22 clocks where different numbers, cleaved in half, have been fused together to depict indecipherable time, while the latter features an installation of disfigured numbers on mirrored glass.
The ripples that extend across the analogue and the virtual are also depicted in Daniah Alsaleh's Evanesce, where the artist has run 200,000 images from Egypt's golden age of cinema (between the 1950s to 1970s) through an AI system for it to generate new faces and portraits. The result is a morphing video of the uncanny, where faces appear “real”, in the sense that these figures might exist, while simultaneously unrecognisable.
Alsaleh explains that it refers to the disintegration of memory in the face of time. But the work also reflects the way the internet, including social media, has confounded our memories – when the images on our feed, to which we are exposed to daily, enter our minds, how do we process them? Do we, like AI, produce fabrications that still feel authentic?
In the same vein, Daniel Canogar’s works Loom, Yield and Ripple, made at different periods over five years, investigate data flows, particularly in relation to the internet and news. Across three screens, colours ripple and rain like abstract paintings. In reality, they are visual data gleaned from various sources, including CNN videos (Ripple) and real-time Google Trends (Loom) and the commodities market (Yield) aestheticised and rendered unreadable. These beautiful, almost meditative, images put into a different perspective our consumption and exposure to information in online spaces and their effects on our analogue worlds.
The border between real and false is also explored in Filwa Nazer’s textile installation In the Fold, in which the artist considers the defence tactic of mimicry used in insects who try to camouflage themselves to avoid predators.
Nazer also looks at the work of French author Roger Caillois, who argued that mimicry, used in the context of psychoanalysis, provides little in protecting the insects or prey. The artist extends this idea to Saudi society, which she explains in her artist statement as “questioning the value of assimilation and imitation, its effects on individuality and whether conformity ultimately sustains us”. What is virtual, in this sense, indirect and implied – a shell or cover, such as the fabric Nazer uses – may be hiding a different reality.
Ahaad Alamoudi takes on a similar idea in a different way. Her installation The Green Light features green lights that switch on and off along with videos of men, dressed in white kandura and ghutra, reciting songs and laughing. In each one of their front pockets is a macho male toy.
“The toys in the piece are a representation of outward perception,” Alamoudi explains. “These are either perceptions placed on you or perceptions you place upon yourself. The men within the video are carrying these perceptions and projections with them.”
Her decision to use men in the work relates to their place in society. “To me, they are a symbol of space. Their image carries strong connotations to a specific space, located in the Arab world but unidentified in time.”
Like Nazer, Alamoudi’s work explores mimicry as the men all perform in unison. But the short bursts of visuals, that flicker on and off intermittently, also create an elusive effect, where the full picture is never truly seen.
Venturing into many fields of thought, the exhibition at Bienalsur raises questions about our age, where several realities fuse and compete for our attention and acceptance.
Echoes, A World between the Analogue and the Virtual is on view at Khuzam Palace, Jeddah until December 30. More information at bienalsur.org