Thursday, December 21, 2023

Arabia Rush of Art Projects



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December 21, 2023
In Saudi Arabia, a Rush of Art Projects and Institutions Open
A picture taken November 3, 2022 shows Saudis attending the Noor Riyadh lighting festival held at Al-Salam Park in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP
Late last month, I found myself in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, standing in front of the recently opened Museum of Contemporary Art (SAMOCA) and looking out at a vista that, as one local arts professional observed recently, captures what the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is all about. Before me, I could see the tranquil Wadi Hanifah valley where locals gather, all the way to the distant towers of the $10 billion King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD). Diriyah, on the outskirts of Riyadh, where SAMOCA is located, along with the JAX District, a new creative hub, is a $63 billion development that up until recently was home to warehouses and car repair shops. Considered the birthplace of KSA, the area now hosts art spaces and a film studio. It all makes for a dizzying layer cake of past, present, and future.
I was in Riyadh for the opening of the third annual edition of the two-week-long Noor Riyadh, a citywide festival of artworks involving light by both Saudi and international artists. The festival couldn’t help but illuminate the array of projects currently underway as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping Vision 2030 initiative to reduce the country’s reliance on oil and diversify the economy.
Weeks before my arrival, news broke that Riyadh would likely host the 2034 World Cup. On the day I arrived, it was announced that the city would host the World Expo 2030. In Paris, Laurent Le Bon, president of the Centre Pompidou, and Amr Almadani, CEO of the Royal Commission for AlUla, signed a formal agreement to collaborate on a new contemporary art space to open in AlUla in 2027. Early this coming February, the third edition of Desert X AlUla opens, as will, a few weeks later, the second edition of the Diriyah Biennale, KSA’s first art biennale, in Riyadh. Then, in two to three years, Wadi AlFann (“Valley of the Arts”), a 40-square-mile site featuring monumental site-specific permanent land artworks, will open at AlUla. At his studio in the JAX District, Saudi artist Ahmed Mater showed me renderings for his project for Wadi AlFann, an enormous structure that produces a mirage.
It can be difficult to remember what entity oversees which project in KSA. SAMOCA, an 18,000-square-foot kunsthalle, is a project of the Museums Commission, which is run by the Ministry of Culture. So is the still-in-development museum for modern and contemporary art that, with its permanent collection, will dwarf SAMOCA. Saudi-American art historian and curator Mona Khazindar , former director of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, heads the Museums Commission. The Diriyah Biennale Foundation, also under the Ministry of Culture, is partnering with real estate developer ROSHN, a company set up by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund to increase home ownership across Saudi Arabia to 70 percent by 2030. Noor Riyadh, meanwhile, falls under the public initiative Riyadh Art, which is overseen by the Royal Commission for Riyadh City, whose board chairman is bin Salman. It takes an org chart just to keep track it all.
And there is more: directly across the street from the JAX District, during Noor Riyadh, the ATHR Foundation opened the eighth and largest edition of its Young Saudi Artists Exhibition, showing 25 emerging talents drawn from an open call. The ATHR Foundation was set up last year by the founders of the Jeddah-based ATHR gallery, one of KSA’s most prominent commercial spaces, with a mission to help artists navigate the art system, as well as to advise local private and public entities on their cultural endeavors. The exhibition took place in a residential building called ETHR, which is part of the ATHR mission to help arts professionals (both homegrown and international) seeking access to the JAX resources.
The majority of the pieces in Noor Riyadh were brand-new, and several were spectacular, but, for me, the one that stole the show was older: F├╝hlometer (Feel-o-meter), a 2008 piece made by German artist Julius von Bismarck in collaboration with experimental designer Benjamin Maus and filmmaker Richard Wilhelmer . On the roof of a building in the KAFD, von Bismarck had installed a 26-foot-high smiley face illuminated with fluorescent tubes. Visible from miles away—and a nice diversion while stuck in traffic on one of the many highways that loop around the city—the face changes its expression using software that analyzes peoples’ expressions gathered from surveillance cameras set up around the area. The face smiles when the city smiles, frowns when the city frowns, and displays every emoji-able expression in between. The artwork would seem to be a direct reference to KAFD’s rapid development as a smart city: it was reported in September that Orange Business, the French telecom company that has moved aggressively into big data and AI, had closed a deal that will see it building geolocation-based sentiment analysis of social media and other features into the existing KAFD digital infrastructure.
Another poignant piece in Noor Riyadh was in the tranquil Wadi Hanifah park, where French artist Bruno Ribeiro erected a 65-foot-high sculpture of an oil derrick on which foreboding light patterns coordinated to the sound of an ominous booming techno soundtrack. The piece was called All Is Well.
It was only as I was leaving KSA that I realized how close I’d been, in the JAX District, to a space dedicated to showing the Saudi public scale models and computer renderings of The Line, a 110-mile-long “linear smart city” that is part of the futuristic $500 billion, 16,000-square-mile sustainable living giga-project NEOM. Unable to visit, I watched a video presentation of The Line on my phone on the way to the airport, thinking how easy it was to chalk it all up to some kind of utopian—or perhaps dystopian—sci-fi fantasy. The project is proposed to have some 9 million people living in a car-less urban area serviced by a high-speed rail system. But then, at the airport, I spoke with a UK-based adviser/contractor at a Starbucks who claimed to be working on The Line. He’d seen trucks there, he told me, he’d seen materials. He said “it’s real.”
If, instead of heading back to New York, I had taken a two-hour flight east, to Dubai, I would have arrived just in time for the start of the UN Climate Summit. In the weeks that followed, the Saudi contingent at the conference went on to lead a group of major oil exporters in resisting a deal calling for a complete phaseout of fossil fuels. (In the end, a compromise deal was reached that, while still historic, calls instead for “transitioning away from fossil fuels.”) The New York Times, in a story on the negotiations, pointed to what analysts say is an obvious paradox: “Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is spending tens of billions of dollars to try to diversify the Saudi economy, investing in industries like renewable energy, tourism, entertainment and artificial intelligence. Paradoxically, that means the government needs oil revenue to fund its plans for life after oil.”
The Big Number
$6.2 B.
That’s Christie's projected year-end total  for sales across both its art and luxury categories, down a staggering $2 billion from last year’s. The discrepancy owes in large part to the lack of sales on par with the 2022 Paul Allen auction, which brought in a hefty $1.5 billion on its own. Even as single-owner sales increasingly become part and parcel of the auction calendar, the Allen sale was so remarkable that, during a press conference, the auction house presented year-on-year percentage comparisons to 2022, including figures both with  and without the Allen auction counted into last year's total, a 25 percent and 7 percent drop respectively.
Industry Moves
  • Mennour Announces Representation of Mohammad AlFaraj: The Saudi artist’s filmmaking, installation, sculpture, writing, and photography explores “the complex relations that connect humans, animals, and fantastic creatures.” His work will be featured in next year’s Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale. 
  • Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center Announces Acquisition of Over 100 Works in 2023: Acquired in support of the Cantor Arts Center’s Asian American Art Initiative, the acquisitions comprise works by celebrated, under-recognized, and emerging Asian American artists, including Pacita Abad, Mel Chin, and others.
  • Nicola Vassell Announces Exclusive Representation of Elizabeth Schwaiger: Based in Brooklyn, the painter’s research-based work explores power dynamics and climate crises. She will have her first solo exhibition at the gallery this coming January, titled “Now & Now & Now.”
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art Announces Major Gift from Dick Wolf: The legendary film and television producer’s gift comprises more than 200 paintings, drawings, and sculptures, primarily from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. He has also endowed two galleries in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts.
Read This.
This past November, Lisson Gallery called off plans to stage an Ai Weiwei show following the artist’s since-deleted tweet that was critical of US aid to Israel. In response, the gallery said there was “no place for debate” that could be characterized as “anti-Semitic or Islamophobic,” and described the decision as mutual. Ai challenges that description in a new profile by the Spectator’s Ian Williams. Never one to mince words, Ai tells Williams that the cancellation and the current moment "[mirror] an authoritarian culture, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in China and the tragic events in Germany decades ago." The profile, which takes stock of the artist’s many political projects over the years, is a bracing read at this moment; few artists have lived their convictions—and suffered the consequences—quite the way Ai has. – Harrison Jacobs, Digital Director

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E.U. migration deal


Migrants running across a beach with a nuclear power station in the background.
Migrants running from dunes across a beach in northern France as they try to board smugglers’ boats bound for Britain in June. Sameer Al-Doumy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A long-awaited E.U. migration deal

After years of negotiations, European countries struck a deal to overhaul their joint migration system, an agreement aimed at allaying mounting pressure from ascendant far-right political parties across the continent.

The plan, named the E.U. migration and asylum pact, aims to make it easier to deport failed asylum seekers and to limit the entry of migrants into the bloc. It also seeks to give governments a greater sense of control over their borders while bolstering the E.U.’s role in migration management — treating it as a European issue, not just a national one.

Quotable: “Migration is a European challenge that requires European solutions,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in written comments.