by Sukanya GargNov 30, 2019
The evident environmental crisis that plagues our planet and threatens our existence is a concern that is garnering increasing attention and yet policymakers, governments and international conventions have failed to deliver. While there are no one-stop solutions, voices all over the world are calling for urgent individual and collective action. In such a scenario, it is no surprise that artists, who have always been inspired by the issues of the times they live in, are vocalizing their angst about the age of Anthropocene through their practice. The seventh edition of 21,39 Jeddah Arts, taking place in Jeddah and Balad in Saudi Arabia, is then a call to action in response to the environmental emergency from the specificity of a local context.
Curated by Maya El Khalil, the programme’s central exhibition, I Love You, Urgently contends with the global climate emergency through a series of explorations by 22 artists. According to Khalil, “Artists can build awareness, sensitise and encourage public engagement. A priori, artists are perceived as independent voices that can imagine action and entice our communities to imagine it themselves. As for delivering change, it is much more challenging. There need to be an infrastructure of cultural institutions, academic and professional, to support artists’ work and voices and to amplify the potential for active discourse with a wider segment of the population. Saudi Arabia is a young country with a large youth segment. Improving access to culture is one thing, but a true engagement with culture is another. For change to happen, we have to imagine it first. We need to urgently start imagining the world we want to live in.”
As Saudi Arabia imagines a new future, the exhibition brings together 60 local and international artists, architects, designers and thinkers who pose questions around environmental sustainability exploring ideas surrounding modern design and biomimicry as well as alternatives from nomadic myths, folklores and traditions around nature. As Khalil explains, “Artists responded to the curatorial brief with work that at best forced a confrontation with endemic problems that are individual, societal and global; at worst, the works act as cautionary tales.”
Alaa Tarabzouni and Fahad bin Naif used adaptability in nature as the basis of their research project into the Yamamah Cement Factory. The result was a meticulous archiving of photographs, film and found objects depicting a complex heterogeneous ecosystem of anomalous amity. Ayman Zedani’s experimental film tells the story of oil from the perspective of a Prototaxite, a giant fungus that inhabited the earth around 400 million years ago. The monumental timeframes in comparison to the human timescale humble and diminish our inflated sense of importance. Our rituals, traditions and cultures are dwarfed in comparison to nature’s evolution. The work lays bare the outsized role played by our species in the Anthropocene, particularly in the last 100 years of acceleration and excess.
Since many of the exhibiting artists belong to a generation that is eager to take part in shaping the future of the country where change is happening fast, many of the projects address themes of heritage with a vision of what can be preserved, adapted or taken forward. Talking about the works exhibited, Khalil mentions, “Zahrah Alghamdi’s Ashgan Village is more than a record or account of the past. By using the thorns of the Acacia tree to build the topography of her family houses in her native village, she attempts at bringing the past in contact with the present by protecting the memory of a threatened identity and connection to the land. On the other hand, Sultan bin Fahad composes a ritual against loss by drawing together the marks – the wasm or camel branding system - and sounds – the hidaa or herder’s guttural call - of the camel herder’s distinctive language to comment on a relationship between the herder and his camel that has been commodified and replaced with accumulation and excess.”
Subsequently, many of the projects on display emphasise a move back to local, even nomadic systems of living. In fact, a lot of modern design and technology is emulating principles rooted in nature. In line with the same, Khalil talks about the work of Pritzker Architecture Prize winner, Frei Otto, who can be considered the father of biomimicry. According to Khalil, “His work is inspired by the processes of form finding in nature and he studied the structure of cells and bones, trunks and stalks, spiderwebs, water vortices, soap bubbles and sand. He disagreed with the widespread view that nature is in a permanent state of biological equilibrium and that nature could regenerate on its own. The systems within nature are fragile; equilibrium, should it even exist, is easily disrupted, causing the breakdown of complete natural systems. Hence, the need for an environmentally friendly, energy-saving, lightweight, mobile and adaptable architecture.”
While the artists do not offer solutions to the impending crisis, the exhibition is a call to attention. In a relatively young country like Saudi Arabia, which is in the process of shaping its future, the involvement of youth and their dedication to the causes that are shaping its collective present cannot be emphasised enough. Frei Otto’s mantra that less is more: to build less with less material, less concrete, and by using less energy; to build using available resources: earth, water, air is the absolute need of the hour.
The three months period of the exhibition also includes a programme of workshops, lectures, film documentaries and talks, and is on view till April 18, 2020.