Feeling the Stones is inspired by the cultural fever that swept through China in the 1980s, a decade that saw avant-garde art and social reform take center stage as newly translated ideas helped open societies’ minds to new concepts and thoughts.

However, just like social reform, art is a process – incremental, tentative, and, ultimately, directed improvisation. Our theme, Feeling the Stones, is a metaphorical journey through the nuances of artistic production and ideas, unfolding over six sections:

1. Crossing the River

As its starting point, the Biennale looks to the resonance of historical experiences between a newly-reforming-China and the world that began in late 1978. That year, decades of oppressive state command was overcome by new economic and cultural movements, providing a fascinatingly modern springboard for artistic expression driven by open questions: Is there an aesthetics of reform? How might disparate experiences of historical transition speak to one another? Are there certain questions or characteristics common to moments of epochal change? Some of the works had directly addressed questions of economic transformation and social progress, while others highlighted artists who played a role in their societies’ own artistic emergence.

2. Experimental Preservation

Can we better understand the past by considering it an unstable product of the present? Inspired by the work of architect Jorge Otero-Pailos, this section looks at a complicated dilemma common to rapidly developing contexts: How to embrace new technologies, practices, and ideas, while retaining that which has characterized a culture or a context until now? Artists often come to function in such situations as unreliable narrators: they interrogate monuments, tell stories untold or untrue, and fabricate new realities. Over and against the notions of “heritage” and “tradition”—and in light of ongoing global struggles—how can art set up alternative sites of memory, deconstructing even as it commemorates, questioning even as it articulates?

3. Peripheral Thinking

The modern era has forced us to rethink time, space, and the relationship between different cultures as a means of universal connection without compromising on sovereignty. A fundamental paradox, however, remains, even as we look to understand gradients of influence and trace lineages of inspiration, we must remind ourselves that all artists retain autonomy and specificity. This section asks how we can think critically about multiple modernisms across nations, regions, and temporalities in light of more recent discussions of intersectionality and multipolarity? What kinds of new conversations might arise, and which old ones might resurface? Which of the paradigms of contemporary art are globally relevant or viable? How do we understand the relations between locales, eras, and styles in times of connectivity and instability?

4. Going Public

Art possesses a unique power to convene communities and envision new forms of solidarity. Especially since the turn of the twenty-first century, artists around the world have turned to social practice, moving beyond earlier ideas of the autonomous work of art and towards art as a language and platform for collective thought and engagement in response to specific circumstances. Through their projects, they create everything from fleeting relations and constructed situations to durable organizations and activist institutions. This section looks across geographies and generations at how artists have worked to spark reflection, format experience, convey knowledge, transmit skills, and ultimately bring people together for a larger purpose.

5. Brave New Worlds

If the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made anything clear, it is the fragility of the order that preceded it. As we emerge from a global event that has afflicted the global systems out of which it has grown, we begin to imagine new realities. For years already, artists have been contemplating the Anthropocene and proposing other possibilities in the face of untenable consumption, acceleration, and warming. Faced with new restrictions on mobility and a heightened consciousness of human vulnerability, artists ask: What might a future look like that builds on the lessons of this transnational crisis?

6. Concerning the Spiritual

Artists today work beyond the horizons of a specific history or geography, often examining, channeling, and convening with the transcendent. Some work and innovate in established religious lineages, while others seek sustenance from unlikely sources. In a nation of sacred places, art’s special relationship to the deeper, lingering questions of human existence resurfaces in new and powerful ways. This final section looks at how artists, particularly at times of upheaval and transition, have attempted to make sense of their worlds and the beliefs that structure them.

Philip Tinari
Curator of the first
Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale

Developed by a team of international curators led by phlip Tinari, the 2021-2 Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale will unfold in six sections, with works from national and international artists responding to a central theme and engaging visitor in a dialogue around contemporary art.

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Assistant curator,
Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale
Assistant curator,
Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale
Assistant curator,
Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale