Inside the main atrium of a stately building in Riyadh are large rectangular air conditioning unit holders with a heap of stacked crystal chandeliers. At first glance they seem to have been destroyed, perhaps the leftovers of some domestic catastrophe, but upon closer look the holders seem to symbolise a desire to preserve the luxury objects and also the grandeur of what once was. Above them hang several other chandeliers in perfect condition, suspended and scintillating from the ceiling just as a chandelier does.
There’s an element of violence and of beauty here as well as musings on material wealth and ruins. Maybe it is the element of crystal, its ability to cut and inflict pain that summons up this sense of turmoil and change, and then there’s the eerie beauty that the crystals radiate from the air conditioning holders that protects the found objects, perhaps meant soon to be used again for another location, a new purpose for beauty.
Prayer Room (Chapter 7) at The Red Palace comprising rugs and neon lights. Courtesy of Mohammed Eskandrani
Entitled To Dust (2019), the installation is the first work visitors encountered by artist Prince Sultan bin Fahad bin Nasser Al-Saud in The Red Palace. The heap of chandeliers were discarded and sourced from the palace for the artwork. The exhibition, named after the location in which it takes place, presents an array of bin Fahad’s artworks, largely conceptual multimedia installations, displayed throughout the building’s 16 suites.
“These are broken pieces of chandeliers brought together, bringing life to the crystal chandeliers in order to symbolise rebirth and reinvestment in something broken,” says the artist, who tells how he found them chucked away in the palace as well as at a the flea market, a place where he finds many objects that he incorporates in his work. “They have been taken apart and then put together so you get a sense of them helping and supporting each other.”
Bin Fahad’s exhibition, curated by Reem Fadda and supported by Athr Gallery, marked the first time the palace had been opened to the public in this capacity in 19 years.
A close-up view of Chapter 6: Dinner at the Palace, installation of tables, chairs, ceramic plates, silverware, glass cups, and silver ewers. Courtesy of Mohammed Eskandrani
“In terms of a large-scale show it was liberating and very progressive. It wasn’t just about being site-specific, which it was, but it was about building the narrative from a site-specific show to the artist’s career in general to commissioning works and at the same time running into the historical and socio-political factors of the entire country,” says Fadda. “I felt the exhibition was really multi-layered and for me, that made it a really special way in which to conceive an exhibition.”
The exhibition is made up of six chapters guiding the visitor through the palace’s various suites and corridors as if they too were taking part in the building’s history. In Labour, for example, a two-channel, two-minute digital video installation with sound, portrays various individuals, both men and women, representing the household servants who would have worked at the palace.
The Red Palace has become more than an art exhibition. It is an experience and that’s exactly what bin Fahad wanted to relay. Moreover, the progressive nature of the artworks and their highly conceptual make-up break down stereotypes of Saudi Arabia. “People need to accept that art is not just pieces hung on the wall, it is an educational tool,” adds bin Fahad.
Windows found in Mecca from Chapter 2: 1979. 2017-19. Glass, wood and led lights, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Mohammed Eskandrani
“I wanted to introduce another history here.” A door was cast open with The Red Palace. “Before, Saudi wouldn’t have thought of using a place of history for a contemporary art exhibition,” he adds. Since the show, he’s received numerous calls from around the Gulf—other people want to use old palaces and old abandoned places to host art exhibitions.
This combination of contemporary art and heritage marks a change in history—it opens a portal to new knowledge and to transformation, preserving the past as much as embarking on a new future. The exhibition was on view from 13 March until 20 Apr 2019 at The Red Palace, Riyadh and is on show at Khuzam Palace in Jeddah from 8 June until 18 July.
To read the full article, pick up the Summer 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art
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