Riyadh is radiant.
Saudi Arabia’s capital is currently being illuminated by Noor Riyadh, a citywide festival of light, art and technological wizardry that has returned for its second year — three times bigger and with more international participants than its inaugural event.
The festival began on Thursday and runs until November 19, opening daily from sunset. More than 190 artworks are being exhibited across Riyadh’s public spaces. They include monumental and interactive installations, ephemeral sculptures, laser projections and drone shows lighting up the city’s night sky.
The festival is spread across five hubs: King Abdullah Park, Salam Park, Diplomatic Quarter, Jax District, and King Abdullah Financial District. Noor Riyadh’s theme this year is We Dream of New Horizons, reflecting upon the potential of Saudi Arabia’s budding art scene in the wake of the changes that have been sweeping the kingdom for the past few years.
“Noor Riyadh is a shining example of how art and culture can be a force for connection and expression,” Nouf AlMoneef, project manager of Noor Riyadh, said during a press briefing ahead of the opening.
“This edition is bigger and more ambitious than its predecessor, showcasing fascinating pieces of light art from around the world. To see everyone come together to marvel at unique artworks and engage with the festival’s message of hope reflects Saudi Arabia’s aspirations towards transformation and openness.”
AlShashai, who often works with found objects and reappropriated imagery, will present a piece that reflects on climate change. AlSaleh’s video projection, meanwhile, will bring a touch of AI to popular love songs in the Middle East.
Saudi talents, both emerging and established, are front and centre of the festival and make up a sizeable proportion of the 130 artists participating in Noor Riyadh.
Social media star Warchieff, whose real name is Mohammed AlHamdan, will take a stride into the art world with his interactive piece Walking Lights, which will animate pedestrian movement along Olaya Street.
Muhannad Shono, meanwhile, who is one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent artists, will take over an entire building in Riyadh Malaz, lining the structure with lights that evoke fishing nets while creating an immersive experience that draws inspiration from the region’s maritime traditions.
The festival also has a strong number of international participants. Works by several artists were presented during a press preview at King Abdullah Park the night before the opening.
Specks of light made up of a swarm of 2,000 drones took to the sky as part of a luminous aerial installation by US artist Marc Brickman. The Order of Chaos: Chaos in Order will run every night throughout the duration of the event. The display lasts for 12 minutes and is set to a specially composed score.
While choreographing the movement of the drones, Brickman says he was inspired by the movement and flight of the pelicans he’d often witness along the shores of California, where he lives.
“I’m just mesmerised by the pelicans,” he says. “They have this order about them but they’re chaotic as well. If you continue looking into the idea of swarms of birds, the murmuration of the birds and the way they move the choreography, [like] fish, bees, birds. It’s nature. There’s order to the chaos.”
Brickman, who has been the artist in residence at New York’s Empire State Building for a decade, says he wasn’t concerned with the scale of the work, having produced large light installations and performances before, including for Pink Floyd and the Black Eyed Peas, composer Hans Zimmer and Yusuf Islam — Cat Stevens. However, he did seek to elevate drone shows from being merely a social media novelty to an artistic expression.
“We’ve all seen drone shows,” he says. “Normally they’re ships moving through the sky, or they’re butterflies or politicians or flags. I like to create things that really draw people together in real life, and not to be experienced on a TV screen first or, or your phone. So, it’s really it’s about large-scale artworks.”
Vertical Horizon by Italian artist duo Quiet Ensemble is another work featured at King Abdullah Park. The towering installation comprises a titled slab emerging from a mound of sand that is connected to another one in Rome. Visitors are invited to flock in front of the work, which is decked with sensors and streams a digitally manipulated live feed to the installation in Rome, and vice versa.
Vibrance by French artist Bruno Ribeiro is an interactive installation that creates visuals and music from the physical movements and voices of those curious enough to step on to the podium.
“You go on to the stage and say a word, say whatever you want and then your voice is translated into music and video,” Ribeiro says. “It’s your voice and your body creating the artwork. The whole idea was to see the sound travelling through the light.”
Sarah Alruwayti, architectural adviser for the Royal Commission for Riyadh City, which organises Noor Riyadh, says that public participation is a motive for many of the festival’s artworks, as well as the event as a whole.
“The festival incorporates a community engagement programme that is curated for both Riyadh’s locals as well as for those visiting the Saudi capital for the first time,” she says.
“The community engagement programme engages the public into the spaces. We have panel talks, workshops, educational and visits for universities and schools. What we’re trying to do here is create cultural platforms, not only for the artists from different countries to engage with the local artists and the local community, but also for the visitors.”
Noor Riyadh 2022 features a public programme with more than 500 activities, including talks, workshops, creative experiences, guided tours and live music.
An online charity auction will also be held. Four major Saudi artists Ahmed Mater, Moath Alofi, AlShashai, and Saad AlHowede, will work with charities in Riyadh such as Aleradah Org, Saudi Alzheimer’s Disease Association, AlNahda, and International Rehabilitation Team to produce pieces that will be displayed and eventually auctioned to benefit the charities’ art programmes. The artworks will go on sale through the Saudi art market platform Atrum on November 14 and 15.
An exhibition called From Spark to Spirit will also accompany the festival, running at Jax 03 until February 4. Curated by British art critic Neville Wakefield and Saudi interior architect Gaida AlMogren, it traces the role of light as a signal for change, exploring themes such as the technologies of light, architectonics of light and consciousness of light.
“We’re lighting up the city,” Alruwayti says. “Let’s light up Riyadh together, and have some fun.”