From Joan Miró to Jean Arp and Henry Moore, the Saudi city was a magnet for big names in art in the 1970s, as fascinating new book Sculptures of Jeddah shows
Al-Qiblah (Direction of Prayer) by Julio Lafuente
Golden age … Al-Qiblah (Direction of Prayer) by Julio Lafuente. Photograph: Ahmed Mater
Monday 1 June 2015 07.00 BST
Last modified on Monday 1 June 2015 10.43 BST
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In the 21st century art is moving eastwards – literally – as masterpiece after masterpiece is sold to the oil-rich state Qatar, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi nears completion in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates. Huge and imaginative investments are turning these small wealthy nations on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula into the Manhattans of the middle east, brimming over with Cezannes and Gauguins and perhaps – although the rumours were denied – Picasso’s $179 million Women of Algiers (O).
But while Qatar and the UAE glitter with modernity, their neighbour Saudi Arabia seems mired in regressive ideas from the middle ages. It gets in the news for flogging the liberal blogger Raif Badawi, taking women to court for driving a car and nurturing the extreme Wahhabist religious ideology adopted by Isis.
A Step Forward by Jean Arp
A Step Forward by Jean Arp. Photograph: Ahmed Mater
Yet, 40 years earlier, the Saudi city of Jeddah was a pioneer investor in the shock of the new. As Ahmed Mater’s photographs in the book Sculptures of Jeddah show, this ancient city near Mecca is home to one of the world’s most spectacular arrays of open-air modern sculpture. Perhaps aware of the kudos its neighbours are getting from their Guggenheim branches and skyscrapers, Jeddah has just restored these modernist marvels and moved a selection into a new seaside sculpture park.
Alexander Calder’s 1974 work Flexibility of Balance, looking a bit like a giant exploded chess piece in red-painted steel, squats in front of the desert sky among neatly placed palm trees. Calder was the American surrealist who invented the mobile, and this was one of his last works. The golden age of Saudi Arabia as a bustling petrodollar kingdom in the 1970s coincided with the last years of modern art’s Old Masters. They were commissioned to create monuments to decorate Jeddah’s expanding urban spaces. Joan Miro’s Project for a Monument glitters in dreamlike bronze in the searing sunlight, sticking out its cartoon nose and twisting its tiny arms in the blazing heat. It looks thirsty. Perhaps it is begging for a drink.
Victor Vasarely, Henry Moore, Jean Arp – they all got the call from Jeddah in those expansive Saudi times. It was the city’s mayor in the 1970s, Mohamed Said Farsi, who spearheaded this ambitious public art project. It left Jeddah a surreal cityscape of desert monuments that might have delighted JG Ballard. In his science fiction stories set at the imaginary desert resort Vermilion Sands, Ballard pictures singing artworks and sculpted clouds. In Jeddah, the Unification Fountain by Julio Lafuente – the scheme’s master architect – looks like a giant silicon chip in a circular blue pool at the centre of a roundabout surrounded by sand. Lafuente’s even stranger Globe is a green and gold planetary object with no geographical details – an abstract featureless earth – balanced on a stony cuved piazza under the empty blue sky.
LINK FOR IMAGES http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/01/sun-sand-sculpture-in-jeddah-saudi-arabia-joan-miro-jean-arp
Perhaps Lafuente’s most bizarre work is a collection of gigantic mosque lamps hanging on an immense, otherwise empty square. Islamic touches localise modern art that might otherwise seem utterly placeless. Another giant lantern sculpture, by Mustafa Senbel, towers in front of a red walled mosque on Jeddah’s coastal corniche.
Giants of Jeddah: the strange, sad sculptures of Saudi Arabia – in pictures
These echoes of an older Jeddah of mosques and hanging lamps hint at the tensions behind Mohamed Said Farsi’s ambitious open-air modernism. Saudi Arabia was at a crossroads in the 1970s. This was the age when the west became aware of “rich Saudis”, and fast cars and new developments flooded the kingdom. Would the traditional Muslim social order survive? And would city life?
Jeddah is a very old city, but in the era when it got its Moores and Mirós it also lost much of its ancient atmosphere. The souks were modernised, the old labyrinthine city was opened out into vast squares and freeways and sprawling suburbs. The modern art of Jeddah in the end seems to mark out empty spaces and inhuman vistas. Where is the life of the city? The monuments hang over deserted nowheres. It is like an eerie cityscape by Giorgio de Chirico.
The battle between modernisation and tradition in Saudi Arabia was to produce monsters. Repelled by the new wealth, religious fundamentalists nursed increasingly violent thoughts, and the world is still suffering the consequences.
Jeddah’s modern sculptures thrust up into sapphire skies. Abstract forms cast shadows against desert sunsets. This remarkable art show has all the fascination and sadness of a future that failed.