Curator Susan Davidson

Susan Davidson, curator and art historian, is an expert in the fields of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art, with an expertise in the art of Robert Rauschenberg. 

Davidson is also well-versed in Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art scene. She is currently curating an exhibition titled Light Upon Light: Light Art Since the 1960s, part of Noor Riyadh and commissioned by Riyadh Art that is taking place from March 18-June 12, 2021

Light Upon Light includes 30 masterworks of light art divided into four sectional “rays” that survey light as an artistic medium: Perceiving Light, Experiencing Light, Projecting Light, and Environmental Light. Each ray blends time and unites established artists of diverse geographic origin.

Saira Malik (S.M.): What is the concept behind this exhibition titled Light Upon Light: Light Art Since the 1960s?

Susan Davidson (S.D.): Noor Riyadh focused on contemporary art and artist, Sumi Ghose, the festival’s Artistic Director rightly felt that a historical presentation on the subject was essential. Light Upon Light would be the first occasion that this type of art would be on display in the Kingdom, and it was important to provide context for the visitor and even local artists. So, the exhibition is intended as much to introduce art in the Kingdom as it was to complement Noor Riyadh. In conceiving the exhibition, I was keen to feature artists from the 1960s forward who used light as a medium, not just who included light (or neon) in their works.  

S.M.: How did you collaborate with Saudi curator Raneem Zaki Faris to develop and execute this exhibition?

S.D.: As the exhibition developed, the requirements of its scope changed to include a large number of Saudi artists, rather than a number of artists working in the region. Raneem was suggested as the appropriate curator to identify Saudi artists who use light as their medium (although for some, it was the first time working in this vein). Because of COVID-19, we had review meetings via Zoom during which Raneem would bring me up to date on the artists she knew or wanted to include. Her role was collaborative with mine, and I am thankful for her input.  

S.M.: Light Upon Light includes 30 masterworks of light art divided into four sectional “rays” that survey light as an artistic medium: Perceiving Light, Experiencing Light, Projecting Light, and Environmental Light. Can you elaborate more on this?

S.D.Perceiving Light: This ray brings together the most recognized mid-twentieth century light art practitioners, some still working today. By giving light form, depth and mass, the artists in this ray manipulated the perceptual property of light to a degree that had not been experienced in art before the 1960s.

Experiencing Light: This ray presents contemporary artists whose artwork depends on advanced technologies to encounter light and rely on human interaction to experience their art. This ray converts visitors to participators, blurring the boundaries as to how people view art.

Projecting Light: Rather than using light as the medium, the artists in this ray “throw” light via means of projection. Film, video, reflective lenses and x-rays here distribute their light source.

Environmental Light: The artists in this ray either address the ecological future of our planet by focusing on natural elements or look to the decay of urbanization as a reminder of our responsibility towards a sustainable future.

S.M.: As an immersive show, what do you want the audience to experience through it?

S.D.: I would like the audience to first enjoy themselves and then to look and learn.

S.M.: How was your overall experience of being part of Noor Riyadh, a large-scale light art festival that transformed Riyadh into a huge art gallery?

S.D.: For me the project started during COVID-19, so I wasn’t fully aware of the extent, range, and impact that the exhibition would have once it opened let alone the immense scope of the Festival itself. I was working remotely from New York City, where during the worse days of the pandemic, the idea of producing an exhibition focused on light art since the 1960s seemed conversely absurd as well as, dare I say, enlightening. It helped significantly to have these artists (albeit only on paper or via their images) during these planning stages to guide me through a difficult time.

S.M.: The show includes 30 masterworks from a range of artists who explore light as an artistic medium in the form of installations, sculptures and video works. How did you bring it all together so coherently?

S.D.: All curators start with an idea and work fervently to obtain the best examples that they can for their exhibition. There were several artists I wanted to include, who for a variety of reasons, were not available. The success of any exhibition is for the visitor to not experience (or even known about) those curatorial disappointments. It is important to present a seamless and coherent argument through the artworks on view. I believe we’ve done that. 

Light Upon Light: Light Art since the 1960s exhibition at King Abdullah Financial District Conference Center (KAFD), Riyadh; commissioned by Riyadh Art, March 18 – June 12, 2021. For more information, click here!

Words: Saira Malik
Images: Courtesy of Riyadh Art

Header Image: 'Antenna' (Green), 2010 by Ahmed Mater; from the series Antenna; courtesy of a private collection, Photo © Riyadh Art 2021

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