Saudi Arabian artist Ayman Zedani receives the first-ever Ithra Art Prize for his installation Mēm, hosted at Art Dubai 2018.

With a background in biomedical science, Zedani’s work considers the interconnectedness of speculation, logic and visual culture.

Portrait of Ayman Zedani, winner of the inaugural Ithra Art Prize, at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

Portrait of Ayman Zedani, winner of the inaugural Ithra Art Prize, at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

Historically, Islamic art has taken the form of striking shapes, intricate patterns and complex geometries designed to inspire the human mind. It has pushed culture in the direction of incredible mathematical sophistication, blurring boundaries between art, science and metaphysics. Beyond its aesthetics, it has invited viewers to understand its spirit and think on topics such as life, death and the afterlife.

Such is the consideration of Saudi Arabian artist Ayman Zedani in his most recent installative work Mēm, selected for the inaugural Ithra Art Prize as part of Art Dubai 2018. At some place between sculptural installation and architectural structure, Zedani’s project requires interaction as much as it calls for imaginative thinking. Archaic-looking plinths, reminiscent of prehistoric stone monuments or obelisks, stand abrupt in the centre of the exhibition space, requiring viewers to negotiate their own presence.

Ayman Zedani, 'Mēm', 2018, installation at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

Ayman Zedani, ‘Mēm’, 2018, installation at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

Like the artistic genres he is most inspired by, Zedani’s career as a visual artist has found itself at a crossroads between public installation, sound, photography and science, being heavily filtered through his own educational background in biomedical science. His conceptual work thus finds intrigue in the creation of systems and the communicative possibilities that exist within a given set of rules. Through this, his work explores the process of perception, in which the inner self synthesises relationships with its surroundings – and, in a more abstract sense, what lies beyond. Grounded in rational logic as much as speculative interpretation, Zedani’s work explores the landscape of visual communication and how artistic methods can be developed to expand communicative method and ability.

It is precisely this curiosity that sparked the interest of the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture – also known as Ithra – and a panel of creatives at Art Dubai. As part of the Centre’s collaboration with the 2018 fair, Zedani has been selected as the recipient of the newly established Ithra Art Prize, a generous award centred around the funding and promotion of emerging Saudi artists before an international arena.

Zedani, currently based in Sharjah, stood out amongst nearly 80 proposals, his name being selected by a curated panel of both Saudi and international judges from the Centre, Art Dubai and elsewhere. As part of the ongoing collaboration between Ithra and the fair, Zedani’s work was recently unveiled at Art Dubai 2018, and will now subsequently join Ithra’s prestigious permanent collection. Ali Al-Mutairi, Director of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture commented:

The Center is a place where ideas and dreams take shape and we are excited about the prospect of highlighting Saudi talent such as Ayman. His proposal for the Ithra Art Prize is a great example of the potential we have in the region.

Installation view of Ayman Zedani’s ‘Mēm’, 2018, in the Johara Foyer at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

Ayman Zedani’s ‘Mēm’, 2018, installation view in the Johara Foyer at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

It’s all in the numbers

In celebration of his recent win and his ongoing exploration of scientifically-imaginative structures, Art Radar got in touch with Zedani to discuss the genesis of Mēm, his largest installation to date. Noting that the title directly references the Arabic letter ‘M’, a label which is intentionally left obscured, the artist clarifies:

The installation has four different sections, and each of these sections has four subsections that determine the properties of the two lines in each object, vertically and horizontally. In addition, ‘Mēm’ in Arabic has a numerical value of 40, but it can be reduced to four, which is the essence of the installation.

Zedani’s columnar megaliths explore both geometry and architecture as the producers of new, illusory spaces that morph depending on the viewer’s position. The erected pillars are reminiscent of ancient monuments, eliciting images of Stonehenge, Chichen Itza or Machu Picchu, yet their clean appearance is eerily futuristic. Are the objects a result of nostalgic preservation or the anticipated memorialisaton of future civilisations? The shifts in time and obscured planetary phenomena are continuing motifs throughout Zedani’s oeuvre, the allure of which is as much in the finished product as in the process of spectatorship. Every imperfection in the stone and the project’s mysterious arrangement pays reverence to the material and its infinite narrative potential.

Zedani has long studied the nature of the universe – of history and varied perceptions of time – and Mēm appears to be a seamless continuation of this curiosity. He states:

Time is completely identified with existence. Time is not a kind of place where things exist or events happen, nor is it a shape of an instinctive knowledge. Time is existence itself.

Installation view of Ayman Zedani’s ‘Mēm’, 2018, in the Johara Foyer at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

Ayman Zedani’s ‘Mēm’, 2018, installation view in the Johara Foyer at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

Topography, architecture and different planetary terrains have further provided information for the production of the artist’s recent work, all of which expands on the formal language of minimalism to highlight issues of preservation, destruction, repurposing and reconstruction. Zedani approaches the conjured memory of ruins and monuments as a laboratory of information to address questions of space and representation, the elements that define the interactions and relationships between objects, physical reality and the “space of experience”.

Both the Ithra Art Prize panelists and Zedani’s viewers may be surprised that although he is a visual artist, he obtained an undergraduate degree in biomedical science. It is here, at the intersection between logic and experimentation, that his artistic practice has found its foothold. He comments:

I am interested in experimentation with different media, the properties of unconventional materials, the concept of assemblage and how objects can elicit different logical and metaphysical interpretations.

Ayman Zedani standing in his installation, 'Mēm', 2018, at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

Ayman Zedani standing in his installation, ‘Mēm’, 2018, at Art Dubai 2018. Image courtesy Photo Solutions.

Past/present

This interaction is not exclusive to Mēm, nor is it implicitly tied to material exploration; Zedani’s previous projects have, after all, considered methods of experimentation through prisms of cosmology, psychology, metaphysics and epistemology. Take his earlier work Thalatha as an example. Meaning ‘three’ in Arabic, Thalatha centres around the numerical “essence” of Islamic art in a contemporary context. Starting with a formula for creating 24 objects and 24 works on paper based on Ibn Muqla’s system of letter design, al-khatt al-mansub [proportioned script], Zedani creates a new visual alphabet, the letters of which are made of threads “loaded with symbolism and cultural associations”. Their woven whimsicality nods to traditional practice and spirituality while each object’s intricacy lends itself to mathematical logic and complexity.

Click here to watch Ayman Zedani installing ‘Thalatha’ on Vimeo

Another one of Zedani’s previous works, Tethered, speaks of intertwined histories and the spaces they inhabit. The commissioned installation is a playful, interactive project that tackles the disconnect between younger generations and efforts to preserve traditional Emirati games. Inspired by the marble shooting game Attilah, popularised in the UAE, Tethered features rows of green marble balls set on top of copper rods and a ceiling air source that prompts them to gently sway. The objects’ movements symbolise the game’s dynamism, which has been left intentionally devoid of players. Like the enigmatic myth behind Mēm’s monumental pillars, the marbles stay suspended in internal play sans participants.

Click here to view Ayman Zedani’s ‘Tethered’ on Vimeo

It is evident that Zedani’s work greatly revolves around human interaction (or lack thereof) and the psychological perceptions born from his constructed spaces. On the nature of accessibility in his work, specifically with regard to spectatorship and participation, the artist tells Art Radar:

I was interested in observing and learning what people could experience in my work since this was the first time for people to encounter my work from within. I was really intrigued by the different ways that both adults and children dealt with the installation.

While simultaneously a testament to minimalist architecture and a metaphysical exploration of space-time, Mēm and Zedani’s career as a whole shed light on the complexities of multidisciplinary work. It is through the inevitable collaboration between art and science, and the intrigue generated by its peculiarities, that Zedani’s work thrives.

Megan Miller

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Related topics: Awards ceremonies, Saudi artists, installation, art and science collaboration, events in UAE

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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