Desert X AlUla 2022: biennial highlights the importance of Saudi Arabia's majestic valley

Set against the natural landscape, works by 15 artists, from a golden waterfall to parasitic plants, present wonders

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Desert X AlUla opened its second site-specific biennial today. Couched among the canyons of the majestic AlUla valley – which is being developed as a major cultural and tourist site by Saudi Arabia – works by 15 artists respond to the geography and history of the surroundings.

The biennial is a collaboration between the Royal Commission for AlUla and Desert X, a foundation housed in the Coachella Valley in California that began in 2017. Both are young organisations and uniquely tied to their environment, which unites the two generally disparate locations.

The importance of AlUla is felt throughout the show. Though nominally operating under the idea of “Sarab”, or mirages and oases, the curators – Reem Fadda, director of Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation, and Neville Wakefield and Raneem Farsi of Desert X – underlined that site visits came first, and then curatorial concepts.

“The artists spoke to the rocks, they spoke to the bushes and the trees,” says Fadda. Only then did they speak to the curators.

The resulting works are site-specific in the extreme – in many cases even composed of the earth itself. Jeddah artist Dana Awartani reflected the Nabatean tombs of the AlUla valley with her own, almost pixillated version of a tomb. Made out of bricks cut from the canyon’s stones, it resembles a dimpled throne, upon which visitors can pause in the shade and gaze out over the other works of the biennial.

One of the strongest pieces, Desert Kite, by Sultan bin Fahd, likewise uses the earth to create its unique mud-brick structure, where two tall diagonal lines end in a narrow aperture opening onto a circle. These forms are seen throughout the Arabian desert and archeologists are not sure of their exact purpose. They speculate that these structures, known as desert kites, are either tombs or traps in which Bedouins captured animals.

In the Saudi artist’s rendition, an odd, misshapen vessel sits in the centre of the circle. Comprised of two lumpen fibreglass orbs, topped by a cheery, pistachio-green beak, the urn contains a small amount of water and is embossed with barely visible sketches of the mythological creatures found in representations throughout AlUla.

For bin Fahd, an artist who often plays with opacity and transparency in his materials, the combination of the kite structure and the strange vessel added a new image to the AlUla imaginary without merely replicating heritage practices – always a danger when working within the overly evocative site.

Shezad Dawood’s enlargements of coral species similarly hit a note of surrealism, with two uncanny features looking otherworldly while being absolutely of the area. They are based on two types of corals that are endemic to the Red Sea, the body of water that AlUla was the delta for a few million years ago.

The London artist sculpted their knobbly, barnacled surfaces and coated them in a heat-responsive paint – as on a novelty mug that changes colour when hot coffee is poured in – so that Coral Alchemy I and II morph like living, organic beings in response to the desert's fluctuating temperature.

“I wanted to think about our human timescale in a visual and visceral way,” he says. “And to install the structures like they were always there. It is a way of not explaining it, not being didactic – this is where art can function. Suddenly people get it: this was once the sea.”

The extraordinary vistas and rocky, jagged mountains lend themselves to thinking about the planet and man's role on a grand scale. The contemplative aspect is arguably enhanced this year by the different setting for the biennial. The last event's space is now used for the luxury hotel Habitas AlUla, with some of the artworks, such as those by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim and Lita Albuquerque, remaining as highbrow window-dressing.

This year's canyon has both more expansive sight-lines and are more nestled, private areas for the works, which seem to hunker down in their surroundings rather than competing with them. Emirati artist Shaikha Al Mazrou’s brassy, reflective structures, Measuring the Physicality of a Void, almost become part of the mountain they sit against, using the Sun and the mirrorings of the sand to suggest shifts in perception.

Wakefield, the artistic director of Desert X, says deserts are newly relevant in the climate emergency, offering tools for survival as water becomes increasingly scarce. A variety of experts are coming to AlUla to excavate and develop the site, he says, but “artists are the non-specialists. They are the intersectional thinkers and they can be the thought-leaders".

When we talk about rootedness in the show, that’s what we mean – rootedness at every level
Reem Fadda, Desert X AlUla 2022 co-curator and director of Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation

Ghana, where the artist Serge Attukwei Clottey is from, is already seeing the effects of water scarcity and he has created a tumbling waterfall of sewn together squares of jerry cans. These cans are used to sell cooking oil, but are then reused to store water in Ghanaian households.

In Saudi Arabia, Attukwei Clottey imagines an ironic waterfall descending from the dry desert walls. The work is visually spectacular, but Gold Falls works better up close, where the plastic tapestry clings to the mountainside, gently layering over its jagged outcrops.

Ayman Zedani’s sound installation celebrates, in a ritual incantation, the plants that survive in the harsh climate. In the past the Riyadh artist has looked to parasitical plants, which latch on to other vegetation in the desert and – using a technique of horizontal gene transfer – begin growing out of the host. This work, The Desert Keepers, is currently also up in Abu Dhabi in Portrait of a Nation II: Beyond Narratives at Manarat Al Saadiyat.

In his piece in AlUla, The Valley of the Desert Keepers, speakers play the Khaleeji names for eight desert plants. Bright green ropes act as guidelines drawing the visitors up towards the soundscape and an acacia tree, on which strange leaves grow – the symptoms of a parasitical plant that has colonised it.

Khalil Rabah, who lives in Ramallah, has planted a grove of olive trees, relocating the living creatures in an art context. Rabah’s work has long addressed the rights and possibilities of vegetation as living beings, such as in the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, or in his 2008 work when he sought Swiss citizenship for a tree he had planted in the Geneva gardens 12 years earlier – as, under Swiss law, a living being is eligible for citizenship after being in the country for a dozen years. In AlUla, the trees pay homage to the resilience of the species, taking root in the Saudi desert after being transplanted from elsewhere.

This second biennial feels more confident than the first. While the inaugural 2020 Desert X AlUla showed a mix of Saudi and global artists from the original Desert X in California, the creatives chosen here on the whole have long-standing relations with the region, and the variety of ways they play with the history, environment and vistas is wonderfully unforced.

“These are artists I have worked with for a long time,” says Fadda, pointing to practitioners such as Rabah, Shadia Alem, Awartani and Zeinab AlHashemi. “When we talk about rootedness in the show, that’s what we mean – rootedness at every level.”

Desert X AlUla 2022 runs until March 30

Updated: February 10, 2022, 8:34 AM