Desert X AlUla 2024 unveils monumental installations in ancient city

Third event features newly commissioned works by 17 artists from around the world

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The monumental is commonplace in AlUla.

The desert in the ancient Saudi city is like no other, with lofty rock formations that have been streaked, shaped and pockmarked by thousands of years of whimsical erosion. It is a landscape that instills immeasurable awe, a gleeful sense that we are but a speck of an event passing through a timeless terrain.

The third Desert X AlUla comprises artworks that are colossal in their own right. Scattered around three locations within the desert oasis, they aim to bring attention to the unseen marvels of the landscape.

An iteration of the art biennial that originated in California's Coachella Valley, Desert X AlUla is a collaboration between Desert X and The Royal Commission for AlUla. Much like its US counterpart, the event presents a site-specific exhibition where artworks respond to the environment and land.

The third biennial is organised under the theme In the Presence of Absence, featuring newly commissioned works by 17 artists from around the world. The event opened on Friday and runs until March 23. It is a highlight of AlUla Arts Festival.

The best way to experience the exhibition is on foot. This is especially true for its main site at Wadi AlFann, where 13 artworks are being presented. While golf carts are ready to whisk you from one piece to the next, trekking the trail from the visitor’s centre with a map in hand, is the most gratifying way of navigating through Desert X AlUla.

“The whole idea is that we wish people to come to AlUla not [just] to visit Desert X,” says Maya Khalil, who co-curated the event alongside Marcello Dantas, with artistic direction from Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield.

“We wish for people to come to AlUla to visit this landscape. The works are almost a private dialogue between the artist and the landscape, then this dialogue gets translated to the viewer when the viewer is here, and then it becomes a dialogue between you and that work.”

So how does the exhibition fulfil its thematic focus of revealing the unseen?

Italian artist Giuseppe Penone’s The Logic of the Vegetal – Metamorphosis is a good starting point to understanding how the artists addressed the theme. A bronze-cast tree trunk lays on its side at the foot of a cliff, its roots gnarled and the tips of its branches submerged in the sand. Real fossilising tree trunks, collected from all over Saudi Arabia, are scattered around the sculpture. Closer observation shows that they are in the process of permineralisation – as the organic matter decays, the minerals harden to a stone mould.

The Logic of the Vegetal – Metamorphosis provides a new way of seeing the surrounding rock formations. “The desert is a mineral country,” Penone says. “There was organic life. In the process of time, wood became stone. The trunks fossilised. Over two hundred million years, the trunk became sand. We are part of these big movements. This cycle.”

Penone says he chose the particular location in the Wadi AlFann for its intimacy, the way the cliffs embrace this pocket of sand, perhaps goading viewers to come closer to the tree trunks and run their hands on the surfaces that have been caught in the midst of their transformation.

Faisal Samra also takes on the concept of time and change with his work The Dot. A long line of stacked rocks lead to a large, mirrored sphere that reflects the surrounding landscape, as well as the viewer. For the Saudi artist, the sphere, or The Dot, is a particular moment in time, or as he said during the press preview of Desert X AlUla, “the trace of a second.” The artwork also allude to the nature of erosion – how sand forms from broken down rocks, weathering over thousands or millions of years.

Juxtaposing the sandstones collected from the area with the sphere and its mirrored surface, Samra wanted to instil within the landscape a material that was entirely man-made, perhaps to highlight the human impact on the natural world.

Monira Al Qadiri, meanwhile, lays bare the connections between environments and the human capacity for storytelling. W.A.B.A.R came about after the Kuwaiti artist visited the Empty Quarter in 2019. There, she found small black beads within the sand that were shaped like pearls and had irregular protrusions jutting from them.

“In the 1930s, a British explorer named St John Philby was told by the locals that there was an Atlantis of the sands buried in the desert. He made the trip but all he found were giant craters and these black beads,” Al Qadiri tells The National.

“The locals told him the beads were actually pearls, and that they were the necklaces of the ladies that lived in the city, but divine punishment befell them and the city burnt down and all of the pearls turned black. He took some of the beads back to London with him and was told they were actually meteorites from out of space.”

Al Qadiri says she became infatuated with the story, particularly how it exhibited human creativity in trying to reason the unknown. The sculptures, made out of bronze, a first for the artist, were based on five of the black beads that she has in her collection. However, the works are manifold larger than the original pieces, able to be seen from a distance.

Every time I come with anticipation, you never tire, you never stop learning from this landscape
Maya Khalil, co-curator, Desert X AlUla

“The capacity of the human imagination, you find a small rock and you construct an entire narrative and story from it,” she says.

Further into the desert, large, upturned vessels peek out from a sandy clearing between the cliffs. The terracotta vessels vary in designs that allude to pottery from Saudi Arabia as well as Ghana, which is where the artist Ibrahim Mahama is from.

“My great-grandparents were Arabic scholars who travelled across the desert, spreading Islam in Niger, Nigeria, and eventually Ghana, where I was born,” says Mahama. “There was a great tradition of pot-making across these places, and there was always an interest in how they make these pots, keep water in them and bury them halfway in the ground, to keep them cool.

“When we came here in June, it was interesting to look at the landscape, the texture of the rocks, going to the old town, the railway station, the mud houses and thinking of them in relation to the pots.”

Mahama describes the pots as “scars on the landscape.” By upending them in the ground, he says it created a dialogue between the void and the sand. The shapes, which somewhat resemble eggs, also reflect the rounded forms many of the rocks in the surrounding ­terrain have taken on over the years.

The vessels, dozens of which are lined in the clearing, are only one component of Dung Bara – The Rider Does Not Know The Ground is Hot. Metal designs featuring animals, flies and humans are fitted against the faces of cliffs. Though large, the designs – like many works within the exhibition – can catch viewers by surprise as they turn on to a path, instilling a childlike sensation of discovery.

Mahama is the only artist exhibiting works at all three Desert X AlUla sites, with his Hanging Garden displayed at AlManshiyah Plaza and Gabli Din Pali – A Full Gourd Does Not Rattle; It Is Only a Partially Filled Gourd Which Rattles at Harrat Uwayrid.

Another artwork that uses pots to conceptually mirror the landscape in Wadi AlFann is Reveries by Rana Haddad and Pascal Hachem. The Lebanese artists have constructed three towers from clay pots, each distinct and possible to be viewed from the inside. Arranged in a way that corresponds to the rock formations in nearby cliffs, their shadows stretch on the sand with porous gaps that somewhat mimic those on the cliffs.

One particularly mesmerising work is To Breathe – AlUla by Kimsooja. The South Korean artist has brought her idiosyncratic approach of working with light to the desert. A spiral edifice made from glass and translucent film that diffracts sunlight, the artwork treads inward, enveloping visitors with reflecting and refracting shades of the rainbow – provided the time of day and the position of the sun is just right.

To Breathe – AlUla manages to evoke a direct and mindful encounter with light, again fulfilling the exhibition’s edict of highlighting the unseen.

Ultimately, Desert X AlUla is as much about the art as the sites they are situated in. Khalil says she hopes the exhibition inspires the awe and appreciation she felt for the landscape when she first came to AlUla in 1997.

“We camped here, and I remember they woke us up to see the sunrise,” she says. “Until today, it was the most spectacular sunrise I’d ever seen in my life. The first edition of Desert X AlUla was in 2020, and I've been coming since for every edition.

“Every time I come with anticipation, you never tire, you never stop learning from this landscape."

Updated: February 13, 2024, 7:39 AM