Land Art in the Desert: A Dramatic Exhibition Challenges Artistic Ideas

/ 18 Feb 2020

Land Art in the Desert: A Dramatic Exhibition Challenges Artistic Ideas

In the small desert town of Al Ula in Saudi Arabia, a large ziggurat made from blue plastic crates stands at a height of 15 meters in the middle of a sandy valley. Dramatic and playful yet with a deeply resonant message, the work, by Saudi Arabian artist Rashed Al Shashai, and others on display reference the travel and cultural exchange that once occurred here—and perhaps can be reignited through artworks and discourse.

Al Shashai’s artwork, titled A Concise Package, speaks about the town’s history as a stop on the incense trade route that wound through the region, sheltering travelers from the harsh desert climate in the mountains. This work is part of the inaugural Desert X Al Ula, an art exhibition that, despite some controversy over its connection with the Saudi government, is proposing new ways of making and displaying art in the region.

Desert X Al Ula was organized collaboratively by the Desert Biennial, a California-based nonprofit that produces the site-specific art exhibition Desert X in that state’s Coachella Valley, and the Royal Commission for Al Ula, a Saudi government body which seeks to develop a variety of tourism experiences to attract visitors to the picturesque town, about a three-hour drive northwest of Medina.

Egyptian-American artist Sherin Guirguis produced a piece at Desert X Al Ula called Kholkhal Aliaa (Alia’s Anklet) which is based on a Bedouin anklet once given to the artist by her mother (Image courtesy of Lance Gerber, the artist, RCU and Desert X).
Egyptian-American artist Sherin Guirguis produced a piece at Desert X Al Ula called Kholkhal Aliaa (Alia’s Anklet) which is based on a Bedouin anklet once given to the artist by her mother (Image courtesy of Lance Gerber, the artist, RCU and Desert X).

The royal commission also provided financial and technical support, while the artworks were co-curated by Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield and Saudi Arabian curators Aya Alireza and Raneem Farsi.

A Stunning Backdrop

Otherworldly and magical, Al Ula’s landscape of immense rock formations and desert sands serves as a stunning backdrop for an exhibition that challenges definitions of art, artistic engagement and public dialogue simultaneously through site-specific works.

Fourteen artists participated, hailing from Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Puerto Rico and Denmark, making for an interesting confluence of ideas, propositions and artistic statements.

“The artists reacted to a landscape that you can’t challenge, but [instead] the artists engaged with the landscape itself.”

Raneem Farsi   Saudi Arabian curator

“I believe that Desert X Al Ula has an ability to create a dialogue, and I hope this message spreads out and is communicated to the world,” said Wakefield at a news conference before the official opening. “There was active participation on the local level by artists who invited members of the local community to help install, engage and give them workshops. It’s both local and global and I think that’s the beauty of this.”

Farsi added: “The artists reacted to a landscape that you can’t challenge, but [instead] the artists engaged with the landscape itself.”

Land art emerged in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, expanding the boundaries of art creation by making works on or about landscapes far from urban centers. Often, the materials used were those of the context or surrounding area such as sand, stone or water.

Tunisian-American artist Lita Albuquerque created an installation dispersed throughout the valley and titled Najma (She Placed One Thousand Suns Over the Transparent Overlays of Space). The artist uses the fictive character of  a 25th-century female astronaut (Image courtesy of Lance Gerber, the artist, RCU and Desert X).
Tunisian-American artist Lita Albuquerque created an installation dispersed throughout the valley and titled Najma (She Placed One Thousand Suns Over the Transparent Overlays of Space). The artist uses the fictive character of a 25th-century female astronaut (Image courtesy of Lance Gerber, the artist, RCU and Desert X).

One hallmark of the movement was an emphasis on ecology and the preservation of natural landscapes. Fittingly, Desert X Al Ula is eager to start conversations about ecological preservation in the desert.

Vibrant Commentaries

Such is the case with Manal Al Dowayan’s work Now You See Me, Now You Don’t, which embeds trampolines of various sizes in the desert sand. By day, visitors can physically enjoy the trampolines; by night, the work’s objective as a commentary on scarce water resources in the region is made clear when the trampolines, lit from underneath, look like large droplets of water in the desert.

Emirati artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, known for producing work inspired by the landscape of his native Khorfakhan, a mountainous region of the U.A.E., produced Falling Stones Garden, an installation of neon-colored spheres of various sizes scattered by a mountainside.

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“When I came on an initial site visit, I noticed that the stones that had fallen from the mountains and were scattered about, and in various shapes, were in different hues and colors if you looked at them closely,” Ibrahim said. “I wanted to emulate that in my work.

“This piece is about the movements of the rocks and stones here, of how they settle,” he added, “and this is very much in line with how I work and think about my work. Unbeknownst to me when I started making artwork in the early 1980s, there was such a thing as land art, and I was essentially making land art and participating in this conversation in my own way.”

“The experience of working with local Al Ula women artists and artisans has been transformative. I felt the laughs shared and the exchange of knowledge and conversation was extraordinary for me and continued to open up my world view, and I hope it did theirs.”

Sherin Guirguis   Egyptian-American artist

Tunisian-American artist Lita Albuquerque participated with an installation that was dispersed throughout the valley. The work, titled Najma (She Placed One Thousand Suns Over the Transparent Overlays of Space), combines her recurring use of the fictive character of Elyseria, a 25th-century female astronaut whom she has placed in various locales around the world, with blue spheres imposed in a formation that mirrors a constellation of stars directly above the valley.

Albuquerque’s placement of Elyseria on a rock formation is believed to be the first time in several centuries that a sculpture of a female figure has been publicly shown anywhere in Saudi Arabia, which has forbidden the display of female figures owing to Islamic convention.

Engaging With the Landscape

Mohannad Shono’s artwork The Lost Path contains thousands of plastic pipes, by-products of the petroleum industry, and despite its origins in industry, his piece invites a physical experience. By following the pipes, visitors arrive to a spot hidden atop a sand dune, reaching it only after engaging with the land on the hike up.

Desert X Al Ula succeeds not only in adapting ideas about land art to the local context of Al Ula, but also in integrating local communities into elements of the production of the artworks.

Egyptian-American artist Sherin Guirguis produced a piece called Kholkhal Aliaa (Alia’s Anklet) which is based on a Bedouin anklet once given to Guirguis by her mother. Playing with scale, the piece pays homage to women of the desert by creating a large sculpture based on the shape of the anklet and inscribing on it in Arabic calligraphy a poem by an ancient Bedouin poetess named Alia Bint Dawi Alayyah AlDalbahi AlOtaibi. The poem is about the writer’s familial and emotional connection to the desert landscape. Suspended high and wedged in a large mountain crevice, Guirguis’s work calls for visitors to stand underneath and read the poem.

Emirati artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, known for producing work inspired by the landscape of his native region, produced Falling Stones Garden, an installation of neon-colored spheres (Image courtesy of Lance Gerber, the artist, Lawrie Shabibi, RCU and Desert X).
Emirati artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, known for producing work inspired by the landscape of his native region, produced Falling Stones Garden, an installation of neon-colored spheres (Image courtesy of Lance Gerber, the artist, Lawrie Shabibi, RCU and Desert X).

A second element of the work involved local female weavers whom Guirguis collaborated with to weave the poem onto traditional black sadu cloth. Those pieces are further elements of exchange and engagement with the local community as the artist invites visitors to weave colored thread onto those pieces.

Criticism and Response

The event was not, of course, without controversy.

Christopher Knight, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, denounced Desert X’s decision to collaborate with the Saudi government as “morally corrupt,” and three members of the Desert X board resigned in protest, including the pop art icon Ed Ruscha.

Guirguis, Lita Albuquerque, the artist collective Superflex from Denmark, and others who have participated in the Coachella editions of Desert X also faced criticism for agreeing to participate in the Saudi event.

Speaking about her involvement, Guirguis said: “The experience of working with local Al Ula women artists and artisans has been transformative. I felt the laughs shared and the exchange of knowledge and conversation was extraordinary for me and continued to open up my world view, and I hope it did theirs.”

Susan Davis, Desert X’s founder and chair, also defended the organization’s expansion to Saudi Arabia.

“It’s natural that people would have objections to any art event and react accordingly,” she said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media. “Yet this doesn’t detract from what’s been taking place or the opportunities of dialogue, exchange and learning that can come up for the artists from the United States who have come here to show their work.”

The curator Aya Alireza noted the exhibition’s departure from the staid white-cube gallery model that dominates the art world. “This has been about breaking down gallery walls,” she commented. “… There are so many firsts in an event like this.”

Running into March, Desert X Al Ula has already bolstered a sense of wonder and curiosity with regards to art-making and exhibitions in a country trying to set a new tone about regional politics and society. Desert X Al Ula is an encouraging first chapter for regional artists to expand their ambitions, create awareness of the benefits of community engagement through the arts, and start a much-needed revolution for the arts.




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