DUBAI: They look like dozens of sand castles, some bigger than others, the remains of hours of imaginative play, except that the 364 concentric circles of sand mounds are stationed in the rock formations breathtaking view of AlUla, the ancient region of Saudi Arabia. that has attracted peoples and civilizations for more than 200,000 years.
The circle of sand mounds is by American artist Jim Denevan. Titled “Angle of Repose”, it is one of the first and largest works visitors will see when they attend the second edition of Desert X AlUla, which kicked off on February 11 and will run until February 30. March.
The work was carried out with the help of local AlUla volunteers. As one approaches and enters the work, the mounds of sand get smaller and smaller. The experience is breathtaking and surreal, leading one to wonder if they are truly on planet Earth or perhaps in some distant alternate reality instead. That was exactly Denevan’s goal: to shape, like his many sand castles, the visitor’s experience in the desert.
Denevan’s work is one of 15 currently on display at Desert X AlUla, the site-specific contemporary exhibition of monumental desert art, launched in AlUla in early 2020. The event, which took place for premiered in California’s Coachella Valley in 2017, is about creating art in dialogue with the land that also sparks cross-cultural dialogue and consideration of relevant current issues.
This year’s event, which is free and open to everyone, was curated by Reema Fadda, Raneem Farsi and Founding Desert X Artistic Director Neville Wakefield.
It took place in a larger place, the valley of Al-Mutadil, under the theme “Sarab”, which means mirage in Arabic. The artists, who come from all over the world, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Ghana, created works without any direction from the organizers, but which were cemented in ideas of literature, of nature, history and culture intrinsic to the desert environment in which they were placed.
“The desert concepts of mirage and oasis have long been linked to ideas of survival, perseverance, desire and wealth,” Fadda said in a statement. “The oasis relates to ideas of finding prosperity or paradise, while the mirage is a universal symbol of the mysteries of imagination and reality. They also evoke the incomprehensible beauty and abundance of nature in its most destitute state – the desert – and humans’ obsessive desire to capture and control it.
“I think the desert is interesting to people because it’s a heterotopic space, not because it can be subsumed under a single theme,” Wakefield told Arab News. “My version of Desert X, whether it’s here or in California, is that it’s not themed. It has to be curated by location.
Through their work, the artists have addressed issues of human progress, migration, ancient history and, above all, climate change.
“There are currents running through the works and that of the environment is at the forefront,” Wakefield said.
An example is “Under the Same Sun” by Canadian artist Stephanie Deumer, in which she created an underground greenhouse that operates at the intersection of nature and technology.
Visitors can descend from the desert into the greenhouse of Deumer, as if they were going to an underground bunker but with a solar roof. The solar power projects live power from the outside onto the plants enclosed in a glass container inside and creates that artificial light and mimics what you see outside to feed and grow the plants. “She created a completely self-contained system,” Wakefield said.
British artist Shezad Dawood’s two sculptural coral-like forms, titled “Coral Alchemy” I and II, similarly reflect on ancient and modern uses of the environment, particularly AlUla’s relationship to the water – hundreds of years ago the rock formations you see were all underwater.
Dawood’s two sculptures – one prominent on a wide sandy road and the other positioned high in the rock formation as if camouflaged – explore the geobiological relationship between the desert floor and the nearby Red Sea. The surfaces of the works are temperature sensitive and reflect the effects of the sun as their color changes in certain parts – a way of reflecting the outcome of climate change and humanity’s struggle to find sustainable solutions.
Standout pieces included Ghanaian artist Serge Attakwei Clottey’s ‘Gold Falls’, a vibrant yellow tapestry-like work made from square parts of yellow water jerry cans found across Africa that the artist has long used. to discuss issues related to water scarcity and migration in Africa.
The artwork can be seen in front of Denevan’s multitude of sand mounds. Clottey, who participated in the Coachella event in 2021, is the first and only African artist in this year’s AlUla edition. For most Africans, Clottey explains, the desert evokes fear because it is associated with migration, loss and death.
“I am an artist who creates with my heart and not with my head and I am interested in the meaning of certain objects for Africans,” Clottey told Arab News. “They use these yellow jerry cans to transport cooking oil from the west. After using oil, we use them to store water which has become problematic for our health. As an artist, I am interested in the origin of containers and how they become symbolic in our life.
However, the title of this work, “Gold Falls”, is meant to evoke hope. Clottey wants to show how a new, less threatening relationship can be forged with the desert through art.
In other parts, less pretentious and smaller works by Shaikha Al Mazrou and Zeinab Alhashemi, both from the United Arab Emirates, collaborated with the environment, almost camouflaged by their colors and shapes similar to the surrounding rock formations. .
In Alhashemi’s work, titled “Camouflage 2.0”, she used abandoned camel skins on abstract geometric bases – their shapes resembling those found in the AlUla landscape. Al Mazrou’s “Measuring the Physics of the Void” features several swollen steel structures stuck in the void of rocks that must be searched to locate.
Participating Saudi artists – Shadia Alem, Abdullah Al-Othman, Sultan bin Fahad, Ayman Zedani and Dana Awartani – explored in depth the natural landscape of AlUla and its ancient stories through their art.
Alem’s shimmering origami-like sculpture “I saw thousands of stars and one fell in AlUla” looks like a gigantic jewel fallen from the sky, embellishing the desert landscape.
Bin Fahad’s mud structure, made with the help of the local community, is shaped like a desert kite that one crosses until arriving at a circular open-air room with a large wooden urn. glass that points to the sky. The shape, known as the desert kite, can be found throughout the Arabian Desert and archaeologists are still unsure whether the ancient structures are tombs or traps where Bedouins would capture animals.
Zedani’s performative piece can be reached via an ascent of a rocky mountain following yellow and green ropes. Upon reaching the rocky cave at the top, visitors hear a recitation of Arabic words for desert plants along with the background sounds of the surrounding desert landscape. The experience is haunting and meditative, the sound of the visitor’s footsteps on the rocks adding to the congregation of diverse sounds that seem to organically rhyme in unison.
Awartani’s ‘Where the Dweller’s Lay’ – a work that has prompted many photo opportunities – is made from local sandstone. Its concave geometric carving draws inspiration from vernacular architecture found in ancient AlUla, particularly in the stepped patterns found in Nabataean tombs. The gigantic sculpture invites viewers to sit inside, pause and reflect on the history and beauty of the surroundings.
The trip to see the works of Desert X AlUla adds to the experience of seeing the art and the state of being in nature. One feels the sheer scale of the desert landscape, the wind and the sandy air, reminders of the strength and power needed to inhabit or traverse such habitats for long periods of time.
Al-Othman’s “Geography of Hope” reflects on the experience of seeing a mirage in the desert after a long and arduous journey. A long strip of shiny steel in the shape of a body of water reflects the surrounding landscape.
“It’s about how, looking for water in the desert, you find a mirage,” the artist told Arab News. The work reflects different colors depending on the time of day it is viewed and the angle of the sun. “The mirage gives you hope for your journey.”