Desert X AlUla 2020
Blending Art, Nature and Humanity
ABOUT THE EVENT
Desert X, a series of art exhibitions that explore desert culture, found its ideal home in AlUla in early 2020. As a regional crossroads, a centre of arts and culture, and home to innovative civilisations across the millennia, AlUla was the perfect locale for such a world-class art exhibit.
Established in 2017 in the Coachella Valley of Southern California, Desert X is a series of international contemporary art exhibitions that bring desert locations to life through site-specific installations by acclaimed artists that address ecological, cultural, spiritual and other themes. Desert X AlUla 2020 was a cultural conversation between artists from Saudi Arabia and its surrounding region and artists from previous editions of Desert X in California.
The 2020 exhibit embraced AlUla’s extraordinary environment and rich cultural heritage. As visitors streamed into the desert, surrounded by vast stretches of sand, towering sandstone cliffs and huge rocks, they were amazed to find 14 unique works of contemporary art set organically in the enchanting landscape.
“NOW YOU SEE ME, NOW YOU DON’T”
Circular pieces on the desert floor seemed to come to life as the sun peeked through the cliffs, highlighting one piece and then another. Similar to a mirage, what appeared to be water was actually a series of massive trampolines that could be not only observed, but also touched, laid upon and jumped on. Each night, as the light faded toward nightfall, the trampolines were transformed into “moon circles,” activated through a series of lighting techniques. Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan lives in London, where she is working on her master’s degree in contemporary art practice in the public sphere at the Royal College of Art in London.
“GLIMPSES OF THE PAST”
At first glance, Zahrah AlGhamdi’s installation appeared to be a sparkling, flowing river with multiple tributaries. In fact, it consisted of some 6,000 tin date containers of various sizes, laid out across the undulating sands of AlUla. It was symbolic of the precious water, bubbling up from ancient springs, that gave life to the dates that were contained in those boxes. The Saudi visual and land artist is an assistant professor at the College of Art and Design at the University of Jeddah.
On the surface, “Amma Qabl” appeared to be a plain metallic tube, where one could marvel at seeing themselves and the rugged sandstone cliffs reflected in the shiny surface. The tube, though, was big enough to walk through, and its form came from calligraphic letterforms stretched 9 metres long and read “Amma Qabl.” Attendees could stroll through the metallic tunnel, a passageway whose name loosely means “what precedes,” representing a journey from past to present. A calligrapher and an architect, Nasser Al-Salem’s work combines the Arabic written word with his formal education in architecture. He lives and works as an architect in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“A CONCISE PASSAGE”
Rashed Al Shashai’s playful pyramid shape commanded attention, with its rich blue exterior split in two to reveal its brilliant fuchsia interior. Upon closer inspection, this iconic shape, which hearkened to ancient civilisations, was revealed to be made of the ubiquitous plastic pallets used today for shipping goods around the world. Attendees could walk through the middle of the pyramid, and at night, it was illuminated from the desert floor. A Saudi artist, Rashed Al Shashai holds a master of visual arts degree and is an arts educator and prominent figure of the contemporary Saudi art scene.
“Kholkhal Aliaa” was inspired by a Bedouin anklet given to artist Sherin Guirguis by her mother. Approaching this black geometric shape, it appeared to levitate high overhead in a crevice between two massive rocks framed by the blue sky. It then seemed to change forms, its golden interior almost glowing and the words of a local Bedouin poet inscribed on it. A visual artist based in Los Angeles, Guirguis was born and raised in Egypt.
From a distance, eL Seed’s artwork looked like an intriguing but random collection of fluid lines, but those who understood Arabic script recognised the graceful shapes as letterforms. In fact, the shapes contain the lines of poetry by Jameel Bin Abdullah Bin Moammer rendered in tan forms that echo the immense sands of AlUla. eL Seed is a French-Tunisian street artist whose works incorporate traditional Arabic calligraphy, a style he calls “calligraffiti.” He’s based in Dubai.
Desert X Artists (2020)
SUPERFLEX “ONE TWO THREE SWING!”
“One Two Three Swing!” was among the most interactive – and fun – installations at Desert X AlUla. Attendees could simply view these few sets of three-seated swings connected by a zig-zagging orange support structure — or they could climb aboard, setting it in motion. The real magic happened when they were joined by others on their swing and, working together, they made it soar. Superflex is a Danish artist group founded in 1993 by Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen.
LITA ALBUQUERQUE “NAJMA (SHE PLACED ONE THOUSAND SUNS OVER THE TRANSPARENT OVERLAYS OF SPACE)”
Sitting in repose atop a boulder in the hidden valley and peering out across the ages, a striking ultramarine blue female figure commanded attention as attendees gazed up at her. Some may have wondered what she was thinking or just how far into the vast desert landscape she could see. This installation was a continuation of Lita Albuquerque’s projects in the great deserts of the world. She is a renowned installation and environmental artist, painter and sculptor on the faculty of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
GISELA COLON “The Future is Now”
“The Future is Now,” the latest in Gisela Colon’s “Parabolic Monolith” series, seemed to spring up from deep within the earth and sand. This sleek and futuristic shape stood in stark contrast to the timeless desert scenery of AlUla, marrying past and future in a simple message. The piece also shifted with the sun, sometimes reflecting rainbow-like patterns and, other times, the shadows of its surrounding desert rock formations. Raised in Puerto Rico, Gisela Colon is a Los Angeles-based contemporary artist.
MOHAMMED AHMED IBRAHIM “FALLING STONES GARDEN”
Attendees were drawn to “Falling Stones Garden” when they glimpsed a few large, colourful spheres set at the base of a cliff. Wandering closer, they realised that hundreds of round sculptures were scattered among the fallen rocks, feeling both at home and out of place. The whimsical and intriguing installation was composed of 320 sculptures that varied in size and hue. Artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim was born in Khor Fakkan in the United Arab Emirates. His fascination with that area’s desolate, rocky terrain is reflected in his artwork.
NADIM KARAM “On Parade”
From the side, “On Parade” seemed a long, fantastical procession reminiscent of a caravan of people, camels and other desert life forms. Seen from the front or rear, the characters almost vanished from sight. But as the sun moved from directly overhead, the growing shadows added to the figures’ apparent heft, lengthening their forms. A multidisciplinary Lebanese visual artist, sculptor, painter and architect, Nadim Karam fuses his artistic output of sculpture, painting and drawing with his background in architecture to create large-scale urban art projects in cities around the world.
Desert X Artists (2020)
WAEL SHAWKY “DICTUMS: MANQIA II”
From across the exhibition valley, attendees could see a striking video; the familiar shapes of camels were rendered in ghostly white against a shifting purple background. Projected against a cliff, they seemed to be ambling up toward the heavens. This modern output was projected from a traditional mud house with a Bedouin-style tent atop it, turning the familiar on its head. Born in Egypt, artist Wael Shawky spent his youth in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, before returning to Egypt as a teen.
RAYYANE TABET “STEEL RINGS,” FROM THE SERIES “THE SHORTEST DISTANCE BETWEEN TWO POINTS”
At first glance, “Steel Rings” appeared to be just that — a series of rings set in a line on the desert floor. In truth, though, the work symbolised the Trans-Arabian Pipeline in skeletal form. Each ring was engraved with the distance from the pipe’s source and its corresponding geographic coordinates. The 40 rings exhibited at Desert X AlUla represented the last 40 kilometres of pipeline that run through Saudi Arabia after travelling through four other countries. Trained as both an architect and a sculptor, Beirut-based artist Rayyane Tabet has a master of fine arts degree from the University of California San Diego.
MUHANNAD SHONO “THE LOST PATH”
The black, organic river of “The Lost Path” emerged as if it had been placed there by nature, flowing around boulders on its way to lower ground. But this path with its many tributaries was formed from plastic pipes, a by-product of the petroleum industry. Attendees could walk along it, choosing which branch to follow to see how the plastic river played out against the landscape. Muhannad Shono is a Saudi Arabian contemporary artist who works in illustration, photography and video, among other media.