X Marks the Spot – Introducing Desert X AlUla from Saudi Arabia

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“Everyone in the art world seems to want a piece of the Saudi art scene.” This is the verdict of the influential art diary after the second Desert X AlUla exhibition opened in northwestern Saudi Arabia on February 11.

At a VIP launch which saw singer Alicia Keys perform in front of a host of world luminaries, including Swiss patron Maja Hoffmann, Honorary Chairman of Christie’s, Lord Snowdon and collector Basma Al Sulaiman, 15 installations were unveiled, created by an international cast of contributors.

These works are all designed to complement the geology of the desert setting. Among them, Stephanie Deumer’s underground greenhouse (under the same sun), the “waterfall” of water bottles by Serge Attukwei Clottey golden falls and that of Jim Denevan angle of repose – 364 dunes arranged in concentric circles.

This is the second edition of the international site-specific art exhibition to be held in AlUla and will run until March 30.

AlUla is best known for its Unesco World Heritage Site, Hegra – the ancient Nabataean “twin” of Petra in Jordan – a civilization that briefly flourished in the first century AD, but it is the present and the future of the region which are now causing a sensation.

Over the past five years, AlUla has established itself as a global destination for arts and culture. In addition to high-profile events like DesertX AlUla, it is home to the Maraya Hall exhibition and concert space, which currently hosts What Lies Within, a showcase of modern Saudi art.

The Royal Commission for AlUla also attracts artists to live and work in AlUla. His inaugural artists’ retreat has just ended; the works of six artists who spent 11 weeks drawing inspiration from the landscapes and light of the region are now on display at the Oasis Reborn exhibition in the palm grove of the Mabiti AlUla hotel, until the end of March.

Desert X began life in California’s Coachella Valley – itself a striking backdrop for spectacular and often provocative artwork – in 2017 before partnering with AlUla for the first time in 2020.

The environment of AlUla, where desert, oasis and mountains meet, provides an equally spectacular setting. The 15 works are spread across four different rock canyons that invite visitors to explore and simply enjoy. Some of them will require physical as well as intellectual endurance: to reach the soundscape and the installation of the Saudi artist Ayman Zedani, Valley of the Desert Guardiansvisitors climb a steep rock, aided by a long yellow and green rope.

Others, like that of Alicja Kwade ParaPivot (everlasting clouds), challenge the mental faculties. The work of the Polish artist based in Berlin seems to waver under the desert sun; blocks of “ice” – actually marble – suspended from interlocking frames.

Although her own work explores illusion and instability, she believes AlUla’s various artistic endeavors will have a lasting impact on the country and region. “We’ve seen how public art can change communities,” says Kwade. “[It] can develop communities in a very good way – financially, touristically and all that.

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