Installation view of Lita Albuquerque's NAJMA (She Placed One Thousand Suns On The Transparent Overlays Of Space) at Desert X AlUla. Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist, RCU and Desert X

Saudi Arabia

Trampolining in a Saudi Arabian valley? First look at the interactive art biennial Desert X AlUla

Inaugural edition of the monumental show, opening this Friday, is free to the public

The first monumental Desert X exhibition launches in an ancient valley in Saudi Arabia this week (31 January-7 March, free to the public). The 14 participating artists have been asked to reflect on the history of AlUla, a region in the northwest of the kingdom that has been described as an “open living museum”. The site-specific works are dotted around the oasis valley and sandstone mountains, an area inhabited thousands of years ago by the peoples of the Lihyan and Nabataean kingdoms.

Participants include Zarah Al Ghamdi and Nasser Al Salem of Saudi Arabia, Egyptian-born Wael Shawky, the Danish collective Superflex, and the Dubai-based artist eL Seed. Known for his contemporary Arabic calligraphy, eL Seed draws on AlUla’s key position on the “incense trade route”, which connected Asia, Africa and Europe, bringing spices and silk overland. “The scale of the work is crazy. It’s all about humility, the landscape makes me feel like a spot in the universe. I tried to avoid competing with the environment and wanted the work to blend in,” eL Seed says.

The Desert X sculpture biennial initially launched in the Coachella Valley in California in 2017. The curators of the new version include the founding Desert X director Neville Wakefield, along with Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza, both from Saudi Arabia. Desert X AlUla has been organised in collaboration with the Royal Commission for AlUla, the Saudi governmental body led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

When the initiative was first announced it was met with a barrage of criticism last year over the collaboration between a US organisation and Saudi Arabia, an undemocratic country that violates international human rights laws. “People tend to pre-judge things they haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience,” says Wakefield. “We live in binary times, when people are either isolationist or believe in the power of cultural dialogue. Art changes hearts and minds. Denying an entire population this opportunity is to be part of the problem not the solution.”

Desert X AlUla is part of a drive to promote the cultural credentials of Saudi Arabia, helping to diversify the economy and deliver a more “open” image of the country, in line with the government’s Vision 2030 plan. Crucially, AlUla will reopen its key heritage sites, including the Unesco World Heritage site comprising Hegra, Dadan, AlUla Old Town and Jabal ‘Ikmah in October.

eL Seed's Mirage
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist, RCU and Desert X

eL Seed's Mirage

Gisela Colon's The Future is Now
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist, RCU and Desert X

Gisela Colon's The Future is Now

Lita Albuquerque's NAJMA (She Placed One Thousand Suns On The Transparent Overlays Of Space)
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist, RCU and Desert X

Lita Albuquerque's NAJMA (She Placed One Thousand Suns On The Transparent Overlays Of Space)

Manal AlDowayan, Now You See Me, Now You Don’t
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist, RCU and Desert X

Manal AlDowayan, Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim's Falling Stones Garden
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrie Shabibi, RCU and Desert X

Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim's Falling Stones Garden

Nadim Karam's On Parade
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist, RCU and Desert X

Nadim Karam's On Parade

Nasser AlSalem's Amma Qabel
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist, RCU and Desert X

Nasser AlSalem's Amma Qabel

Rashed AlShashai's A Concise Passage
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist, RCU and Desert X

Rashed AlShashai's A Concise Passage

Rayyane Tabet's Steel Rings, from the series, The Shortest Distance Between Two Points
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir- Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg, RCU and Desert X

Rayyane Tabet's Steel Rings, from the series, The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

Superflex's One Two Three Swing!
Photo: Lance Gerber. Courtesy of the artist, RCU and Desert X

Superflex's One Two Three Swing!