Exploring the Sublime: Insights from the Curators of Desert X AlUla

Amidst the mesmerizing landscape of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla region, the third iteration of Desert X AlUla unfurled its artistic tapestry as part of the AlUla Arts Festival earlier this month, enchanting visitors with a myriad of thought-provoking installations. Running until March 23, this year’s exhibition boasts contributions from 17 artists hailing from diverse corners of the globe, including local talents like Faisal Samra and Filwa Nazer, alongside international luminaries such as Giuseppe Penone and Kimsooja.

The architects behind this captivating journey, Beirut-born curator Maya El Khalil and Brazilian documentary director Marcello Dantas, christened their curation “In the Presence of Absence,” delving into dialogues surrounding the enigmatic allure of the desert landscape. In a conversation with ARTnews, they shed light on the intricacies of their endeavor.

ARTnews: What challenges did you encounter in orchestrating this exhibition, particularly within the context of the landscape?

Marcello Dantas: Rather than a challenge, the landscape served as our muse, igniting profound connections with the artists as they grappled with its temporal and historical strata. Working within unbounded, untamed expanses devoid of architectural confines presented a unique opportunity—a blank canvas, if you will. This immersion within the raw essence of the desert, devoid of human constructs, offered a rich learning experience for both artists and audiences alike, fostering a visceral engagement seldom encountered in conventional settings.

Maya El Khalil: Initially, our challenge lay in transcending the paradigm of monumentality, endeavoring to extract insights from the landscape’s deep-rooted tapestry of geology, archaeology, and indigenous heritage. We sought to veer away from anthropocentric perspectives, embracing a more holistic understanding of the landscape that encompasses its myriad dimensions. The desert, often vilified through colonial lenses as desolate and barren, teems with life and untold narratives. Our aim was to coax artists into immersing themselves in this vibrant tapestry, allowing it to shape their creative expression—a journey marked by uncertainty and humility.

Dantas: Indeed, our theme, “In the Presence of Absence,” encapsulates the palpable sense of coexistence with elusive forces that permeate the desert realm. We perceived a latent presence, a secondary narrative interwoven within the fabric of time and space, transcending human comprehension. This endeavor serves as a cornerstone in cultivating a lexicon for contemporary art within Saudi Arabia’s landscape—a transformative journey towards heightened sensibilities and a nuanced relationship with nature.

El Khalil: Our thematic exploration delves into the multifaceted dimensions of absence, encompassing temporal, spatial, and existential realms. Works within the exhibition oscillate between perspectives, oscillating between human and non-human vantage points, unraveling the mysteries of the unseen and the imaginary. Each piece complements the other, forming a cohesive narrative that resonates with audiences on a profound level.

As previous editions of Desert X witnessed the acquisition of select artworks, can we expect a similar outcome this year?

El Khalil: Indeed, the legacy of Desert X extends beyond temporal exhibitions, contributing to the burgeoning collection of the forthcoming Museum of Contemporary Art in AlUla. Our endeavor serves as a catalyst for nurturing a vibrant arts ecosystem, fostering a symbiotic relationship between artistic expression and cultural heritage.

The inclusion of a Tino Sehgal piece marks a departure from conventional mediums. How did this collaboration materialize?

Dantas: The integration of Sehgal’s ephemeral performance art injects a sense of vitality and spontaneity into the exhibition, offering a unique sensorial experience amidst the desert’s serene expanse. Inspired by the desert’s acoustic nuances, Sehgal’s intervention seamlessly intertwines with the landscape, eliciting a symphony of human interaction and natural resonance—a testament to the evolving landscape of contemporary art within unconventional settings.

Against the backdrop of burgeoning art festivals and biennales, how do you perceive the evolving arts landscape in Saudi Arabia?

El Khalil: The burgeoning arts ecosystem in Saudi Arabia mirrors a broader cultural renaissance, characterized by a proliferation of artistic initiatives and community engagement. From the AlUla Arts Festival to the Ithra Prize and Diryah Biennale, the landscape is teeming with vitality and innovation—a testament to the nation’s unwavering commitment to fostering artistic excellence and cultural dialogue.

As the sun sets over the dunes of AlUla, Desert X AlUla stands as a testament to the enduring power of art to transcend boundaries, forging connections amidst the vast expanse of the desert landscape—a beacon of creativity amidst the shifting sands of time.