The co-curators of the upcoming Desert X AlUla (runs from 9 February to 23 March 2024), a collaboration between Desert X and the Royal Commission for AlUla, discuss what we can expect from the next edition and how the desert isn’t as empty as first impressions might suggest.
Canvas: What can we expect from the next edition of Desert X AlUla? What can you share about the theme In the Presence of Absence?
Marcello Dantas: We started with a statement from Maya about the desert and the notion that the vastness is not empty. When you’re in the desert you can feel the presence of absence. The title is in the present tense because the absence is here, it is alive and you can feel it.
Many of the works in this edition deal with manifestations, phenomena, memory or traces that connect the works. Art is a trace and leaves an imprint of someone who has been there before and becomes a sign for others to interpret and understand in the future. This year, the artists play around with this idea and the works reveal the nature of the landscape, the rich history, deep time, space, as well as traditions that took place in AlUla.
Maya El Khalil: AlUla is monumental, and the scale is something that’s really beyond human comprehension and required us to approach the landscape with humility. We are talking about the shortcomings of human perception and the understanding that we need to revisit how we interact with the environment by looking at it from different perspectives other than human-centric. For the 2024 edition, the artists begin a dialogue with history, time and the imperceptible. It also becomes personal where the artists uncover AlUla through their proposals, and in that process, they create encounters with the landscape through their interventions and reflections.
Do your individual curatorial practices complement each other?
MEK: Absolutely. Marcelo and I both have experience with the desert but in different parts of the globe, which is quite interesting. We’re both also engaged with the environment and rethinking the role of humans on this planet. It’s not only about interaction but how to reframe a certain sense of modesty in how we look at everything happening around us, ecologically and politically – because they are often entwined – and also about how we read history.
MD: Maya has a deep knowledge of the Arab world, and how to decode elements of it, and this can be extremely difficult for anybody outside to fully understand. I have experience in creating large-scale artworks and public art, but Desert X AlUla requires thinking on a completely different scale, it’s larger than large. Anything you will do within an urban environment or city completely changes when you work with the desert. The human body is no longer a reference point and everything is to the scale of mountains or dunes. Another aspect I find intriguing is that the desert changes, so understanding and creating artwork that transitions with time is very important. It may feel like a different place from when you install a work, both in regard to climate, light, form and shape. It’s hard for anyone to envision what it will be like because we haven’t worked under those conditions so there is a level of abstraction.
MEK: What has also been fascinating is how one’s impression changes after the first encounter with the desert. So when artists experience AlUla for the first time, the initial few days are about trying to understand the desert as an observer. Afterwards, slowly, this reaction changes and impressions become more tangible in terms of what you can deduct from these interactions as a human existing in the landscape. There is a subtle shift in perspective and you redefine your encounter with the environment and incur these unseen forces. When we talk about these forces, it’s not only elemental but also the history. You pay more attention to the erosion, the intersections of geology, deep time, as well as different ideas and alternate realities. The cosmic also becomes relevant and there’s so much to tap into. There’s also a whole team of experts in AlUla who are able to share their knowledge and extensive research. It’s a process of continuous discovery.
Works from this Desert X AlUla 2024 will be located in the Wadi AlFann desert, AlManshiyah Railway Station and Harrat Uwayrid. How do these sites link together?
MD: We’ve concentrated most of the artists in one location that is walkable, with some works placed in the additional sites. We tried to create a route in which people can explore the desert and each time you turn, you discover something else.
MEK: There is also Harrat Uwayrid, which is volcanic and almost like another desert, and the railway station with a colonial past and history of trade. When we discussed how the different interventions are linked, we identified three primary strands and the places link within that. Some artists look at humans and the landscape and these shifting perspectives, while others try to understand the unseen forces and look at hidden intersections between the elements and history. The third strand looks at alternative and imagined realities here, bringing in the mythic, the ancient, extravagant ecologies, cosmic narratives and deep time.
MD: It goes all the way into the details, from the footprints of the animals that live in the desert, to the rock art in the sites and the geological formations that have change through time or environmental forces such as earthquakes or falling rocks that mark points in history. All of these events are recorded in the desert.
How does Desert X AlUla 2024 work with the community in AlUla?
MEK: A number of artists have tapped into the community, not only to involve them in the process, but also as a source of knowledge.
How are environmental concerns balanced with the large-scale installations?
MD: We have a mission to leave no trace so the works can be removed without damaging the environment. However, a big part of Desert X AlUla is to leave a legacy and become a part of the landscape as we saw with the sites of the previous two iterations, such as the first edition that transformed into Habitas hotel with some works still accessible. A part of the story is to leave an impression and create new meaning for the location be transformed into something else in the future.
MEK: What’s also important is how we develop as artists, curators, practitioners and the public, and question how we develop ecological thought. When I started creating exhibitions in the Gulf, the climate crisis was not at the forefront of people’s minds, but now we see a palpable shift. We need to develop this understanding further, and exhibitions like Desert X AlUla are creating awareness. It’s all about knowledge, not only thinking about exhibitions, but also executing and dismantling them, and all of these aspects have been considered for this exhibition.