‘How Do You Deal with the Sublime?’: The Curators of Saudi Arabia’s Desert X on Using Landscape as Inspiration

Earlier this month, the third edition of Desert X AlUla opened as part of the AlUla Arts Festival. The show runs through March 23.

The show includes 17 artists, some from the region (like Rand Abdul Jabbar (Iraq),  Monira Al Qadiri (Kuwait), Aseel AlYaqoub (Kuwait), Ayman Yossri Daydban (Saudi-Palestine), Pascal Hachem and Rana Haddad (Lebanon), Faisal Samra (Saudi Arabia), Filwa Nazer (Saudi Arabia) and others international (like Karola Braga (Brazil), Ibrahim Mahama (Ghana), Kader Attia (Algeria/France), Giuseppe Penone (Italy), Bosco Sodi (Mexico), Kimsooja (South Korea)).

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The curators of this year’s edition, Beirut-born independent curator Maya El Khalil and the Brazilian documentary director Marcello Dantas, who called their exhibition “In the Presence of Absence,” spoke with ARTnews.

ARTnews: What are some of the challenges of putting together a show like this? Is the landscape a challenge?

Marcello Dantas: The landscape is the inspiration, not the challenge. The most powerful relationships were created through the context of artists in the landscape and understanding the layers of time, the layers of history, the aesthetic possibilities that such a landscape can produce in an artist’s eyes. One thing that I find to be very important, is, we have very few opportunities in life as artists and curators to work without architecture. In uncontrolled spaces, spaces that are completely vast, open, and without any reference of architecture in it. It’s like a blank canvas. It’s a learning curve, and I think it was a beautiful experience for all the artists, for the whole process. And for the public. People tend to realize that they have not been in places that have this resonance very much in their lives. Places where you are in your body in the landscape. Not in a car, not flying over it in an airplane. It is not a common event, even for Saudis.

Maya El Khalil: For me, the biggest challenge was at the beginning, to think about how we can think outside the scope of monumentality, and to think: what can we contribute? What can we learn from this? There is a wealth of knowledge here from deep time, from geology, archaeology, the history of the place. We need to move away from a human centric approach to the landscape and try to understand it from different perspectives.

The way deserts have been looked at from a colonial attitude is that they are empty, primed for extraction. But these deserts are never empty. Not only in terms of the history of the place, but also in terms of the wealth of flora, fauna. A number of the artists in Desert X work with the question of how you express the unknown—How do you deal with fear? How do you deal with the sublime? Here, it’s all mixed between the sublime, the monumental, the unseen. The challenge was to  encourage artists, no matter how advanced their careers, to really start from this landscape. How can they learn from this place? And then how can they express that that understanding? It’s not about certainty.

Dantas: It’s about humility.

Tell me about your theme, “In the Presence of Absence.”

Dantas: We always felt that there was something always present, that we were sharing the space, we felt there is a second layer of events, of time, of presence, that we can feel, although we cannot see. And we are addressing the multiple dimensions, the dimensions of time, but also the dimensions of other species, the dimensions of the sensory aspect of the place, the instantaneous images of the cracks of those mountains that happened one day, and the gravity that affected them, all this was alive, then we realized that we were in the presence of absence. We felt that would translate to an audience.

The core reason to make Desert X is to build a lexicon, built a knowledge of how to deal with contemporary art in the landscape, that Saudi Arabia has not much done yet. This builds an audience as it goes along. This is a seed of a transformation of sensibilities, of how to relate to nature, how to relate to the landscape. We are building a legacy of sensibility.

El Khalil: There is this idea of moving through the landscape and changing perspective. So there are works that address that change in perspective. There are other works that address the unseen from a non-human perspective, and address the imaginary. Each group of works compliment the others.

In previous editions of Desert X, the Royal Commission AlUla acquired some of the artworks or made them permanent installation. Is that something that will happen with this edition? 

El Khalil: One of the aims of desert X is to build the collection of the forthcoming Museum of Contemporary Art that will open in AlUla. So there is a whole ecosystem around the arts that is being filled. And this is feeding into it. At some point we will know what works from this edition will be collected.

It was interesting to learn that there is a Tino Sehgal piece as part of the programming of this year’s Desert X. Sehgal’s work famously consists entirely of performance—and no photos are allowed. This kind of project seems new for Desert X. How did that come about? 

Dantas: It’s something I proposed very late in the game. I felt that we needed some elements of lightness. A human energy. I knew that Tino has been researchin a lot about the possibilities of acoustics. And when we were in alula, we felt very strongly that the sound of certain places was very, very special. it’s very unique—one of the experiences you have in the desert is the silence. you hear things that you are normally not used to hearing, because there is a very low level of noise, but also the way that those mountains exist, they reverberate the sound, they produce a certain awareness of dimension, that you can’t really reproduce anywhere. And that’s when I felt that Tino, in with his more musical and performative aspects, would add a spice to the experience. And it really works. we don’t advertise it. People just come in, and suddenly there’s something going on. When you realize that these things are relatively coordinated, it pulsates. And then it produces sounds that can be heard throughout the valley. So depending on where you are, you can hear it from afar.

There is more going on around the time of Desert X than there was during past editions. The art scene in Saudi Arabia has developed broadly, but there is also the AlUla Arts Festival, the Ithra Prize, and the Diryah Biennale. How do you feel about that?

El Khalil: The ecosystem around art is maturing, is developing, there’s so much that’s taking place. It’s not only at the level of events, but it’s also at the level of training people and getting the community more involved. Also, in terms of the development of crafts there’s a lot happening. The residency program is phenomenal. it’s attracting artists from all over the world. It’s a very serious program. So there’s a lot that is happening. Fast. it is a packed program. There is an energy that is quite inspiring.

Source: artnews.com

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