In many portrayals of the desert, the most enchanting part of the landscape is actually just an illusion — a distant mirage that later reveals itself to be a trick of the sun. Now, Desert X AlUla is staging shimmering desert attractions that look as compelling up close as they do from far away, all the while casting a spotlight on the beauty of their arid surroundings in northwestern Saudi Arabia’s Al Mutadil valley.
The organization behind the exhibition, The Desert Biennial, is a California-based arts non-profit dedicated to creating site-specific interventions that build upon the land art movement of the ’60s and ’70s. In 2017, the group opened its first Desert X exhibition in the Coachella Valley, where it has since held subsequent Desert X editions in 2019 and 2021. Early participants included Sterling Ruby and Doug Aitken.
In 2020, Desert X also expanded to launch a second biennial in Saudi Arabia, courted by funding from the Royal Commission for AlUla, part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s initiative to reintroduce the city as the world’s largest living museum. Desert X now alternates venues between Coachella and AlUla each year.
This year’s open-air exhibition adopts the theme of sarab, or mirage. Curators Reem Fadda, Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield invited 15 artists to take inspiration from the oasis illusions that are frequently associated with desert landscapes.
Many of the resulting works oscillate between the worlds of nature and art. From a distance, Jim Deneven’s Angle of Repose might look like a windswept landscape feature, but as you approach, the circular arrangement of 364 sand hills reveals itself to actually be an intricate human intervention. (In fact, its carefully plotted elements were shaped by local volunteers.)
Similarly, Zeinab Alashemi’s Camouflage 2.0 sculptures blend into their rocky backdrop from afar, but emerge as something faceted and furry (they’re upholstered in discarded camel hides) upon closer investigation.
Meanwhile, Claudia Comte’s series of eye-catching canvases hold a secret of their own: their trippy patterns are actually graphic representations of desert sound waves.
Bringing together a mix of local and international perspectives, the roster of participants even includes one (L.A.-based) Canadian: Stephanie Deumer. Using growth lights powered by solar panels, her installation Under the Same Sun cultivates a small garden inside of an underground cave.
Granted, for some, the festival’s mirage theme feels a bit too on the nose. In highlighting the physical beauty of Saudi Arabia, Desert X’s clever visual spectacles may end up playing a second deception.
Back when Desert X first announced its expansion to AlUla, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight accused the Saudi Arabian government of using art to distract from its human rights violations — most notably, Prince Mohammed’s alleged order for the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (something Prince Mohammed continues to deny, despite mounting evidence). The NGO Human Rights Watch has echoed many of the same concerns about the country’s broader art and tourism-driven Vision 2030 plan. Sharing these sentiments, several of Desert X’s original board members — including Ed Ruscha — resigned in advance of its first AlUla exhibition.
For their part, Desert X’s participating artists have communicated mixed feelings about the controversy. Some have said that the exhibition’s art should be allowed to stand on its own merits, while Jakob Fenger of Danish collective Superflex, which participated in the 2020 edition, was optimistic about the biennial’s potential to act as a gateway to political change.
While none of this year’s artworks engage with politics explicitly, some pieces do cast a spotlight on the ongoing climate emergency. Shezad Dawood’s coral-like sculpture, for instance, features a temperature-sensitive surface that bleaches as it heats up.
Others look past current events to educate visitors about historic cultural traditions. For instance, Sultan bin Fahad places a sculpture composed of traditional protective symbols inside of a structure modelled after ancient “desert kites” — essentially, long corridors built with stone walls leading to confined spaces that were used to trap wild game.
Compared to the 2020 edition, this year’s follow-up has received a more measured response, with Desert X president and founder Susan Davis telling ArtNet News that she feels “the dust is settling.”
Notably, the struggle to separate art from its funding is also not a tension unique to Desert X AlUla; the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s removal of the Sackler family name from seven of its exhibition spaces was another acknowledgement that art-world capital can often come with complicated implications.
Moreover, if the traditional logic about a mirage is to question what you’re seeing, then perhaps Desert X AlUla is being subversive. In the desert, there’s always another side to shiny attractions.
Desert X AlUla is on view until March 30, 2022. Free tickets can be booked through Experience AlUla.
Desert X AlUla’s sandy landscape interventions reflect on camouflage, myth and Saudi Arabia’s future as a patron of the arts.