pioneering earth artists commissioned for AlUla desert art venue

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The first artist commissions have been announced for Wadi AlFann, the ambitious permanent desert art venue planned for AlUla in Saudi Arabia. Works by American artists James Turrell, Agnes Denes and Michael Heizer – all pioneers of the Land Art movement – ​​and two projects by established Saudi names Ahmed Mater and Manal AlDowayan, are set to launch by 2024.

The Royal Commission for AlUla, the government commission that oversees the development of the tourism and heritage site, has also appointed Iwona Blazwick, the former director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery, as chair of its public art panel, advising on Wadi Al Fann.

“It’s pretty spectacular to be able to have artists from the older generation who understood that the desert wasn’t some kind of wasteland,” says Blazwick. “In America there are whole areas called the Badlands, or in the Middle East there is Empty Quarter, which talks about this idea that deserts are just big empty dead places. But it was the artists who saw [the desert’s] potential, in sculptural terms.

She says creatives all react to the desert in myriad ways, coming from particular directions. “This openness to what an artist wants to bring is the hallmark of this whole project.”

As part of the Land Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Turrell, Denes and Heizer sought to take art out of the studio and gallery space, instead working directly with the land and with perceptions of the world. natural. Some of their most monumental works remain places of pilgrimage for those involved in the art world today, such as Turrell’s Roden Crater, located in a volcanic cinder cone in the Arizona desert.

Wadi AlFann hopes to capture a similar monumentality and integration with the landscape for its “Valley of the Arts”, a key part of AlUla’s master plan.

The site has now been in development since 2017 and is beginning to receive visitors to some of its new hotels. The sheer scale of the comprehensive project – which will include archaeological museums, the famous Nabataean tombs, a wildlife sanctuary and luxury entertainment, among other cultural assets – means it won’t fully open until 2035.

Blazwick’s appointment to oversee the selection is a blow for Wadi AlFann. She is one of Britain’s most respected curators, having led Whitechapel for 20 years and establishing her solid reputation both critically and popularly.

His choices for Wadi AlFann are based on commissions made by previous teams, such as that of US adviser Allan Schwartzman, who first suggested the Land Art artists. Blazwick herself edited a book on Land Art in 1995, but her connection to Middle Eastern art is more recent. In 2015, Whitechapel hosted four exhibitions during the year, of Arab modernist works, at the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah.

“It was an absolute eye-opener, as we have all been aware of the rise of very important figures from across the region over the last 10, if not 20 years, but I had no idea of ​​the history of modernism, or multiple modernisms, in this whole region,” she says. “It was the start of a very steep learning curve for me.”

One of the new commissions is Ashab Al-Lal, by veteran artist Mater. It is a monumental earthwork that creates the illusion of the public hovering above the ground. People enter an underground cavern flanked by two large-scale parabolic mirrors facing each other. These mirror the image of the visitors – inverting it, then flipping it over so that person appears right side up – so that they float above the sand.

In the commission Wadi AlFann by Ahmed Mater, the visitor enters the work through a tunnel.  Two parabolic mirrors then project a mirage of him upwards onto the valley floor.  Photo: Athr Gallery

Mater says the work nods to the kind of engineering feats of the Islamic Golden Age, as well as his longstanding practice of using his work to enable public discourse and dialogue. . Mater was one of the founders of Al Muftaha Arts Village in Asir in the 1990s, then ran his studio as a public chat site, called Pharan Studio, in Jeddah in the 2010s.

“It’s about a new way or a new feeling of public art, because the artwork of this project is the people, the audience,” says Mater. “The idea of ​​public art is that it’s part of society and uses everyone’s engagement, so everyone has a platform.”

Mater takes the idea from the platform, ultimately hoping to use the site for others to play music or show off their own work. He’s been working on the project – a feat of engineering – for four years, and Athr Gallery is currently showcasing his models and sketches for Ashab Al-Lal in his new gallery AlUla.

Denes, now 91, will create a series of her signature large pointed pyramids, which she fashions from living materials. Turrell would similarly use the AlUla commission to articulate his ideas around perception and phenomenology, through spaces created at the bottom of the canyon.

AlUla’s appeal, which Saudi Arabia hopes to maximize as a tourist destination, is also its dense history. It was the site of many civilizations over the centuries, and Heizer will respond to the first petroglyphs found in the valley, carving figures into the sandstone rocks on a scale visible to viewers from afar.

Finally, AlDowayan — whose installation Now You See Me, Now You Do not (2020), by pool-shaped trampolines, was a favorite of the first Desert X AlUla – returns to the valley with the installation The oasis of storiesinspired by the mud architecture of the old town of AlUla.

In this sketch for his forthcoming work, Manal AlDowayan transposed the layout of the mud-brick architecture of the old town of AlUla to Wadi AlFann.  Photo: RCU Al-Ula

Other artists will be commissioned in the future, always with an emphasis on the environment and the history of the region.

Wadi AlFann will span 65 square kilometers and will rub shoulders with various other contemporary art programs run by AlUla. Some of them aim to integrate art into the lives of the inhabitants of the valley, such as the recent exhibition of photographs presented in abandoned houses in the old town of AlUla (Cortona on the Move, 2022). Others are more geared towards international visibility, such as Desert X Al Ula, the biennial held in partnership with Desert X, the Californian foundation, since 2020.

Scroll through the gallery below to see photos from Desert X Al Ula 2022

The mission of Wadi AlFann overlaps slightly with that of Desert X AlUla, particularly in that the last two biennales have avoided an explicit curatorial thesis and instead pledged their responsiveness to the desert. But they will differ when it comes to permanence, Blazwick says. Desert X AlUla will remain as a testing ground for artists to make works of art – “a space for experimentation, even failure” – as well as ephemeral works, like Jim’s concentric circles of sand piles. Denevan, which the American showed this year at the biennial.

The National also understands that certain works by Desert X AlUla will be acquired by RCU for Wadi AlFann, if applicable.

Wadi AlFann, on the other hand, will show work that deliberately stands the test of time – which seems both a procedural criterion, in the harsh desert landscape, and part of the curatorial ethos.

“Our commitment is to work with artists to create something of a caliber and longevity that can compare to a Nabataean necropolis in significance and meaning,” says Blazwick. “It’s a big request. It is a big ambition. But I think there are a lot of great artists who will be happy to take on the challenge.

Updated: June 28, 2022, 09:51

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