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Now on view through March 30 is the second edition of Desert X AlUla. This year’s exhibition examines themes of mirage and oasis, as influenced by the natural region’s heritage of cross-cultural exchange. Curators Reem Fadda, Raneem Farsi, and Neville Wakefield invited Saudi and international artists alike to consider the desert’s history and culture in relation to both natural and man-made worlds. The multi-site installation accentuates the beauty of the desert while responding with sincerity to current global affairs.
The Royal Commission for AIUIa (RCU) was originally established to protect and safeguard AlUla and has since been catalyzing cultural dialogue through art. In collaboration with Desert X, the site-responsive exhibition offers the opportunity for visitors to experience art on a monumental scale while considering its natural surroundings.
Whitewall spoke with Wakefield about this year’s edition, and which themes arose in response to the landscape and labor of making the work.
WHITEWALL: This is the second edition of Desert X AlUla. What were some of the successes of the first edition you wanted to bring here?
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD: We wanted to expand on involving community members here. That idea of community involvement was sewn in the first edition but has expanded on this one. We're sitting by Jim Deneven’s piece—the first eight circles of the mounds [were] all done with local volunteers. He has this practice, which is culinary, as well, and is about bringing the farmers, producers of food, and the consumers together. There was an outreach for volunteers, including among farmers because he sees this act of raking and shaping like farming. We had an enormous response. So those people were actively involved in the creation of the piece and that becomes really important.
WW: Can you tell us about the selection of the artists for this edition?
NW: It’s structured as cultural dialogue, roughly equal parts Saudi regional and international artists. In terms of the process, it's very organic with three people co-curating it. Out of those conversations that we'd have with artists, slowly projects emerged.
It's very different from typical curating. You start on a journey, you don't know where it's going to end. And that's what makes it exciting. I'm not interested in doing a show where I know what the answer is, I'm interested in the question. And it's interesting for artists because they are about questions, they're not about answers. And the audience goes on the same journey. Each one of these pieces has a story to it. Sometimes you know about the story and sometimes you figure it out, and sometimes you add your own story to it.
For me, what's really exciting is when you have an artist who hasn't necessarily worked in these conditions, who then takes them and that becomes the nourishment for work. We often speak to artists who haven't done work on this sort of scale or haven't worked in a certain kind of medium and encourage them to break out of their own confines, as well.
WW: What kind of brief are artists given?
NW: The brief is the place, it’s here—the landscape in the broadest sense, not just the environment, but the social, historical, geological, temporal landscape is the curator in that sense. It's the landscape that gives rise and shapes the works, not a curatorial idea that's imposed on top.
WW: How did you arrive at the theme of Sarab?
NW: It's not really a thematic show, but there are always undercurrents and themes that run through it. And so that was definitely one, this idea of the desert as a heterotopic space, a space of reflection, of disorientation, of illusion, of mimicry.
In the North Canyon, for instance, you're very aware of the theme of time. You have Shezad Dawood’s piece which is about deep time or geological time. You have Monika Sosnowska’s, which is about historical time—railways from 1906 from the Hejaz railway. And you have Khalil Rabah’s which is about biological time—the oldest olive tree there is 200 years old.
WW: What are some of the surprising ways you've seen this group of artists engage with the landscape?
NW: I think all of them surprised me. It goes back to this thing of it being about questions, not answers. And I'm always surprised by what these questions bring up.
The urgent theme running through a lot of this is climate change. That's manifested in Khalil’s grove of olive trees—what it takes to simply keep plants alive. Or Ayman Zedani’s piece which is about parasitic plants and resurrection plants and how the desert has this curious symbiotic way of encouraging life.
And Serge Attukwei Clottey’s piece, drawing parallels between gold, value, oil, water equity—between here and what's going on in Accra, his hometown in West Africa.
WW: What kind of journey do you hope visitors go on?
NW: What's great about this kind of show is that there is no "right." It's a non-prescriptive show. It's a journey of self discovery in that sense. Just as the works are experiential and living in the sense that they're changing all the time, in the light, where you're positioned, there's no static moment.
I think the relationship, not just to the individual works, but to the show as a whole, is the same. The hope is that you created an organism, something that's dynamic, that is constantly changing and evolving, and that's the experience. So that the next time you go around, it won't be the same.
WW: What is it about the desert and AlUla, especially, that makes it so ripe for cultural dialogue and exchange?
NW: One is its history as an oasis. It's always been a place of trade and exchange. More philosophically, I think that the desert has always drawn artists and writers, and filmmakers. Because this is a space, where perhaps because life is so difficult, existential questions become foregrounded.
It's a space we've always gone to look inside—being cast into the wilderness—or to look outside and manifest our views. I think it's a space of imagination, both internally imagining who you can be, and also externally in terms of how you could project that into art, into society.