Land art associated with the 1960s is witnessing a major renaissance in the Arabian Peninsula. An “art valley” – Wadi AlFann in Arabic – is being created as part of the $15 billion AlUla master plan, which aims to create a major cultural hub in Saudi Arabia.
Wadi AlFann has plans to create five permanent artworks to be unveiled in 2024 – artists James Turrell, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer and Saudi artists Manal AlDowayan and Ahmed Mater have been invited to work on the project. The pre-opening programme, which will launch in late 2022, includes temporary exhibitions, artist residencies and public workshops bringing together artists with architects, conservationists, archaeologists and the local community.
According to Nora AlDabal, executive director of the AlUla Royal Commission for the Arts and Creative Industries, the goal is to commission 20 to 25 permanent works of art within 10 years. The new project will contrast with Desert X AlUla, which has been hosting temporary artworks at the same location since 2020. Some of these have been acquired by the Royal Commission AlUla.
Former Whitechapel head Iwona Blazwick leads the project as chair of the Royal Commission of the AlUla Panel of Public Art Experts. Earlier this year, she resigned from her long-term position in London. “The geopolitical axis has moved,” Blazwick told Artnet News.
Wadi AlFann falls under the purview of the Royal Commission, the so-called AlUla Cultural Declaration, which was created in 2018 to protect the area’s heritage, use locally sourced materials and secure camel herds and protect indigenous flora. “We are working closely with local and international experts in archaeology, heritage conservation and conservation to deliver environmentally and historically sensitive work,” said AlDabal.
However, the kingdom still faces criticism from international human rights activists following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; some accuse the country of washing its culture.
Blazwick has been visiting AlUla since 2018 and advising on different aspects of Wadi AlFann with Allan Schwartzman of Art Agency, Partners, before she was invited to be more involved. “We are at different geological stages of the Earth at AlUla,” she said at a small live press conference announcing the project in early June. “The biggest sculpture in the AlUla desert is of course the wind… Over the years we will see the evolution of monumental pieces that will become permanent, site-specific works of art inscribed in the desert itself.”
Wadi AlFann marks the first time land art pioneers have collaborated with a younger generation of Saudi Arabian artists. The outdoor gallery will span approximately 65 kilometers (40 miles) across the AlUla desert landscape in northwest Saudi Arabia.
Fly over the area by helicopter to see its 12th-century old town, which includes abandoned villages and tree-lined villages. “These monuments are contextualized by AlUla’s numerous inscriptions and rock art. Through our contemporary art program at AlUla, we hope to be able to access the art and culture of those who came before us,” AlDabal told Artnet News.
This will be the focus of Manal AlDowayan’s work, An oasis of stories. The artist invited local residents to write their stories on clay tablets that would be cast on walls made from waste from desalination. In collaboration with Wael Awar of Waiwai Architects, winner of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale’s Golden Lion, her eco-friendly installation will take the form of an immersive labyrinth reminiscent of the region’s ancient settlements.
“Historically, the Dada and the Nabataeans carved their stories on the walls,” Artowayan said in an interview. Her work often deals with invisible politics related to women. “What’s the story of the new guardians, their descendants, the people of AlUla? What does AlUla’s transformation mean for the locals who are now our hosts?” she added.
Agnes Denes will expand her pyramid collection by studying AlUla’s sandstone rocks, and Michael Heizer’s work will draw inspiration from their prints. For his part, Turrell is planning four of his so-called “sky spaces,” including a series of underground passages within the canyon. “I’m interested in the light within — the light of lucid dreaming — meeting what is called the light outside,” Turrell said in an interview with Artnet News. “Our reality is shaped by our perceptions, and that’s the reality we live in.” He added that one of the greatest egos of human beings “is that we feel disconnected from nature.”
Inspired by the importance of mirages in nomadic culture, the astrolabe of the Golden Age of Islam, and Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham’s research on optics, Saudi artist Ahmed Mater will create a triangular-shaped tunnel.Using a parabolic mirror, the work is called Assab Lal, The sandstone cliffs that will reflect the viewer’s body and AlUla rise like a hologram. “We’re going to be our own dreams, mirrors and images,” Matt told Artnet News.
His vision for this interactive work is currently on display at Athr Gallery’s new branch in AlUla (the gallery has another location in Jeddah).
“This is not a sculpture park,” Blazwick said. “Each piece has to withstand the powerful forces of wind and sand, people and animals before it can be used by future generations.” She added that the work will be immersive, phenomenological and evoke “a kind of worldly spirit”, Contribute to the story of the community in the area.
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