the future “mecca” of land art

Saudi Arabia. Traceless of the tires of cars that come to take advantage of the wet weather for a few mornings skidding across the sand, the desert landscape of Wadi Al Fann (“valley of arts” in Arabic) looks timeless. In this 60 km2 area, geological formations descend in various shapes and patterns, from mineral lace to sheer cliffs plunging into the sand: legend has it that tides excavated by erosion would inspire the Nabataean script, the ancestor of the Arabic alphabet. These nature-sculpted masterpieces would soon coexist with the creations of James Turrell, Agnes Denes and Michael Heizer. The international land art star is sharing this extraordinary landscape with two local artists, Manal Al Dowayan and Ahmed Mater, in the first commission that will make this desert place an open-air art museum.

Funding for work without restrictions

“That is an ambition that has no equal in the world”, said Annette Gibbons-Warren, project director. With Saudi Arabia’s means – while Michael Heizer and James Turrell have devoted decades to rebuilding their masterpieces lost in the Nevada desert – the Royal Commission announced the delivery of its first artistic commission in 2024. “It’s a generous order”, comments Iwona Blazwick, who has chaired the Royal Commission’s artistic committee since 2021. However, as in Al-Ula, no budget has been communicated for this artistic project in the middle of the desert. This is not a question for the former Whitechapel Gallery director: “Artists come with their projects, big or small, which are then funded as needed. »

With such generous sponsors, it’s hard not to think big: “James Turrell told us that if people want to know the intentions of his work, they should go to Al-Ula”, says Annette Gibbons-Warren. Agnes Denes has designed a piece in the form of an artistic testament to Wadi Al Fann: at 84 years old, the Hungarian artist can’t go to the Saudi desert, but she “Very involved order director note, Agnes has a very strong connection to this project.” This is the preferred setting that has been reserved for these land art pioneers: valley floors several kilometers across, where triangular shapes carved into the rock would give the sensation of pyramids floating in the air. At the end of the valley, a young Saudi artist, Ahmed Mater, wants to embody the hopes of the country’s youth in the form of a mirage. [voir ill.]. A model of the work, which is on display in a gallery in downtown Al-Ula, shows a pink marble flying saucer, about to be submerged in sand. On principle Pepper’s ghost– optical illusion techniques – installations with carefully calculated dimensions will release figures of steam over the desert. Manal Al Dowayan, a figure of Arab art, will propose a revival of the raw earthen architecture of the old city of Al-Ula [voir ill.].

Turrell and Heizer’s work, whose design has yet to be formalized, completed this first high-level commission. The artistic committee is currently considering a second order, although work on the first has not yet started. Despite the vast expanse of the site, locations will remain limited, in order to preserve the feeling of discovery during the artistic ascent: around fifteen works at most, will see the light of day in this valley of arts.

Eight museums that will emerge from the land of Al-Ula

Museum. In 2019, Saudi Arabia announced the construction of six new museums around Al-Ula, now the number has increased to eight. On the website of the Royal Commission, information that remains unclear has yet to be updated. On the spot, several members of the Commission were shocked because the information on the eight museums had been revealed. however it was confirmed by the French Development Agency Al-Ula. The “Perspective Gallery” will be the largest contemporary art museum in the country, with a collection oriented towards extra-Western creations. To build it, the Royal Commission encroached on the exhibitions it bought from without counting, such as this winter at the Dubai Art Fair. The “Nabataean Museum” will tell the story of pre-Islamic empires, while more broadly, the “Institute of Empires” will be devoted to the civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula, with important research centers. A third history museum will follow the trail of the incense route. The “Black Basalt Museum” will explore the site’s unique geology, where black volcanoes and white volcanoes coexist as science and the environment will be featured in the “Museum of Cosmos”, and “Oasis Museum”. Finally, the “Horse Museum”, designed with the greatest specialists in “furûsiyya” [art de la chevalerie dans les pays d’Islam], will be accompanied by two equestrian villages, one sports, the other cultural. A site interpretation center, art gallery, open-air theater and Wadi Al Fann open-air museum round out the vast offering, spread around a 50-kilometer axis.

Sinbad Hammache

Posted in Art

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