See the Astonishing Artworks Planted in the Saudi Arabian Desert

The latest Desert X AlUla biennial features 15 newly commissioned pieces that explore the unseen.

Faisal Samra, The Dot, Desert X AlUla 2024, Photo by Lance Gerber, Courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla

The third edition of the biennial Desert X AlUla show is now open in Saudi Arabia. “In the Presence of Absence” draws on what the organizers say are misconceptions of the desert as an empty space where, they say, “there is much more than meets the eye.”

Consisting of 15 newly commissioned pieces, the biennial is led by independent curator Maya El Khalil and Brazilian artist Marcello Dantas, with artistic direction from curator and art advisor Raneem Farsi, and independent curator Neville Wakefield.

A rock garden in the shape of a full-sized soccer field

Ayman Yossri Daydban, A rock garden in the shape of a full-sized soccer field, Desert X AlUla 2024, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla

An open-air exhibition that is free to all, the show takes place in the desert on the Arabian Peninsula. For the first time, this edition will be sited across three locations: in the desert landscape of Wad AlFann; among the black lava stone terrain and striking views of Harrat Uwayrid; and at the AlManshiyah Plaza, which features the carefully preserved AlUla Railway Station.

Site-responsive works by Saudi and international artists appear side by side, including Monira Al Qadiri, Sara Alissa, Ayman Yossri Daydban, Kimsooja, Ibrahim Mahama, Giuseppe Penone, Faisal Samra, and Bosco Sodi, among others. 

pyramid like sculpture nestled in a desert mountain terrain

Karola Braga, Sfumato, Desert X AlUla 2024. Photo by Lance Gerber, Courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla.

In particular, a press release for the show describes a piece by performance artist Tino Sehgal, tucked away like a bonus track on a record. Sehgal’s work, (un titled) [sic], “emphasizes the interaction between the natural elements of the desert and the human intervention through movement and sound,” the release reads, “creating a connection between the visitor, the environment, and the intangible aspects of experience and imagination.”

Artnet News’s Rebecca Anne Proctor called Desert AlUla one of the six must-see art events across the Middle East for 2023. Proctor wrote in 2022: “The seeds are being sowed in AlUla for a future art ecosystem, and the biennial can arguably be viewed as a catalyst.”

“We challenged the artists to adjust their perspective to encounter the unseen aspects of the place with reverence, attuning to the forces, rhythms and processes that shape the landscape in imperceptible ways,” El Khalil said. 

See more images from the show below.

photograph of a large stalagmite like sculpture with varnished surface in the desert

Aseel AlYaqoub, Weird Life_ An ode to desert varnish, Desert X AlUla 2024. Photo by Lance Gerber, Courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla.

Photograph of a rock garden in the shape of a full-sized soccer field with glowing goals at twilight

Ayman Yossri Daydban, A rock garden in the shape of a full-sized soccer field, Desert X AlUla 2024, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla.

Photograph of glass walls set in a spiral reflecting iridescent light in a desert setting

Kimsooja, To Breathe – AlUla, Desert X AlUla 2024, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla.

Ibrahim Mahama, Dung Bara – The Rider Does Not Know the Ground Is Hot, Desert X AlUla 2024, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla.

Desert X AlUla is on view in AlUla through March 23.


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