Announcing the details of Desert X AlUla 2024 according to the curators
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Announcing the details of Desert X AlUla 2024 according to the curators

Curators behind Saudi Arabia’s Desert X AlUla 2024 discuss highlights of art event’s third edition

ArtDayME: The landmark Desert X AlUla event is returning for its third edition. Staged within the vast desert region of AlUla in the northwest region of Saudi Arabia, the event will open on Feb. 9 and run until March 23 and present once again specially commissioned site-specific works by Saudi, Middle Eastern and international artists. 

This edition is presented under the theme “In the Presence of Absence.”      

Maya El Khalil, Desert X AlUla 2024 curator. (Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla) 

Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield return as this year’s artistic directors while the exhibition will be curated by Maya El-Khalil, an art advisor and curator focusing on Middle Eastern art, and Marcello Dantas, a curator known for his unique interdisciplinary practices bringing together science, history and technology.  

“‘In the Presence of Absence’ confronts our tenuous place in the vast expanse of deep time, where the layers of life silently unfurl in space,” Dantas told Arab News. “The landscape offers the sensorial opportunity to craft art using the terrain as an instrument. Steeped in a rich history as a trade and cultural exchange hub, AlUla allows new narratives and perspectives of deep time, trade, and displacement to unfold.” 

Dana Awartani, Where The Dwellers Lay, Desert X AlUla 2022, photo by Lance Gerber. (Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla)

A distinguishing factor of this year’s edition from the previous two editions is that it will be situated across three locations for the first time.  

“(The exhibition) will invite visitors to wander through and experience spectacular and varied landscapes as they weave their journey between works. Desert X AlUla works can be seen in the spectacular desert landscape of the Wadi AlFann desert, amongst the black lava stone terrain and breathtaking views of Harrat Uwayrid and by the AlManshiyah Railway Station which reveals the many layers of history and cultural confluence you find in AlUla,” El-Khalil told Arab News.  

Marcello Dantas, Desert X AlUla 2024 Curator. (Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla)

Of pertinence to the 2024 exhibition, especially during the socio-economic and political challenges of present times, is the theme.  

“As visitors explore Desert X AlUla, they’ll discover that in times of uncertainty, when the tangible is elusive, nothing is more real than the presence of the invisible,” explained Dantas. “We invite visitors to encounter the limitless boundaries of imagination and discover the profound forces that silently shape our world.” 

The artworks, staged within the poignant and dreamy desert landscape of AlUla, attempt to transcend the viewer outside of “human-centric perspectives,” explained El-Khalil. “(The exhibition attempts) to explore alternative subjectivities and relations with newfound imagination and awe. Seeing the artists’ response to this theme in the spectacular locations of AlUla and how visitors respond to them is what I’m most excited about,” she added.  

Dantas and El-Khalil say the theme was inspired by the vastness of AlUla’s desert landscape, as well as its enigmatic nature.  

“Desert X AlUla 2024 begins with an acknowledgement: The desert’s vastness does not equate to emptiness, instead, it is alive with the unseen,” said El-Khalil. “AlUla exists on a scale of monumentality, yet many of the forces that shape the landscape are beyond the ordinary range of human perception.” 

Deserts, underlines Dantas, comprise a delicate interconnected system of both living, or biotic, and physical non-living, or abiotic, factors.  

“(They) shift between extremes with the daily rhythms of light and heat,” Dantas tells Arab News. “In recognizing this complexity, we must step into alternative subjectivities and sensibilities to find different ways of living. This encounter with the desert invites us to explore not only its vastness but also the intricacies that evade the human eye.” 

Ultimately, the upcoming edition of Desert X AlUIa aims to encourage visitors to relish the often overlooked and unseen aspects of the desert landscape.  

Through the works that will go on view in February, artists will engage with elements like air, heat, and water demonstrating “how the landscape is formed through mutually dependent motions of what conditions and what is conditioned,” explained Dantas.