Art How the desert became the new destination for art

How the desert became the new destination for art

Giorgia Massari
Arte nel deserto |

During the first weekend of March 2023, California’s Palm Desert came to life: installations by twelve international artists populated the arid and desolate landscape at the annual DesertX art fair. In recent years, there have been many artists making site-specific works to be placed in unconventional outdoor locations, such as forests, mountains and urban areas. Lately, among the most popular locations chosen by artists is the desert, a scene of great innovation in the contemporary art scene. Perhaps it is because of its scenic impact, the artistic challenge it offers, or because it is the fulcrum of a new world economy, the desert holds a magnetic appeal for artists, gallery owners, collectors, curators, and foreign governments.
In addition to the American deserts and that of the Sahara, the focus is particularly on the countries of the Middle East, a center of great artistic-cultural ferment. On the occasion of the World Cup, Qatar calls Olafur Eliasson to create an installation work in the desert, Saudi Arabia creates a new cultural hub in the AlUla area and plans futuristic cities ready in the coming years.
So, what are the factors that have led art to live a leading role in atypical places like deserts?

The evolution of the exhibition space: from frame to en plain air

The rules and conventions of exhibition space in art have changed over time depending on the trends and mediums chosen by artists.
While in the nineteenth century, boundaries were deliberately created and the rule of the frame remained, in the twentieth century the context changed. The Monet retrospective at MoMA in 1960 and curated by Seitz eliminated frames altogether; at the same time the white cube exhibition model was adopted, a neutral environment in which it is only the artwork that speaks. Changing the concept of exhibition space, natural is the transition of art into open landscapes, particularly in the field of installation-sculpture. The practice of site-specific works is consolidated and the first major Land Art projects are born.

With these new works, audiences expand and art becomes more accessible, plus artists can exploit the historical identity of places by communicating messages that are further amplified. Works are born in which art becomes the master of the environment, in some cases appropriating it (see Christo), in others merely adapting to the territory, is the case of JR‘s work entitled Greetings from Giza, placed in dialogue with the Egyptian Great Pyramid. In all of this not to be underestimated are the scenic component and the “wow” effect that parks, plazas and, even more so, fascinating places such as deserts can give back.

Art in the desert: artistic and economic motivations

Designing art in the desert is a trend in recent decades. The geographical conformation of this place makes it calm and at the same time difficult and unpredictable for human life. The absence of barriers makes it a perfect exhibition place for art. Some deserts are partly unknown attracting the curiosity of explorers and artists, while in others the human passage is also evident thanks to the presence of monuments, as in the case of the Sahara Desert, in 2021 the scene of the contemporary exhibition “Forever is Now” – promoted by Art D’Egypte – an artistic encounter between antiquity and contemporaneity, with guests of the caliber of the aforementioned JR and Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn.

In addition to artistic reasons, the phenomenon of works appropriating these landscapes is dictated by the new economic positioning and in the art market of countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and, more generally, the entire Middle East. These nations are increasingly promoting large art fairs, private and public art commissions, and land art and participatory art interventions.
The economic condition of these governments allows them to be able to invest large sums of money both for sensational architectural constructions and to increase and develop the arts-cultural and tourism sector.

Dubai has been a cultural landmark for at least two decades throughout the Middle East, first with the establishment in 2007 of Art Dubai then in 2011, then with the founding of Salsali – the first private museum of contemporary art – and later with the creation of the Alserkal Avenue art district. Another Persian Gulf art epicenter is Abu Dhabi, home to galleries of international significance, an annual art fair, and two major institutions under construction: the Louvre and the Guggenheim.

Saudi Arabia is more interested in the discourse of land art and site-specific installations; in AlUla, Wadi AlFann (the Valley of the Arts) was born and the initial five works will be completed and unveiled by 2024, marking the start of a continued programme of commissions, with more artists and activities to be announced. AlUla is also home to the DesertX arts festival, also held alternately in Coachella, California, which opened right here last March 4 and can be visited until May 7, 2023. Also in AlUla was built Maraya, the world’s largest mirror structure, and until May 17, 2023, the city will host the first exhibition in the Gulf of Andy Warhol.

Qatar also confirms this “desert” trend and, more generally, the artistic-cultural growth of the Middle East, establishing itself as the first Gulf country to have a contemporary public art program. In fact, the Qatar Museum has announced that it intends to turn the entire territory into an openair museum, and it did so during the past World Cup. In addition to urban works such as Damien Hirst‘s much-discussed fetuses, Jeff Koons‘ dugong and many others, the desert around Doha was chosen as the site for the exhibition of three major installations by equally major international artists – Olafur Eliasson, Richard Serra and Ernesto Neto.

Il fascino del deserto e la tendenza dell’arte a spostarsi in questi luoghi dipende quindi da diversi fattori, che in questo preciso periodo storico si incastrano perfettamente, portando vantaggi alle istituzioni e agli artisti, mettendo sulla mappa dell’arte nuove mete fino a qualche decennio fa estranee al circuito. Le ragioni economiche sono centrali nella lettura del fenomeno, ma le grandi committenze stanno permettendo ai maggiori artisti del nostro secolo di realizzare opere che stanno definendo un preciso momento nella storia dell’arte.

Written by Giorgia Massari
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