Land Art, associated with the 1960s, is witnessing a major resurgence in the Arabian Peninsula. A “Valley of the Arts”—Wadi AlFann in Arabic—is being created as part of a $15 billion AlUla masterplan to create a major cultural hub in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is taking a big step in its longer plan to become an international art destination by inviting major artists, including James Turrell and Michael Heizer, to permanently install monumental pieces in its northwestern desert over the next couple of years.
From a mirrored installation that mimics a mirage to a labyrinth town made from adobe walls, the first five pieces will dot a 25-square-mile area dubbed Wadi AlFann, which means Valley of the Arts, according to Saudi cultural authorities. The valley is located in AlUla, a craggy desert region long known for its Petra-like rock tombs and more recently for its Desert X AlUla contemporary-art biennial.
The art valley is one part of a multi-billion-dollar nationwide push by Saudi Arabia to transform itself into a cultural hub and tourist destination. Details about the valley are emerging now as Saudi Arabia steps again into the geopolitical spotlight, spurred in part by President Biden’s upcoming trip to the country in July, its boosted oil production, and lingering concerns over its human rights violations.
Five permanent artworks are planned for Wadi AlFann, which will be unveiled in 2024—artists James Turrell, Agnes Denes, and Michael Heizer, as well as Saudi artists Manal AlDowayan and Ahmed Mater, have been tapped for the project. The pre-opening program launches in late 2022 with temporary exhibitions, artist residencies, and public symposia that will bring artists together with architects, environmentalists, archaeologists, as well as local communities.
According to Nora AlDabal, executive director of arts and creative industries at the royal commission for AlUla, the aim is to commission between 20 and 25 permanent artworks over a period of 10 years. The new project will provide a counterpoint to Desert X AlUla, which has been staging temporary artworks at the same location since 2020.
Wadi AlFann lies within the Royal Commission’s remit of the so-called cultural manifesto for AlUla, a treaty created in 2018 to help open up the country to cultural tourism by protecting the region’s heritage, using locally sourced materials,s and ensuring free movement of camel herds and protection of Indigenous flora. “We are working closely with local and international experts in archaeology, heritage conservation, and preservation to deliver environmentally and historically sensitive work,” said AlDabal.
Wadi AlFann marks the first time Land Art pioneers are being paired with a younger generation of Saudi Arabian artists. The outdoor gallery will span approximately 65 kilometers (40 miles) of AlUla’s desert landscape. A helicopter ride over the location reveals its 12-century-old town comprising abandoned villages amid pockets of green. “These monuments are given context by AlUla’s countless inscriptions and rock art. Through contemporary art projects in AlUla, we want to tap into the art and culture of those who came before us,” AlDabal told the News agency.
This will be the focus of Manal AlDowayan’s work, Oasis of Stories. The artist is inviting local residents to inscribe their stories on clay tablets which will be cast on walls made out of the waste that results from desalination. In a collaboration with Wael Awar of Waiwai architects, winners of the 2021 Venice Architectural Biennale’s Gold Lion, her environmentally sensitive installation will take the form of an immersive labyrinth evocative of ancient settlements in the area.
Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, inspired by the significance of the mirage in nomadic cultures, the astrolabes of the Golden Age of Islam, and Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham’s study of optics, will create a triangular-shaped walkthrough tunnel. Using parabolic mirrors, the work, called Ashab Al-Lal, will reflect the viewer’s body and AlUla’s sandstone cliffs rising like a hologram. “We will become the dream, the mirror, the image of ourselves,” Mater told
Saudi Arabia plans to develop several museums that explore the impact of oil, incense, and the Red Sea on the Kingdom. There are also plans for museums to house the national art collection which will include Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.
AIUIa which is over 200 thousand years old, is emerging as one of the region’s new up-and-coming destinations, attracting travelers from all over the world. After officially opening to the world just last year, it has since expanded its flight services, partnering with various local and international airlines to secure flight routes to the area.
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