Desert X, a land art exhibition, first launched in 2017 in the Coachella Valley. It appeared again in 2019. Then its director, Neville Wakefield, announced a new location for 2020: Al Ula, a magnificent desert-scape and UNESCO World Heritage site in Saudi Arabia.
The news divided the art community.
Three Desert X board members resigned in protest, including Ed Ruscha. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight denounced the project as “morally corrupt” -- on the grounds that Desert X Al Ula was sponsored by the Saudi government through the regional Royal Commission of Al Ula (RCU). The sponsorship is part of an effort to turn this region into a tourist destination, which is part of the Kingdom's 2030 vision to move Saudi Arabia's economy beyond oil.
But the artists and curators didn't see it as morally corrupt.
For Saudi co-curator Ali Alireza, this was a long-awaited opportunity to put emerging Saudi artists — like Manal Aldowayan, Nasser Alsalem and Zahrar AlGhamdi — on an international stage with regional and overseas artists, including Superflex and El Seed. Alireza also said it was to “break things open and get rid of all the rules.”
Saudi-based Muhannad Shono said in an interview, "Right now, the change happening in Saudi Arabia is incredible. We have all these young people who have been locked away in their bedrooms, developing their skills and their ideas. And for now, for them to be coming out of the shadows and being respected and given opportunities across the country and internationally is extremely humbling."
Three Los Angeles artists participated in the show: Sherin Guerguis, Gisela Colon and Lita Albuquerque.
Albuquerque told DnA: "I did have reservations, obviously, about coming. There were three days where I had said I wasn't going to do it. And then I got increasingly depressed because I knew that this was a historic moment. And when that happens, when you're at the crest of the wave of historic moment, you don't miss out. And I'm not talking personally. I'm talking socially and artistically and culturally.”
Saudi Arabia has gone through dramatic changes recently, especially for women. By royal edict, they have been allowed to take up careers long denied to them, to drive, and to go to football stadiums. Guardianship rules have been eased, and the religious police have been stripped of their power.
At the same time, critics of the regime have been suppressed, and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered, allegedly on orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
So how did artists respond? Several expressed frustration at being asked more about the Saudi regime than their artwork, which formed the first site-specific art exhibition in Saudi Arabia. For them perhaps the biggest challenge was making art, in six weeks, that could match the scale and might of the landscape.
Some, like Bjørnstjerne Christiansen of the Danish collective Superflex, said it was a political act to participate. They installed a variant of a three-person swing set they had previously placed at the North-South Korean border and in London's Tate Modern. The idea is that swinging together, with a third participant, requires people to "to find the balance together," said Christiansen.
Participatory art like this is not common in Saudi Arabia, said Christiansen, adding that artists they know in the Gulf region had urged them to participate. "They told us, 'Yes, it's important you are here, that you come here with your experience.' Because again, we believe that our culture has a potential of impacting change and influencing that through a participatory process which is the collective process."
Lita Albuquerque talked to DnA about why she found the project’s critics “myopic” and the experience a joy. Not only did the Tunisian-born artist feel fully at home in the desert-scape, she delighted in the interactions with fellow artists, curators and locals now working as tour guides. “The structure of politics is something else, but the people are amazing," she said.