Saudi Arabia: Major artists to exhibit art installations at AlUla’s Arts Valley

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Major artists have signed up to exhibit their artwork in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla following the launch of the Arts Valley Project.

The Royal Commission of AlUla announced the launch of the 25-square-mile project on Tuesday, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

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Major artists including James Turrell and Michael Heizer will be among the artists who will permanently install their pieces in the northwestern desert area over the next couple of years, the Wall Street Journal reported late Monday.

Turrell told WSJ in an interview that the Kingdom’s “diplomatic or nationalistic tendencies” could be propelling the timing and backing of Wadi al-Fann, which translates to the Valley of the Arts in English.

“I have shown in Moscow, Shanghai, Beijing – places where I doubt I could show today. It is possible for art to bridge large cultural gaps,” he added.

Saudi officials have also enlisted Iwona Blazwick, former director of London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, to curate the project and chair the RCU’s panel of art experts.

In addition to Turrell and Michael Heizer, conceptual artist Agnes Denes and Saudi artists Manal al-Dowayan and Ahmed Mater will install massive pieces at the arts valley. More artists will eventually be added to the valley’s programming, Blazwick said.

A view of AlUla's landscape, Saudi Arabia. (SPA)
A view of AlUla's landscape, Saudi Arabia. (SPA)

“I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world featuring all these titans,” she said. “It’s going to be remarkable to see them in these surroundings.”

About the artists

Turrell is an American artist best known for his work that explored the relationship between light and space. A pioneer of the 1960s Light and Space movement, Turrell is renowned for creating colorful rooms with ceilings that contain cut-outs of geometrical shapes, allowing visitors to peer up into the open sky.

For the arts valley project, Turrell plans to create several pieces, including a tunnel and a quartet of so-called “Skyspaces,” WSJ reported.

American land art pioneer Michael Heizer specializes in large-scale and site-specific sculptures. He is best known for his work in the Nevada desert entitled ‘City.’ It took him almost 50 years to complete the $25 million project which opened to the public in 2020. For the valley project, Heizer plans to carve a series of geometric indentations high in the sandstone rock facades of AlUla into shapes that alter as people pass by.

Michael Heizer's 'City' in the Nevada Desert. (Twitter)
Michael Heizer's 'City' in the Nevada Desert. (Twitter)

Hungarian-born New York-based artist Agnes Denes, best known for planting a two-acre wheatfield in lower Manhattan in the 1980s, the conceptual artist plans to carve her own series of pyramid shapes into rocks surrounding the valley.

Ahmed Mater is one of Saudi Arabia’s most influential contemporary artists. The physician turned artist from Riyadh plans to create ‘Ashab al-Lal,’ a complex piece with subterranean elements and will include mirrors to create optical illusions on the desert valley floor.

Saudi contemporary artist Manal al-Dowayan is best known for her art installation ‘Suspended Together’ from the Home Ground Exhibition in the UAE in 2011 and her recent temporary installation ‘Now You See Me, Now You Don’t’ at AlUla which comprised of puddle-like pieces that symbolized a “humble puddle” in the Saudi desert.

Desert X AlUla Manal al-Dowayan's 'Now You See Me, Now You Don't' art installation. (Credit: Manal al-Dowayan)
Desert X AlUla Manal al-Dowayan's 'Now You See Me, Now You Don't' art installation. (Credit: Manal al-Dowayan)

Al-Dowayan’s piece for the valley, ‘Oasis of Stories’ will pay homage to the mud-brick houses scattered all over AlUla’s Old Town.

AlUla growing in popularity

Executive director of arts and creative industries at the RCU Nora al-Dabal said that the arts valley was part of a years-long campaign to attract more cultural tourists.

AlUla has been growing in popularity over the years. In a recent interview with Al Arabiya English, the RCU’s Director of Destination Marketing, Melanie De Souza, said that the ancient city welcomed 146,000 visitors in 2021 alone, with more visitors expected in 2022 as airline and hotel capacity continue to grow.

The second edition of the Desert X AlUla exhibition held earlier this year welcomed 24,000 visitors, up from 9,000 visitors at the event’s first iteration which closed just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, al-Dabal told WSJ.

A view of AlUla's landscape, Saudi Arabia. (SPA)
A view of AlUla's landscape, Saudi Arabia. (SPA)

The project comes in line with the Kingdom’s efforts to transform the country into a major international art destination, an initiative which is in line with Saudi Vision 2030 – a transformative economic and social reform blueprint launched in 2016.

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.

AlUla, 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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