First land art commissions for KSA’s Valley of the Arts

Wadi AlFann – the valley of the arts – is being created as part of the $15 billion AlUla masterplan for a major cultural hub in Saudi Arabia. As a first phase, five top names have been commissioned for permanent, large-scale land art works – Manal AlDowayan, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Ahmed Mater and James Turrell.

As a first phase, five top names have been commissioned for permanent, large-scale land art works – Manal AlDowayan, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Ahmed Mater and James Turrell.These will be completed and unveiled by 2024, but they’re only the start of a continuing programme of commissions with more artists and activities to be announced for the 65km2 valley.

The aim is to commission between 20 and 25 permanent artworks over the next 10 years, providing a counterpoint to the temporary artworks exhibitions of Desert X AlUla (running at the same location since 2020).

It sounds an ambitious and genuinely visionary project, not least because the new land art will effectively be juxtaposed with historic traces of ancient desert communities. The artists are being invited to respond to the landscape of AlUla, taking inspiration from its topography, undulating vistas, remarkable geological structures and complex natural ecosystem. The works will be created with respect for the landscape, set against the sandstone cliffs and canyons of the valley.

Physician-turned-artist Ahmed Mater, a significant cultural voice documenting contemporary Saudi Arabia, is one of two Saudi artists in the first batch of commissions. He says his work Ashab Al-Lal will explore the mythic space between subjective imagination and objective reality by generating a mirage within the sand dunes. That’s a render of Ashab Al-Lal at the top of this piece; an exhibition of Mater’s maquettes and drawings is currently on show in AlUla’s AlJadidah Village.

Manal AlDowayan is the other Saudi artist commissioned this time. Her practice revolves around themes of invisibility, collective memory and the status and representation of women; her work The Oasis of Stories (preliminary sketch, right) takes inspiration from the mud walls of AlUla’s Old Town, inviting viewers to walk through an architectonic sculpture that replicates the ancient spaces of Arabic settlements.

Agnes Denes, a pioneer of environmental art, will continue her ongoing series of monumental pyramids. As the blurb puts it, “through careful examination of the rocks’ characteristics, these new pyramids will awaken the silent canyons they sit within, representing the past, present and future of mankind, exploring civilisation, advancement and achievement”. 

Michael Heizer is known for producing monumental works in rock, concrete and steel. At Wadi AlFann, he is incising and engraving into the sandstone; viewable from a far distance, most of these large-scale works will change in appearance as viewers move around the area.

And James Turrell intends to create a series of spaces connected by a series of tunnels and stairs actually within the canyon floor. Characteristically, his work will examine the very nature of seeing, creating an experience of wordless thought – the viewer will “experience the thingness of light as well as elements of sky and terrain”.

Wadi AlFann is one of various new creative landmarks planned for AlUla as part of its Journey Through Time masterplan, along with the Perspectives Galleries, the Arts District and the Water Pavilions. The masterplan will see 15 new destinations for culture, heritage and creativity open by 2035.

The former head of London’s Whitechapel Gallery, Iwona Blazwick, is leading the project as chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel. She describe Wadi AlFann as unprecedented in its ambition: “It will set a new global example for experiencing art in dialogue with nature, celebrating the human creativity that unites communities across the world and inspiring current and future generations of artists. A display of such epic scale, set in a terrain as monumental as the AlUla desert, has the potential to shape the course of art history in real time.”

A pre-opening programme later this year will feature temporary exhibitions, public symposia and artist residencies and public symposia bringing together artists, architects, environmentalists, archaeologists, farmers and local communities.

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