Desert X AlUla 2024: 6 questions with the curator of the open-air contemporary art exhibition

Desert X AlUla 2024: 6 questions with the curator of the open-air contemporary art exhibition

We meet the curator behind one of the Kingdom’s most ambitious art projects, Marcello Dantas spills all
22 February 24
Desert X AlUla 2024: Curator Marcello Dantas Image source: Tinko Czetwertynski

Returning to Saudi Arabia for the third time, Desert X AlUla is a pioneering exhibition kicking off this month as part of AlUla Arts Festival.

But this is no traditional ticket-and-time-slot event: Desert X AlUla is all about thinking outside the box – or, more accurately, breaking down the walls of the ‘white cube’ – using scale and setting to create an open-air experience that celebrates the very desert in which it’s located.

We caught up with this year’s curator and an award-winning producer, designer, director and documentary-maker, Marcello Dantas, at his home in São Paulo, Brazil. 

How did your collaboration with Desert X AlUla come about? 

I went to see Desert X AlUla in 2022 and immediately felt connected to the fantastically magical site.

Installations like Khalil Rabah’s olive tree and Alicja Kwade’s mirror piece really got me interested in the long term relationship of the works with the environment and how other species relate to the artwork. I love to work outdoors, I love to work to huge scale and I'm not the kind of curator that hangs paintings on a white wall, so the artistic director Neville Wakefield invited me to be a part of it. 

Can you tell us more about what the role of curator involves?

I'm not the kind (of curator) that just selects pieces, I’m the kind that ignites the discussion and then works collaboratively to develop something with an artist. The role of the curator is to connect the artist with the audience and the public, so translating is very important – multiple languages are in play whenever an artwork is on the table. 

What's your vision for this year's event? 

The theme is ‘In the Presence of Absence’ because when we got the artists together and we were talking about the site, it was clear we were all talking about something intangible. The desert is not about emptiness – it’s about your perception of something that’s there but not visible, like a mirage.

I love the idea that our senses are not sufficient to comprehend the complexity of a place.  

How do you approach the challenge of creating installations in an extreme landscape like a desert?  

One of the biggest problems in the art world is that it tasks artists with producing art that is eternal: there is market demand for art that will last forever. But there is so much more beauty in art that will degrade and decay, when it has a lifespan – in terms of both its material transformation and the impact it has over time. 

Can you spotlight any particularly memorable artists or experiences in this year’s edition of Desert X AlUla? 

All the artists have developed 100% original pieces in response to the site and we have a mix of Saudi and international artists, which provides a very global perspective. There is one installation that touches on the historical memory of AlUla’s connection to the Incense Route.

It’s really beautiful because it ignites your memory through the smell of incense that was carried through the space, through fire and wind. It’s very poetic, and it evokes a real sense of hope – that sense of discovery and survival. The desert has a way of making you feel empowered, yet humble too. 

Catch a glimpse of the incredible installations, right here.

What are your thoughts on the future of Saudi Arabia's art scene?

I find it fascinating that Saudi presents a new stakeholder in the world of contemporary art, because the more stakeholders we have, the more complex and diverse this equation becomes. What I really love is to see a new audience being formed, because this is something that wasn't there until recently, and art is a language that people can connect with.

The whole region around the AlUla is absolutely remarkable – there was recently a candlelit concert by Ludovico Einaudi in Hegra – but there’s also a lot going on in Riyadh, such as the Diriyah Biennale, the artists’ studios in JAX District and the restoration of heritage buildings.  

From February 9 - March 23,
Free, various Locations in AlUla

@artsalula @_desertx @baderalsaud @lance.gerber

Images of Marcello Dantas with thanks to Tinko Czetwertynski