DOHA: Positioned in Qatar’s expansive Al-Thakhira Mangrove Reserve, about 64 km northeast from the capital Doha, are 12 site-specific installations created by Icelandic Danish artist Olafur Eliasson.
The artist’s temporary pavilions glisten in the desert sunlight and seemingly communicate with the natural phenomena around them — wind, sun and sand.
They are part of Eliasson’s first-ever solo exhibition in the Gulf taking place within the desert landscape and at the National Museum of Qatar all under the title “The Curious Desert.” The works on show at the museum span a variety of periods from Eliasson’s career, one that has consistently looked to use contemporary art as a platform to discuss crucial issues related to the fragility of the natural environment in the climate crisis age.
At the Al-Thakhira Mangrove Reserve, each station is composed of a circular structure and lined with fabric that flaps in the wind. “Your Obsidian Garden” incorporates black, shiny obsidian that immediately contrasts with the color of the desert sands. The work, inspired by Eliasson’s hikes through volcanic obsidian fields in the Icelandic highlands, almost seems to have erupted from the ground. In another, “Solar Incense Burner,” a single glass sphere uses sun rays to ignite a variety of scents inherent to Qatar and the surrounding Gulf region, such as oud, musk and amber. Each scent burns for exactly one hour, itself functioning like a clock marking the times of the day through scent.
“The works respond to the desert and to nature but also ourselves within that relationship as well,” Eliasson told Arab News.
While the first of the three outdoor artworks examine optical phenomena and man’s relationship with nature through shadows, rainbows and mirrors that create powerful and alluring effects, installations number five through seven incorporate innovative drawing machines that use elements from the sabkha habitat in Qatar to create artworks that will later be shown at Eliasson’s exhibition at the National Museum of Qatar.
“These artworks are a way to discuss what geopolitics doesn’t say — it’s a way to connect close to local culture and to the natural environment,” the artist said.
The final three artworks merge natural phenomena from other areas of the world with those found in Qatar, including obsidian and glacial mud from Iceland.
“It is an extraordinary opportunity to create artworks for the sabkha near Al-Thakhira Mangrove Reserve,” the artist said in a statement. “The sun, the wind, the nearby lagoon saltwater — they all help co-produce the artworks that visitors will encounter here.”
While creating the artworks, Eliasson and Qatar Museums worked with an ecologist to conduct an in-depth survey of a site near Al-Thakira to ensure the protection of its native plants and living, non-human, beings, like the Arabian red fox.
“I hope the artworks further (expose) people to the beauty and importance of the natural landscape and the non-human agencies that work within it,” he told Arab News.
“Culture can bring about change for the climate, too,” he added. “It is often at the subcultural level that civic society can be changed and enhanced, and this then pushes policymakers, the legislators and then the politicians. Culture can be part of the food chain for global change.”
The museum component of the exhibition features key works reflective of Eliasson’s work and thoughts over his 25-year career.
Of note is “The Living Lighthouse” (2022), an installation that includes broad bands of colorful light that wrap around a circular room and change form and color in accordance with the movements of each visitor.
There is also “Research Map” (2019), a wall filled with research and ideas akin to that of map charting the artist’s reflections and inspirations over recent years.