The Olafur Eliasson Experience in Doha

When I visited The curious desert by Olafur Eliasson, it was with no expectations. I was sure that it would not surpass the experience of The shadows in the desert, an installation that I had visited a few weeks back. The experience proved otherwise: with The curious desert, Olafur Eliasson has brought us closer to understanding the mystery of the place that we live in. By Sindhu Nair

I pondered over the effect of these random, 20 circular shelters, three single rings and two double rings that make up the shadows in the desert. These structures that stand seemingly in the middle of nowhere yet predetermined and positioned according to the axes of a fivefold symmetrical pattern, with the ten shelters at the centre forming a pentagram. There seemed no specific reason, a single, sweeping answer as to why this installation fascinated many. The structures are magnificent enough, but the juxtaposition of the structures in the vast land, the angle of the light falling from the sun, the clouds scattered above, the temperament we are in. all of these made the experience unforgettable.

Then we visited the Al Thakhira installation that was part of “The curious desert”, the first solo exhibition by Olafur Eliasson in the region, that brings together a dozen site-specific desert installations here and an extensive gallery presentation of artworks at the National Museum of Qatar. After visiting all these works of art and science, it seems Eliason wanted us to understand that the links that we form with our surroundings are endless. The experience with Eliasson’s installation can only persist, to ignite a barrage of questions, push us to embark on discussions on the interface of man and desert, lagoon and reserve, science and human, light and wind, and leave us wanting to discover more, to understand the environment that we call our own, a little more.

Your pearl garden, 2023 Galvanized steel, textile (white, anthracite), solar lamp, glass spheres (various sizes), silver, paint (black, yellow) 380 x 950 x 950 cm Installation view: Olafur Eliasson: The curious desert, near the Al Thakhira Mangrove in Northern Qatar, 2023 Photo: Ali Faisal Al Anssari Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

Located in a sabkha habitat some 64 kilometres northeast of Doha, near the Al Thakhira Mangrove Reserve, 12 temporary pavilions enclose a series of new, experimental artworks that respond to the natural phenomena of the local environment, such as sunlight, wind, and water. The day we visited, the wind was playing havoc on the desert landscape, as if showing us the particularly harsh climatic conditions in which the installations find place.

Solar-drawing observatory (Large spheres), 2023 Galvanized steel, textile (beige, anthracite), solar lamp, solar panel, battery, stainless steel, aluminium, fiberboard, motor, glass spheres, watercolor paper Incense burner: glass sphere, stainless steel, paint (anthracite), incense 380 x 950 x 950 cm Installation view: Olafur Eliasson: The curious desert, near the Al Thakhira Mangrove in Northern Qatar, 2023 Photo: Ali Faisal Al Anssari Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

The pavilions, represent various elements found in nature, a lava residue, one containing pearl-like luminous surfaces that reflect light, a rainbow incubator with 11 prisms, arranged along the top of a reflective sphere according to the path of the sun at Al Thakhira that bend and break the daylight entering the sphere, causing it to appear at different times of the year as a perfectly circular rainbow. Another platform contains a saltwater observatory with two circular canvases – one white and the other black that turn slowly on motors as water, mixed with black and white pigments respectively, drips down onto the spinning surfaces. The wind causes the drawing utensil to move across the surface of the turning page, leaving undulating marks upon the surface. The drawings portray weather conditions at the location, and these are then periodically shown at The National Museum of Qatar.

Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Chairperson of Qatar Museums, said, “The curious desert by Olafur Eliasson illustrates the power and problem-solving ability of art. Olafur’s profound body of work, including the new installations in the Qatari desert, opens an important dialogue about the environment, one of the most pressing topics of our time, in the context of our nation’s natural landscapes. This exhibition is unique in its presentation, which exists both inside and outside of the National Museum of Qatar, to further demonstrate how art is not confined to galleries, but is around us, everywhere, to inspire and educate.”

Olafur Eliasson stated, “It is an extraordinary opportunity to create artworks for the sabkha near Al Thakhira Mangrove Reserve. The sun, the wind, the nearby lagoon saltwater – they all help co-produce the artworks that visitors will encounter here. I hope the artworks in turn may sensitise people to the singular landscape and to the more-than-human agencies at work. The other half of my exhibition, at the National Museum of Qatar, is an assembly of embodied thoughts and actions from over 25 years of working as an artist. These two natural-cultural sites enrich each other – together they make up ‘The curious desert.”

The story writing continues at the National Museum of Qatar, with an extensive presentation of works from throughout the artist’s career inviting viewers to situate themselves anew in relation to expansive light installations, photo series from Iceland, complex geometric studies, watercolours, optical devices, and a sprawling research map. The most interesting feature shown is the Research Wall, a sprawling pinup board that chronicles all the discussions at the Olafur Eliasson Studio in recent years. The map can be seen as a space of micro-storytelling, where seemingly unrelated contents vibrate next to each other and create new meaning. My favourite quote on the wall is this, “We are the ancients, to a future someone”.

The Research Wall

Other interesting exhibits are

  • The living lighthouse, 2023 – a new installation comprising broad bands of colourful light that crawl across the walls of this circular room, wrapping visitors in a vibrant, ever-changing light installation.
  • Photography series depicting the natural landscapes of Iceland – including The glacier melt series, 1999/2019, 2019, The inner cave series, 1998, and The horizon series, 2002 – selected by the artist with the landscape of Qatar in mind.
  • Artworks created by drawing and painting machines installed outdoors near the Al Thakira Mangrove Forest.

The living lighthouse, 2023 Steel, wood, paint (black), colour-effect filter glass (various colours), HMI lamps, motors, tripod, cables, electrical ballast Dimensions variable Installation view: Olafur Eliasson: The curious desert, National Museum of Qatar, Doha, 2023 Photo: Anders Sune Berg Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

The presentation of The curious desert follows Qatar Museums’ October 2022 unveiling of Eliasson’s outdoor installation commissioned for the desert near the Ain Mohammed heritage site in Northern Qatar. The artwork, Shadows travelling on the sea of the day (2022), continues the Icelandic-Danish artist’s longstanding exploration of the interplay between human perception and the natural world.

A two-part film created by Tigerlily Production for Studio Olafur Eliasson and Qatar Museums captures the development of Eliasson’s installation Shadows travelling on the sea of the day and his exhibition The curious desert. The film created for Shadows travelling on the sea of the day will be on view at the Mohammed Jassim Al Khulaifi Library of The National Museum of Qatar, together with a special reading room dedicated to Eliasson, that collects a broad selection of catalogues covering the artist’s production, starting from the his first solo exhibition in the nineties running up to the present.