The Curious Desert: Olafur Eliasson exhibition opens in Doha

The Curious Desert – Olafur Eliasson Exhibition opens in Doha
5 min read
06 April, 2023

First came Shadows Travelling on the Sea of the Day, an installation in the far northern desert of Qatar.

Made up of 20 mirrored circular roofed constructions, three single rings, and two double rings, the first impression of the installation as seen from the road is not that striking.

But get closer, stand under the disks, move between rings, and take in the surroundings from different angles, and you realise that Olafur Eliasson has done it again.

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His art installations are truly in the eye of the beholder and come to life only when immersing yourself in the various structures, which, on their own, mean nothing much.

But stand in this desert spot, surrounded by geometrical shapes, and you realise that each ring merges with the next, the shadows line up perfectly wherever you look, and the whole concept could not ever be in a better location than exactly where it is.

"This exhibition is unique in its presentation... to further demonstrate how art is not confined to galleries, but is around us, everywhere, to inspire and educate"

Now Qatar Museums has gone one better, with The Curious Desert, which not only takes over the National Museum of Qatar but has also seen the construction of another installation in the desert.

The Curious Desert, on until 15 August 2023, brings together numerous bodies of work by the Icelandic-Danish artist, each encompassing and playing with Eliasson’s passion for light and colour, geometric studies, raising ecological awareness, and always being aware of the perspective each spectator brings to the piece.

Olafur Eliasson is no stranger to larger-than-life installations, from placing 12 icebergs in front of the Tate Modern in London to allow people to truly comprehend that these melting icebergs were only a tiny part of what’s happening in the world, to creating rainbows on waterfalls on bridges and installations in the US.

Rainbow incubator
Rainbow Incubator [photo credit: Olafur Eliasson]

Considering light and reflections and shadows, geometry, construction and always with the plight of the environment in the forefront of his mind, Eliasson is as much an artist as an activist.

In his studio in Berlin, Germany, he starts off with a simple idea, maybe a scribble on a piece of paper, and then realises the idea with a team comprising craftspeople, architects, archivists, researchers, art historians, and specialised technicians, who, all together, bring his visions to life.

At the opening of this, Eliasson’s first solo exhibition in the Gulf, on 19 March 2023, Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Chairperson of Qatar Museums, said: "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.”

Solar Drawing Observatory Large Spheres
Solar Drawing Observatory (Large Spheres) [photo credit: Olafur Eliasson]

To grasp the entirety of this exhibition, you have to travel. From the National Museum on the Corniche of Doha to the desert near the Al Thakhira Mangrove Reserve, some 70 kilometres north of the capital.

There, you find a dozen temporary pavilions, with canvas walls that billow in the wind, and which shelter new artworks that offer a variation on Eliasson’s favourite topics, from creating rainbows through reflective spheres, channelling the desert light to create more art, to harnessing solar energy to light traditional incense.

From playing with water, wind, and the desert surroundings, to even bringing some of his homeland’s obsidian rocks from the Icelandic Highlands to create a black volcanic garden set against the pale desert sand.

Back in Doha, at the beautiful Jean Nouvel-designed National Museum of Qatar, representing a large version of the desert roses — sand, gypsum, and salt formations that are found in the Qatari desert, the exhibition expands upon and complements the outdoor installation.

The space is filled with a selection of previously-seen and new installations typical of Eliasson’s work and tactic, from a wonderful set of photographs of horizons from Icelandic landscapes which transport you to the island and beyond, to interlocking spirals offering a simple but imaginative play with shadows.

There are numerous pieces which reflect the beholder’s eye back onto him, as well as a room simply showing the prism of colours on a gigantic scale titled The Living Lighthouse, and a sort of disco ball, which plays with light and shadows in near darkness.

A series of circular artworks Solar Drawing Observatory, which was created by the machines installed in one of the pavilions in the desert location, made from burning marks into the paper using the desert sunlight and lenses, bring the exhibition full circle.

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But, right at the end, one of the most impressive exhibits is Olafur Eliasson’s Research Map. Many creatives have a mood board at home to draw inspiration from, and to collect ideas and concepts, but Eliasson takes his mood board somewhat further.

He has a 30-metre-long research map, ranging from A, for Atmosphere to Z, for Zoom, bringing together countless pieces of research, inspiration, pictures, magazine articles, detailed engineering drawings, and countless scientific studies, all of which show how this current Qatar exhibition has evolved and progressed.

It is an exhibition that is not only beautiful to see, but also opens your eyes, changes your perspective and perception, and is worthwhile travelling to see.

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance journalist, author and translator. Ulrike specialises in travel and lifestyle, with a leaning toward the Middle East. Her bylines have appeared in international publications such as  BBC TravelPositive NewsGood HousekeepingLonely PlanetTravel + LeisureNat GeoThe Independent,  Fodor’sTIMEMarriott Bonvoy Traveler, and many more.

Follow her on Twitter: @ULemminWoolfrey