Olafur Eliasson’s Curious Desert Contrasts Qatar and Iceland

4 June, 2023
Art and installations inspired by the desert remind museumgoers about the urgent need for environmental sustainability.


Safae Daoudi


A visitor to the Doha exhibition The Curious Desert, on view at the National Museum of Qatar through the 15th of August, couldn’t help but wonder, why would a Nordic artist focus on the desert, and why Qatar? This is Olafur Eliasson’s first solo exhibition in the Gulf. Born in 1967, Eliasson spent his early years between Iceland and Denmark, two Scandinavian countries known for their extremely cold weather, which contrast starkly with Qatar’s scorching temperatures and arid landscapes.

“Although they could not be more different, the sandy landscape of Qatar and the lava fields of Iceland,” Eliasson says in the exhibition literature, “are in a certain sense connected. They both experience extreme temperatures; they are both deserts. They are both fragile and vulnerable landscapes.”

Left wall: The glacier melt series 1999/2019. Installation at the National Museum of Qatar, 2023. (Photo credit: Safae Daoudi)
Left wall: The glacier melt series 1999/2019. Installation at the National Museum of Qatar, 2023 (photo Safae Daoudi).

Eliasson elaborated further in a recent interview with Ocula: “The landscapes of Qatar share certain qualities with the Icelandic landscape, although in other respects they may seem to be as different as could be. Both environments might initially appear barren to humans, but on closer inspection they reveal themselves to be intricate ecosystems that are full of life. The ecologists we worked with on analyzing the Al-Thakhira site, for example, observed numerous scorpions and lizards, such as Arnold’s fringe-toed lizard and Blanford’s short-nosed desert lizard, and many types of birds, including Indian reef herons and common redshanks. They also found a healthy population of Arabian red fox in the area. I was inspired at the prospect of creating works that respond to this landscape. For me, Iceland has always been a site for trying out and exploring artistic ideas — a kind of experimental laboratory, if you will.”

Last year his installation, Shadows Travelling on the Sea of the Day” 2022, steel, fiberglass and glass mirrors, was unveiled in the northwestern desert of the Qatar peninsula, outside Al Zubarah. The artworks explored how our perception of the world impacts our relationship to reality.

In March, the NMoQ launched The Curious Desert: Indoor Works by the Danish artist, which has been complemented by an extensive outdoor installation that includes 12 open-air pavilions 64 miles outside of the capital city, in the Al Thakhira Mangrove Reserve.

Eliasson’s photography, sculpture, installation, and painting within the museum’s complex reveal his dedication to utilizing art as a platform to raise ecological awareness. The artwork and themes, diverse and thought provoking in their scope, highlight the importance of ecological preservation.

Olafur Eliasson, Ice Watch in London, 2014 photo courtesy olafureliasson.net
Olafus Eliasson installed these immense blocks of ice, harvested as free-floating icebergs from a fjord outside Nuuk, Greenland; they stood from Dec. 11, 2018 in a grove of 24 blocks on Bankside, outside Tate Modern, and in a ring of 6 blocks in the City of London, outside Bloomberg’s European headquarters, until they melted away. Each block of ice weighed between 1.5 and 6 tons. Fished out of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord, they had already been lost from the ice sheet and were melting into the ocean. The Greenland ice sheet loses 10,000 such blocks of ice per second throughout the year; fishing these blocks of ice from the sea did not affect the quantity of ice in Greenland. Artist Olafur Eliasson, “Ice Watch in London” (photo courtesy olafureliasson.net).

Upon entering the museum in Doha, a “Research Wall” greets visitors. Myriad ideas and topics spanning ecology, the environment, climate change, and much more fill an extensive pin board.


Research map, (Photo credit: Safae Daoudi)
Research map (photo Safae Daoudi)

The art has been organized into six rooms, each offering an immersive experience, which in showcasing wide-ranging art techniques encourages introspection and piques curiosity about the processes of the natural world.

Drawings from outdoor pavilions, 2022. Installation at the National Museum of Qatar, 2023. (Photo credit: Safae Daoudi)
Drawings from outdoor pavilions, 2022. Installation at the National Museum of Qatar, 2023 (photo Safae Daoudi).


In Room Three, Eliasson unveils a captivating collection of sculptural forms showcasing a diverse range of shapes from spheres and curves that indicative of his artistic expression through the years. The artworks are inspired by geometrical research conducted by Eliasson and his team in his Berlin studio and push the boundaries of conventional notions surrounding geometry, architecture, and art.

Perhaps the most striking piece in the room is the “Algae Window” (2020), featuring an arrangement of glass spheres meticulously assembled on a wall. The artwork echoes the delicate beauty of diatoms, a type of single celled algae that plays a key role in the ecosystem, by removing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

Algae window, 2020. Installation at NMoQ 2023 (photo Safae Daoudi).
Algae window, 2020. Installation at NMoQ 2023 (photo Safae Daoudi).


One notable installation, in Room Six, features circular works, created by a machine set up in Eliasson’s laboratory in Al Thakhira Mangrove Reserve. These mesmerizing pieces employ sunlight to burn rotating papers, in a fusion of art and solar power.

The exhibition serves as a visual testament to some of the most pressing ecological challenges of our time. The artwork and installations shed light on the intricate ecological balance necessary for sustaining life in the harsh desert environment.

Future Eye Seeing Now (2020), Installation at the National Museum of Qatar, 2023. (Photo credit: Safae Daoudi)
Future Eye Seeing Now (2020), Installation at NMoQ, 2023 (photo Safae Daoudi)


“For the outdoor site of The Curious Desert,” Eliasson explained to Ocula, “we worked with ecologist Dr Aspa D. Chatziefthimiou to understand the plants and animal species that live in the area. Under Dr Aspa’s guidance, we chose a site that had the least impact on the species living there. At the end of the exhibition, we will of course ensure we leave things as we found them, but we are also in talks with the Qatar Ministry of Environment and Climate Change to draw up a remediation plan for improving the quality of the site, making it, in fact, more habitable than it was before the artworks arrived.” 

The Curious Desert is not only captivating and beautiful, its expansiveness and detail underscore the urgency with which we must engage in environmental preservation. Visitors are left with a profound appreciation for the fragility and interconnectivity of natural ecosystems, even as the exhibition inspires an appreciation for the aesthetics and art of environmental sustainability.


Artist Olafur Eliasson grew up in Iceland and Denmark, where he studied from 1989 to 1995 at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In 1995, he moved to Berlin and founded Studio Olafur Eliasson, which today comprises a large team of craftsmen, architects, archivists, researchers, administrators, cooks, programmers, art historians, and specialised technicians. Eliasson’s works explore the relevance of art in the world at large. Since 1997, his wide-ranging solo shows — featuring installations, paintings, sculptures, photography, and film — have appeared in major museums around the globe. He represented Denmark at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003 and later that year installed The weather project, an enormous artificial sun shrouded by mist, in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, London, which was seen by more than two million people. In 2014, Contact was the opening exhibition of Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. Verklighetsmaskiner (Reality machines), at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2015, became the museum’s most visited show by a living artist. In 2016, Eliasson created a series of interventions for the palace and gardens of Versailles and mounted two large-scale exhibitions: Nothingness is not nothing at all, at Long Museum, Shanghai, and The parliament of possibilities, at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul. Green light – An artistic workshop, created in 2016 in collaboration with TBA21 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary), offered a response to the challenges of mass displacement and migration. Eliasson’s site-specific installation Reality projector opened at the Marciano Foundation, Los Angeles, in March 2018, the same month as The unspeakable openness of things, his solo exhibition at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing. In 2019, In real life, a wide-ranging survey exhibition of Eliasson’s artistic practice over the past twenty-five years, opened at Tate Modern, in London, before travelling to Guggenheim Bilbao in 2020Olafur Eliasson: Symbiotic seeing opened at Kunsthaus Zürich in January 2020, and Sometimes the river is the bridge was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo from April to September 2020. For the exhibition Life, in 2021, Eliasson removed the glass facade of the Fondation Beyeler, in Basel, Switzerland, and conducted the bright green waters of the existing pond into the museum’s galleries, along with a host of aquatic plants and the odd duck or spider. 2022 saw the opening of two large-scale solo exhibitions in Italy – Nel tuo tempo (In your time), at Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence, and Orizzonti tremanti (Trembling horizons), at Castello di Rivoli, in Turin. In 2023, Eliasson opened الصحراء تعانق الخيال (The Curious Desert), a major exhibition that spans two locations in Qatar: a broad selection of watercolours, paintings, photographic series, and geometrical sculptures on view indoors at the National Museum of Qatar, in Doha, and a series of twelve experimental pavilions situated in the desert near the Al Thakhira Mangrove Forest nature preserve.

Safae Daoudi is a journalism student from Morocco, presently at Northwestern University in Doha. She is passionate about storytelling and interested in history, politics, and diplomacy. She previously worked as a staff reporter for the Daily Q and Morocco World News and more recently as an assistant producer for Al Jazeera English in London. She is as an editorial assistant with The Markaz Review.

architectureArt exhibitiondesertDohaearthecosystems

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