This summer, Libyan Princess Alia Al-Senussi, an active patron of the arts in London and the Middle East, and Abdullah AlTurki, an influential collector in Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art scene, took a tour of the art on offer in the great American West, beginning with studio visits (and assorted cultural diversions) in Los Angeles and moving on to Donald Judd's compound in Marfa, Texas; Roden Crater, James Turrell's epic site in Arizona; and other towering landmarks. Here, the two friends and frequent collaborators recount their journey in the second installment of their travelogue for Artspace.
Before leaving Los Angeles with a group of fellow art-worlders, we were rather ambitious and had scheduled a stop at Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles on our itinerary to get ourselves primed for Texas's hearty cuisine, but had a decidedly Californian change of heart and went to a juice bar instead. We brought back some of these impeccably healthy liquid treats for our friends Phil Tinari and Luluc Huang, who thought us rather insane to be drinking thick green liquids, so we all then hit an In-N-Out Burger to compensate. Afterward, sated, we proceeded to almost miss our flight—thanks to the 50 million people at In-N-Out—but thankfully our motley crew of 10 successfully boarded American Eagle flight 3636 to El Paso. Yee-Haw!
We were met at the airport by the final three members of our convoy, making for a rather amusingly inauspicious total of 13, and we piled into three massive SUVs for the trek to Marfa. (Sadly, one of our bags didn’t make it to its destination, so that freed up a little more welcome space while we prayed it would eventually rejoin the journey.) Moving at the head of this large group, we rather felt like den parents—Mommy Alia and Daddy Abdullah—shepherding our flock through the wilds of the Southwest.
We knew immediately that we were in a place unlike anywhere else. The minute we left the grounds of the airport there was just vast nothingness: flat lands and tumbleweeds. We drove the two and a half hours to Marfa with little cell service, repeatedly being queried by our phones whether we wanted to roam on the Mexican cell-phone company... did we accidentally cross over in to Ciudad Juarez? In fact, that notorious drug-cartel city was just ten miles to the right of our caravan. We sped along, attempting to use some fancy-schmancy apps on our iPhones to avoid speed traps. This would have been helpful if we actually had data service, or even regular cell service, but alas we could barely get get a single bar on our phones.
Our cars took turns at the lead, with Sharifa Al-Sudairi, a fellow Saudi art enthusiast, as the spoiler when she got bored. At one point Abdullah decided that Alia was driving too slowly, dropping from 100 mph to 80, so he decided to be the crazy Saudi driver he is and pass her—just as a state trooper appeared parked on the side of the road (hence the reason for Alia hitting the brakes). He seemed totally oblivious to Alia’s clear instructions to keep on the lookout for conspicuous black vehicles on the roadside. In the end, the unlucky car behind Sharifa’s got pulled over, and we continued on our merry way.
We were in a race against the clock to arrive to Marfa before dark, as we had been told that Prada Marfa—the fake luxury retail outlet on the road into town, a puckish art installation by Elmgreen & Dragset—would be most beautiful at sunset. We meandered down the two-lane highway and came upon this solitary building in the middle of nowhere, almost passing it by a half hour outside of Marfa. We had found it! It was everything we thought it would be, and we commenced with our first photo shoot of the trip, striking various poses in front of this perfect building in this desolate place. "Blue Steel" anyone? We all backed up onto the highway to get the perfect shot, and the more timid of our group were worried that we would get run over—but by what? Not a single car passed in either direction. We got our tourist shots and hurried back into the cars to reach our ultimate destination, hastened by our growling stomachs.
It was the perfect welcoming to this amazing place: a visit to Prada Marfa, followed by dinner at the home of Ballroom Marfa founding director Fairfax Dorn (whose organization had commissioned Elmgreen & Dragset). She greeted us with exactly what we needed after our long day: pizza (courtesy of the fabulous Pizza Foundation), nachos, and margaritas. Her home was Marfa perfection, a sprawling ranch in the middle of town. We left Fairfax completely satiated and reached our home for the next two nights, the Thunderbird Hotel. We found the keys to our rooms in the unlocked box next to the front desk across the street, since we had reached Marfa after the night manager went home.
We all spent a rather amusing half hour hauling our bags to and from rooms, finding our way, and generally settling in. But the day wouldn’t have been complete without some additional drama, and this time it came courtesy of the Sudairi sisters: Sharifa’s darling sisters had locked themselves out of their room. We called the emergency number and someone came to rescue them from the mosquitos outside, and we all tumbled in to our beds, absolutely exhausted. Welcome to Marfa!