Art in Sahara – Human, Not Alien

EL GOUNA, Egypt – Looking at photos of the Sahara – the largest desert in Africa – taken by a satellite, one encounters a breathtakingly beautiful and spectacularly symmetrical masterpiece, that looks like a footprint made by an outer space alien whose foot must be the size of a small city. Then, a more cynical thought: “it can’t possibly be real – it must be photoshopped – an Internet hoax.”

But this work of art, known as Desert Breath, is very real, indeed, and despite its supernatural/sci-fi appearance, it was created by three human beings – Greeks – who comprise D.A.ST. Arteam: Installation Artist Danae Stratou, her cousin, Industrial Designer Alexandra Stratou, and Architect Stella Constantinides.

It took two years to create/construct the project, which is essentially a spiral of 89 conical crevices from which sand – 280,000 square feet of it – was removed to construct 89 corresponding pyramids, all of which depict Danae Stratou’s vision of “two parallel realities in the way that we view the world,” as she describes on her website, danaestratou.com. “There is the world inside and the world outside of us. It is through the senses that we are able to connect the inside to the outside world. My whole life, including the choice to become an artist, has been an attempt to re-search, to understand, and to connect these two parallel realities. To bridge what is within to what is without…”

Constantinides was drawn to the project because it allowed her to experience “art outside the gallery walls,” she told TNH, evidencing that art and architecture “can coexist without boundaries.”

While studying at the Architectural Association in London, Constantinides was working on a thesis in land art, “a subject that had totally absorbed me,” she said.

“Much before Desert Breath was conceived, Danae Stratou told TNH, “Alexandra and Stella mentioned that they were thinking of traveling to Egypt and possibly doing an onsite installation in the desert. The mere possibility and prospect of working in the desert intrigued me. So, I decided to join them because the very idea of the desert always had a magnetic pull on me, not only the desert as a landscape but also as a concept (its vastness, its emptiness, its nature) that had already influenced my art.

“As soon as the three of us began discussing the idea of making something in the desert,” she added, “I immediately felt a deep need to do something at a large scale that would envelop both ourselves, as creators, and the visitors/viewers in a life-changing physical experience.”

Alexandra Stratou described her quest for purity, which “speaks to all senses at once, lends itself for an inward journey in immeasurable depths. As soon as a trip to the desert that we had long planned started taking shape, working with it became the goal. “Working in a place, with its people, to physically create, is for me the only way to truly engage with a landscape or a people. The purity of the desert was a very abstract notion to me at the time, and was reinforced by the experience of working with it: it has to do with the purity of each element as it participates in the desert experience.”

A 30-meter diameter pool of water adorned Desert Breath’s center though, the desert’s natural erosion has dried up the pool over the years. The design is still very much visible, though it will naturally revert to its original state, through the slow passage of time. “We had always intended for Desert Breath to mark time through its gradual fading,” Danae said. “To lose its edges, and to become more organic as the sands of time and the desert’s winds took its toll. Today, seventeen years later, Desert Breath is still there; quite remarkable if you think that it was constructed using nothing but the desert’s own sand. Its cones may have lost their sharpness, or become partially filled up with sand, but its energy remains intact.”

“And yet Desert Breath does not change its ways,” Alexandra added. “In the morning its shadows start very long and thin, by noon time it almost disappears and looks much smaller and insignificant than it was only hours ago. At sundown the shadows grow big again bringing all its majesty into relief until the shadow of the mountain covers it lightly like a blanket for the night. The changes on its surfaces and even in its form only uncover the purity of the gesture that created it and so it is, day after day.”

The three women each came to the Desert Breath project with a unique perspective, but “none of the three became dominant, each of us guarding the purity of the idea as we experienced it,” Alexandra said. “Each of us listened to what the others had to say and filtered it to keep only the essence that would benefit Desert Breath. This experience of collaboration was truly unique, and it was born from faith in what we wanted to create. This faith became contagious, and soon people around us were offering what each one could to help us make Desert Breath a reality. Today, it has claimed its own space in the consciousness of the people who encounter it by chance, and this is its strength.”

To contemplate Danae’s description of Desert Breath as “my soul’s home,” it is a wonder how she was able to return to her “pre-Desert” life. “One of the most challenging things for me was to return back to normality,” she said. “Being in a cloud, I was lucky in the way that I had two little ones who would pull on my pants and demand my attention and this grounded me and kept me sane. My only dream was to be able to do more such projects, to go on working in that scale and in nature. It just seemed impossible for me to go back to the confinement of my studio’s four walls. What I did manage to do was to integrate the scale of Desert Breath into my work and installations in a different way and so from then on my artwork became integrated with travels around the world which allowed me to retain a global perspective.” Later projects, which include The River of Life and The Globalising Wall, can be seen on her website.

Constantinides remains fascinated by the advances in technology since1997, when she and the Stratou Cousins completed the project, because they had not envisioned at the time that a “passer -by” viewing the project could be someone viewing it on Google Earth, thousands of miles away – on the other side of the world. “When we conceived it,” she told TNH, “it was crucial that it was going to be experienced from above and from within . Little did we know at the time that this would be so easily possible.

With an entire planet as proverbial canvas or lump of clay, does D.A.ST. Arteam envision any future land art projects? “From the moment we completed Desert Breath there was a need and appetite for more,” Constantinides said. “We are still longing to be at the right place at the right time.”

Danae is considering an American project this time: “If I could get similar support for a land art project here in the United States (she lives in Austin, TX; her cousin and Constantinides live in Athens) or elsewhere for that matter, I would love the opportunity of ‘conversing’ with the land again and of attempting to ‘reveal out of it’ another large scale earthwork that puts people in closer contact with nature and with themselves.”