El Gouna, Egypt

Desert Breath


Last March, three Greek artists, Danae Stratou, Alexandra Stratou, and Stella Constantinides (calling themselves DAST, an acronym formed of their first names), completed an ambitious Land Art installation entitled Desert Breath. This project entailed nine months of intense labor and a contingent of some eighty workers, foremen, and engineers equipped both with construction machinery and specially designed wooden and aluminum tools. The chosen site was an austere, sandy plateau between the Red Sea and Egypt’s Eastern Mountains, near a road running from Cairo to Upper East Egypt. Covering approximately one million square feet of desert bordering the sea, the project involved the displacement of some 300,000 cubic feet of sand.

Desert Breath imposes geometric order on a barren landscape. It consists of two interlocking logarithmic spirals—one formed of eighty-nine cones of sand, and the other of eighty-nine conical depressions cut into the surface of the desert (the protruding cones are made from the earth that was removed when the incisions were made in the sand)—circling outward in the shape of a nautilus shell. The artists chose the spirals not only for their formal appeal, but also in an obvious homage to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. As one approaches the interior, the cones decrease in height and diameter (from twelve feet in height and forty-six feet wide to around one foot in height and five feetwide). Placed in the center of the work is a large pool, filled with water from a nearby oasis and containing a submerged double cone ninety-eight feet in diameter intersected by a protruding cone forty-nine feet in diameter. The level of the rim of the incised cone coincides exactly with the point where the tip of the protruding one was cut off, six inches below its apex. Finally, small mirrors on the top of each cone in the installation accentuate the shape of the spirals, while “dematerializing” the conical volumes by reflecting the blue of the sky and simulating water: according to the artists, the mirrors are intended to serve as points of intersection between earth and sky. As it is exposed to steady erosion by the wind, this masterfully executed work incorporates chance and the irreversibility of time.

Both organic and geometric, the spirals seem to flow into the surrounding environment. At the same time Desert Breath echoes the power and authority of the Egyptian pyramids, adding a sense of bravura to this eccentric project. Its elegant design also encroaches on the desert’s amorphousness, in a terrain that is ragged and rocky rather than picturesque. What Desert Breath delivers most successfully is a powerful statement about determinacy and endurance: it “grows” with an impressive certainty, combating the environment only to merge with it. When viewed from a distance, the installation resembles a fantastic village embedded in the desert, while, through its proximity to ancient ruins and a tourist resort, it also seems to testify to the eventual disintegration of all civilizations.

In order to fully experience Desert Breath, it is necessary to walk along the spirals of displaced sand—a swirling pathway designed to bring the viewer closer to his or her body. Thus, human contingency binds this finite work to infinite space, inviting one to meditate not only on materiality, but also on the possibility of a momentary escape from its limitations.

Marek Bartelik