The Art of Desert Greening

Updated: Sep 27, 2018

By Martine Hoff Jensen.

About two thirds of the earth are desertifying ecologist Allan Savory said in a TEDTalk in 2013 [1]. Meaning that two thirds of the world’s grasslands are turning into deserts. The Zimbabwean livestock farmer, environmentalist and president and co-founder of the Savory Institute, which promotes Holistic Management and planned grazing, has a plan to change that outcome. By mimicking thousands of years of natural habits he plans to re-store carbon dioxide in the earth’s soil. Savory wants to copy how animal herds have moved across land, stepped down the vegetation and covered the soil in time for rain season, so that the earth can hold the rain, store the carbon and break down methane gas. By herding livestock in planned grazing, having them covering the soil with dung, urin and stepped-down grass, he believes that all the grasslands in the world can store as much carbon in the soil to bring us back to preindustrial levels. And feed people at the same time. Re-greening the «sandlands».

In the exhibition Greening a Dust Storm, now showing at Oppland Kunstsenter until October 10th, Norwegian artists Ingri Haraldsen and Petter Buhagen explore ways in how the blurry lines between nature and our digital and technological reality. Through drawing, graphic works and grass installations the exhibition examines for example how technology and nature co-habit the same environments. This exhibition joins the line of duo-shows the artists have made together in the last few years. Most of them touch on similar topics.

In Greening a Dust Storm the photographic drawings does not give away their origins. Their close-up details of some sort of matter are ambiguous, you ar never completely sure of what you are looking at. For example in one of the artworks, a the large-scale charcoal drawing by Haraldsen, she has enlarged the clay leftovers from her daughter’s play, and they now look like some kind of foreign, organic matter. The graphic abstractions following them adds to the exhibition’s feeling of the familiar meeting the unknown [2]. How humans protect themselves from their natural environment, is put against – and seen in the context of – the extremely rapid technological development of the world [3]. The abstractions also act as a filtration devise for the overwhelming amount of information we are exposed to daily. Grass feature in many of the works, ranging from the stack of hay in the middle of the room, to graphic elements in the fivefold picture filling one of the gallery walls. The white lines on the black background are sometimes zoomed in details of the straws, sometimes patters of a pile of grass, or a bouquet. They also occur in the wall mural, where the artists have painted directly on the wall; a graphic design spreading in four long arms across the end wall of the room, reaching out from the bottom of the corner.

With the current exhibition the two artists continue their focus on the sand grain, which they in the 2015 exhibition Saltation at Norske Grafikere explored in connection with movement. Haraldsen and Buhagen then looked at how the grain moves with the wind. Like the titles says, the wind moves the grains as it reaches a certain speed and the sand levitates off the ground and moves a short distance to a new place. As the grains drop to the ground after their airborne flight, their movement is transferred to new grains, which then levitate and move to a new place. This dance of sand grains continues until the wind is not blowing anymore [4].

The 18th century philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder was early with his thoughts about the environment and the human impact. He saw man as «a climate-altering species», and wrote that «man has contributed to the alteration of climate in various ways» and hence at the same time lead themselves to changing with the climate [5]. Meaning that men has through history changed the places and spaces they have occupied, by altering it for their benefits, which again has altered the climate. By example, cutting down forests to benefit from agriculture, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In other words, it is not just the climate that dictates human beings’ living conditions, but mankind has also made changes «itself through the cultural techniques it employs to alter landscapes and climates» [6]. Hence we have coined the term «Anthropocene» for our own time, our epoch, in which «humans have become a ‘geological force’ transforming the climate and and the biosphere on a global scale».

In the exhibition Greening a Dust Storm the artists explore the outcome after the sand grains have spread and how new territories can be re-inhabited or co-inhabited by nature. The sand and the grass. The sandstorm. Greening a dust storm. The title is ambiguous. Greening dust, greening a desert. Turning our civilizations destroying impact on the ecological balance of the earth? Reimbursing the ecosystems?

The Norwegian environmental organization Bellona is involved in a project in the deserts of Qatar, Jordan and Australia – the Sahara Forest Project. The goal is to turn sand dunes into farms by «combining solar thermal technologies with saltwater evaporation techniques, freshwater condensation and efficient production of food and biomass without displacing existing agriculture or natural vegetation» [7]. This means that you make fresh water, clean energy and food from desert land and saltwater. In the essay Evolutionary Infrastructures architects Marion Weiss and Michael A. Manfredi explore ways in which architecture and infrastructure can add to their initial roles, creating new possibilities in the the field of urbanization, landscapes and buildings. Saying that «[e]volutionary infrastructures does not condemn the artifacts of infrastructure or depend on an idealized blank slate condition, but rather envisions new reciprocities between preexisting infrastructural systems and more ecologically resilient territories suited for contemporary demands and emerging climatic realities» [8]. Using the Sahara Forest Project as an example, by combining technologies, agriculture and nature in new ways you can meet the contemporary conditions and climatic realities to come. In other words, taming the desert.

But they are no the only ones trying to do just that. In China they have been greening the Inner Mongolia’s Kubuqi Desert for about 30 years. Around one third of 18,600 km² of sand dunes have been greened in the last since the late 1980s. It started in 1988 when the Chinese firm Elion Resources Group partnered with the locals and the Beijing government to beat the sand. They have planted special plants, that grip the shifting sands, which again prevents the dunes from spreading and encroaching on the farms [9]. In Ethiopia the local people of the Tigray province, which was stricken by famine a generation ago, are using ancient techniques to green their desert. The Tigrayan people do as the Axumite kings did 2000 years ago, they summon all men and women over 18 to do twenty days of mandatory community labour. Their task is to make terraces that will trap the annual rains and hence force the water to percolate into the soil [10]. With water in the soil, plants will grow.

Sometimes the desert does the job for you. In 2015 El Niño covered the Atacama desert in Chile with flowers. The routine climate pattern named after a kid can mean significant changes for the weather as it brings a band of anomalously warm ocean water temperatures with it [11]. This time it brought flowers. A carpet of purple, yellow, red and white flowers stretched out across the 105 000 km² Chilean sand plateau [12]. A desert blooming is a climatic phenomenon that occasionally happens. It occurs when an unusual level of rainfall reach the seeds and bulbs that have been in a latent or dormant state and causes them to germinate and flower in early spring. The hidden ecosystem has been lying under ground, just waiting to bloom under the right conditions.

But plants can also cause deserts. Earlier this year PhD student at The Arctic University of Norway (UiT) Victoria González Tevendale handed in her thesis on «krekling» (latin Empetrum nigrum), or crowberry, a sturdy plant growing in the northern hemisphere.[13] According to Tevendale the small bush plant is extremely dominant in tundra ecosystems. Their «leaves» are covered with poison that can stop other plants from developing. The consequence is that the crowberry bush extinct all other vegetation in the tundra plant society. As the little plant can live more than 100 years, its poisonous leaves are sturdy and can survive in and on the soil for a long time, causing a sort of «green» desert condition [14].

In the dictionary desert means a waterless, desolate area of land with little or no vegetation, typically one covered with sand. Somewhere uninhabitable and dull. In the environment created by Ingri Haraldsen and Petter Buhagen at Oppland Kunstsenter, the space is not dull at all. Although they have not actually greened a dust storm in the technological way like Bellona, and even though most of the art works are in black and white except for the pile of dried grass, they have successfully combined a various selection of styles. And created a symbiosis of techniques that works well together, the same way the desert greeners have found various combinations of different elements to battle the desert and make it nourishing and lush. The intangible expressions of the works add to the feeling of our unknown present, which might be green or we might be caught in a dust storm.


[1] Savory, Allen, «How to green the world's deserts and reverse climate change.» TEDTalk. 17.09.2018.

[2] Brun, «Greening a Dust Storm».

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gabrielsen, «Petter Buhagen & Ingri Haraldsen».

[5] Horn, «Air Conditioning», 235.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Willmott, «A Norwegian Company is Transforming Deserts Into Farmland»

[8] Weiss & Manfredi, «Evolutionary Infrastructures», 150.

[9] Campbell, «China's Greening of the Vast Kubuqi Desert is a Model for Land Restoration Projects Everywhere».

[10] Haslam, «Turning Ethiopia's desert green».

[11] Climate, sv. «El Nino.» 18.09.2018.

[12] NTB, «El Niño dekket ørken med blomster».

[13] Bludd, «Klimaendringene kan skape en grønn ørken».

[14] Ibid.


Bludd, Ellen Kathrine. «Klimaendringene kan skape en grønn ørken.» The Arctic University of Norway. 18.09.2018.

Brun, Vilde Andrea. «Utstillingene Greening a Dust Storm med Ingri Haraldsen og Petter Buhagen, og Kraftbalanse med Øystein Wyller Odden.» Oppland Kunstsenter. 17.09.2018.

Campbell, Charlie. «China's Greening of the Vast Kubuqi Desert is a Model for Land Restoration Projects Everywhere.» Time. 18.09.2018.

Climate, sv. «El Nino.» 18.09.2018.

Gabrielsen, Stian. «Petter Buhagen & Ingri Haraldsen.» Norske Grafikere. 18.09.2018.

Haslam, Chris. «Turning Ethiopia's desert green.» BBC. 18.09.2018.

Horn, Eva. «Air Conditioning: Taming the Climate as a Dream of Civilization». In Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, edited by James Graham, Caitlin Blanchfield, Alissa Anderson, Jordan Carver, Jacob Moore, 233-241. Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2017.

NTB. «El Niño dekket ørken med blomster.» NRK. 18.09.2018.

Savory, Allen, «How to green the world's deserts and reverse climate change.» TEDTalk. 17.09.2018.

Weiss, Marion & Micheal A. Manfredi. «Evolutionary Infrastructures». In Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, edited by James Graham, Caitlin Blanchfield, Alissa Anderson, Jordan

Carver, Jacob Moore, 150-157. Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2017.

Willmott, Don. «A Norwegian Company is Transforming Deserts Into Farmland.» Smithsonian. 18.09.2018.