Eight Works of Art in Unlikely Places
In a new art atlas, author Grace Banks takes readers on a journey to some of the most fascinating artworks found outside of museums and galleries
Art can be found in some of the most unlikely places. You simply need to know where to look.
In her new book Art Escapes, published by gestalten, author Grace Banks takes readers on a world tour of some of the most unexpected locations to see art, from deep in a jungle in central Mexico to the barren expanse that is the Sahara Desert. As a journalist who reports regularly on culture and the arts, Banks has spent much of her decade-long career crisscrossing the continents in search of a good story, which has enabled her to have a firsthand look at some of the most inspirational artworks found outside the confines of museums and art galleries.
“Whenever I’d visit a new place, I’d always look up the most remote, lesser-known piece of art in the area,” Banks says. “From doing this I found many incredible places…I kept thinking how this would make a great book so people could be inspired by the art and also to travel.”
The result is an art atlas featuring more than four dozen art escapes spread across six continents, including sculptures, installations, murals and light projections. For every well-known locale mentioned (the highly Instagrammable Prada Marfa in Texas, for instance), Banks sprinkles in several other artworks that are off the beaten path (the Steilneset Memorial in Norway and the Red House in England, for example), creating a must-read for art enthusiasts and travelers alike.
“I’d always kept a messy and slightly rambling iPhone Notes list of all the places I’d visited and the tiniest most remote places I’d been…so I referred to that a lot,” she says. “The rest was research, searching high and low for things—it paid off!”
Here are eight art destinations worth visiting:
Desert Breath (El Gouna, Egypt)
To create Desert Breath, a one-million-square-foot artwork smack dab in the middle of the Sahara Desert, artists Alexandra Stratou, Danae Stratou and Stella Constantinides used a medium that was widely available to them: sand. Together, the three artists built hills of sand of different sizes, juxtaposing them by digging out circular holes, all in a spiral pattern. In the center of the piece sits a 280,000-square-foot oasis of water. The enormous artwork is still viewable even in the decades since the artists finished it in 1997—and they’ll even revisit it on satellite imagery via Google Maps. “In the work, [the artists] have channeled the great landscape masters like Nancy Holt and Richard Serra, to create a perfectly formed spiral that will eventually dissolve into the earth,” Banks says. “Every year the artists check in on the work to see its constant state of dilapidation.”
Tree of Utah (Tooele County, Utah)
Driving eastbound on Interstate 80 from Nevada toward Utah’s Great Salt Lake, an unfamiliar sight can be spotted off in the distance: an 80-foot-tall tree. But as you get closer, it’s apparent that this is no ordinary arbor. Created by Swedish painter and sculptor Karl Momen in 1981, the massive sculpture was inspired by the desolation he experienced during a cross-country road trip that included passing through the surrounding desert and salt flats. The result is a concrete structure comprised of a trunk and branches that hold up six colorful spheres that he covered in foraged rocks and minerals native to the state. “Momen’s Tree of Utah is such an anomaly on the [Bonneville] Salt Flats,” Banks says. “He wanted to add a pop-art-inspired note to these plains and decided on a Memphis Milano-reminiscent totem that can be seen from miles away.”
Barolo Chapel (Piemonte, Italy)
The colors used to paint the façade of Barolo Chapel are reminiscent of the rainbow selection found in Crayola’s iconic eight-pack of crayons. Designed by Sol LeWitt, an American artist known for his conceptual and minimalistic artworks, the brightly painted unconsecrated church stands in stark contrast to the vineyards it overlooks in the Umbrian countryside. The structure is a perfect example of the artist’s ability to take a space to the next level using a kaleidoscopic array of unexpected hues. “This is one of my favorite works in the book,” Banks says. “Sol LeWitt loved Italy, and he established an arts residency in Umbria, one of his favorite parts of the country. In the 1980s, he bought a chapel—which was initially built for the grape pickers in Umbria to pray in—and transformed [it] into a pop-art paradise.”
Las Pozas (Xilitla, Mexico)
Dubbed the “surrealist Xanadu” by its creator, the late British poet Edward James, Las Pozas is a fantastical sculpture park surrounded by a rainforest in central Mexico. Inspired by Surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí, Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst, James put down his pen for a chisel and hammer and, from 1949 to 1984, built an oasis comprised of metal archways, rambling staircases, concrete pillars, waterfalls and other details that seem plucked straight from the pages of a fairytale. “James was a sideline member of the Surrealist art movement,” Banks says. “He inherited a lot of money and at the advice of a model friend from New York went to the Xilitla jungle for a holiday. He fell in love with it and decided to build Las Pozas, a tropical surrealist sculpture garden.”
Yellow Pumpkin and Red Pumpkin (Naoshima, Japan)
Anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time skimming through social media has likely spotted something by Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama. Known for her usage of bright colors and geometric shapes, her sculptures and installations deserve the never-ending flood of “likes” they garner. While many of her creations are often part of traveling exhibitions, since 1994, a pair of Kusama’s giant polka-dotted pumpkins, which look as if a hungry giant plopped the hollowed-out gourds down and forgot about them, has been a semi-permanent fixture on Naoshima. The Japanese island, accessible via a 20-minute boat ride from Takamatsu, is often called the “art island” for its variety of art museums, including the Chichu Art Museum and the Art House Project. Sadly, last year the yellow pumpkin was damaged by a typhoon, and there are currently no plans to replace it; however, the red pumpkin is still on view. “Kusama’s pumpkins are brought to life here on Naoshima Island in Japan,” Banks says. “They were capsized by storms a year ago, but they’re still one of her most viewed works.”
Palais Idéal (Hauterives, France)
As a mail carrier in the late 1800s, Ferdinand Cheval spent much of his time delivering mail to some of the most rural outposts of southeastern France. In his travels, he often stumbled upon beautiful rocks and stones. Inspired, in 1879, he began collecting enough materials to build Palais Idéal on a family plot of land in the countryside outside of Lyon. Constructed over the course of 33 years, the 40-foot-tall, 85-foot-long palace is punctuated by Gothic turrets, towering archways and whimsical statues, and stands as a true testament to what happens when someone lets their imagination run wild. “Facteur Cheval or ‘postman Cheval’ as he was nicknamed, passed this plot of land for years before he decided to build a work of art on it,” Banks says. “Using everything from found objects to sandstone and shells, the self-taught artist created his own world here in the south of France.”
teamLAB Planets and Acorn Forest (Tokyo, Japan)
Using digital technology like projections and lighting design, teamLAB, a cutting-edge Japanese art collective, transports visitors to otherworldly places from its museum in Tokyo. In a current exhibition called Planets, viewers can become one with nature, walking barefoot through a field of flowers in one mirrored gallery, while in another, spirals of kaleidoscopic colors pool up from the floor. While the museum is teamLAB’s home base, the collective also has a second outdoor installation, called Resonating Life in the Acorn Forest, which opened in 2020 in Musashino Woods Park in Tokorozawa, a city about 30 miles northwest of Tokyo. “TeamLAB has consistently innovated the art world since it started its practice 20 years ago,” Banks says. “Acorn Forest is what the artists call a ‘living, breathing artwork’—an expanse that’s equally as densely populated by trees as it is by digital glowing orbs.”
Brim Silo Art Trail (Tungamah, Australia)
While most people see silos as an agricultural necessity, Australian muralist Guido van Helten saw them as a blank canvas begging for a transformation. In 2015, he began hand painting portraits of eight farmers on a grouping of 98-foot GrainCorp silos, a nod to the farming community of Victoria, a state in Australia where the silos are located. So inspired by the work, other artists followed suit, adding their own artistic touches to different silos in the area. The result is an art trail that draws art lovers near and far to this rural region of the continent. “On a stretch of former industrial land is now a cutting-edge contemporary art destination featuring towering murals by van Helten, [and street artists] Kaff-eine and Adnate,” Banks says. “At [124 miles], it is Australia’s largest art space, eclipsing the national museums.”
A Note to our Readers
Smithsonian magazine participates in affiliate link advertising programs. If you purchase an item through these links, we receive a commission.