At Desert X, 16 Artists Make 45 Miles of the Coachella Valley Their Canvas
The first thing you notice when you drive through Downtown Palm Springs at night is just how much it’s a suburb. Subtract the sun, the brown mountains jutting towards the sky, the vast expanse, and it’s as suburban as the San Fernando Valley.
Pause that thought. Maybe there’s some better architecture, I think as I pass a restaurant tucked into a spectacular A-frame building on my way to “Desert X,” an exhibition of site-specific works by 16 artists that takes place in various areas around Palm Springs, the Sonoran desert city in Southern California.
The exhibition, which opens on February 25th, is curated by Artistic Director Neville Wakefield. It’s timed to coincide with Coachella Music Festival, which draws tens of thousands of revelers to the desert every April. And, sprawled across some 45 miles of the Coachella Valley—in two days, I saw just 12 of the 16 works—this show is one for viewers with time to kill.
Among the desert winds, the gridded streets that can turn you around, and the mirages that waver in the distance, Palm Springs seems rife for an exhibition like this, which I hear described as a “biennial” a few times by “Desert X” officials.
It’s in this landscape that Jennifer Bolande’s billboards sneak up on you. They are puzzle pieces to their mountainous, epic backdrops.
Why Palm Springs, you might wonder. Some of the works answer that question. Bolande’s does, certainly, even if you’re an Angeleno tired of billboard art. So does the figure from the future in
Elsewhere in the desert, Italian artist Norma Jeane’s roving ShyBot (2017) roams through the desert, and is supposedly programmed to avoid human contact. And
But the message isn’t necessarily in the medium, says Strachan over breakfast at the Ace Hotel a day before the exhibition opens. “
The work is meant to be a place of contemplation, explains Strachan. And since you can’t see the words from the ground level, the words lose meaning in much the way they do when they are being chanted.
“I am,” Strachan tells me, “is an ancient mantra from Hindu Vedic text. It’s interesting in the desert, because it brings up the physicality—the wind, the sand—and the history of the desert. All the Bible, the Hindu texts—all the things I read when I was a child— happen in the desert. And contain all these moments of self-actualization.”
Some projects deal less directly with the desert environment, such as
The exhibition is a sharp contrast from High Desert Test Sites (HDTS), an occasional exhibition organized by artist
And I’ll never forget works like Thom Merrick’s hike up a mountain to view the landscape as an artwork—evoking the corner of a painting, perhaps.
The contrast is most apparent in
Which points to another problem in the curation. Pruitt and Prince are big names, sure, but the list isn’t entirely made up of blue-chippers, so why there are only four women included in the show is baffling—a question that seemed to handcuff Wakefield when he was asked about it during an interview in the New York Times.
This sort of thinking isn’t acceptable in today’s world. It leaves a dusty taste on an otherwise enjoyable journey. Where, exactly, that journey takes you is another question.