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. Richard Prince’s project similarly seems to emerge out of nowhere, an abandoned desert cabin plastered with his social media subversions out in a desert expanse.
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 Lita Albuquerque’s sculpture, hEARTH (2017), at Sunnylands—the Camp David of the West—who has her ear to the ground, listening to what the earth is telling her. It’s a play on the talks that take place at Sunnylands when governmental figures visit.
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 Sherin Guirguis’s One I Call (2017), too, is a highlight, a dovecote set into a hiking trailhead in the Whitewater Preserve. Once inside the structure, which is inspired by Egyptian desert pigeon houses, the doorways offer views of snow-capped peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains in the distance that dwarf anything else seen at “Desert X.”
Tavares Strachan’s project, meanwhile, is an explosion of small trenches dug into the earth and filled with neon light. It should be seen at night, when the stars are meant to add to the contemplative atmosphere. The lights, if seen from above, spell out the phrase, “I am.” (There are drones flying about that will help to capture this view.)
But the message isn’t necessarily in the medium, says Strachan over breakfast at the Ace Hotel a day before the exhibition opens. “John Baldessari has this great quote where he talks about artworks as being essentially a giant arrow pointing at something else,” he says.
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 Gabriel Kuri’s Donation box (2017), a previously iterated work for which he’s placed 26 tons of sand in an empty storefront in a strip mall on Racquet Club Road. (He tells me he had another project in the works, something more site-specific, but that there were troubles with the landowners, and he had to shift gears mid-stream.)
The exhibition is a sharp contrast from High Desert Test Sites (HDTS), an occasional exhibition organized by artist Andrea Zittel in nearby Joshua Tree. The works at HDTS have traditionally been woolier and weirder than those at “Desert X,” but often more rewarding.
I remember Yoshua Okon’s piece from a few years back, in which he crafted a script for a family whose desert home he intervened in. The fight in the middle over Okon’s filming of the family was so powerful that one viewer ran out the door crying. I can’t think of anything more site-specific than working with desert dwellers.
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 Rob Pruitt’s contribution to “Desert X”—a flea market in the Palm Springs Art Museum. The artist has been doing this since 1999, and while he did bring together local merchants and artists to vend their wares, the project seems like a tack-on to add Pruitt’s marquee name to the list.
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.