A Review of Desert X in the Coachella Valley, California
“The cliche of the journey being the destination is partly true in this case,” opened Neville Wakefield at the inauguration of the Desert X biennial in Palm Springs. Lasting until April 30, Desert X brings together 14 artists investigating the broad cultural, social, and ecological impacts of the desert. Set across 40 square miles of the Coachella Valley, the works take viewers to nature preserves, A-frame motels, and underground survival shelters, all while calling to place the inherent landscape of the area.
Both the vast and the intimate moments that living in a naturally isolated environment can generate are explored. Wakefield was explicitly particular in the works being site-specific to the Coachella Valley. At Desert X, artists amplify the duality of the the natural surroundings. Where there is emptiness, there is space for ideas fully formed. Where there is loss, there can be rejuvenation. This expressive combination is often at play at the biennial, serving to place the audience in unique emotional settings amidst its namesake.
Doug Aitken’s aptly named “Mirage” brilliantly plays upon the dramatic natural landscape of Palm Springs, as well as its storied architectural history. Aitken drafted the plans for a home set in the traditional ranch style, covering the entire interior and exterior in reflective mirror.“By taking the house and draining it of people, belongings, stories, and history, and seeing it in pure form, it becomes a kind of minimal sculpture,” he explained. The result is a building that plays its own disappearing act against the landscape, like a ghost that floats above the tract homes below. “Mirage” finds itself Spielbergian in its subtle use of dark suburbia that our duplicit selves reflect in the passageways inside.
Using the core elements of highway advertisement, a billboard and its audience, Jennifer Bolande also distorts expectation with her contribution “Visible Distance/Second Sight.” Viewable from both sides of the Gene Autry Trail, her billboards align with the horizon points of the towering mountainsides. The works can be read as a reminders to buy into the earth and preservation of our natural resources, or perhaps an indictment that the path to healthy living comes with commercial pursuit as well.
Near a residential stretch of Palm Springs, a mystical (almost full) circle of 300 mirrored bars glimmers to form Phillip K Smith III’s “The Circle of Land and Sky.” From the road, a wooden boardwalk was constructed to build the path to the piece, heightening the sense of pilgrimage. The huge expanse of the area is not without its intimacy however, with the bars spaced close enough for multiple panoramic angles to be placed into one view. Depending on the time of day the piece is viewed, the perspective of the west and east blur into the reflectors, disorienting the verizon and stability of an otherwise sound geometric form.
Perspective is also significantly at play in “Curves and Zig Zags” by Claudia Comte. Placed against the volatile landscape of the flat desert plains and towering mountainside, the location worked well to set the stage for the explorative nature that best revealed the work’s mutability. Weaving between the bushes and rocks, the wall undulates like a stream appearing in an arid place. Beyond the top of the work, there were groups hiking at times, almost looking like they were floating above the wall. Location here was key to the piece’s success and its reading as a sculpture rather than a traditional mural form.
Further south, Armando Lerma’s contribution to the biennial, a continuation of the Coachella Walls project he started in 2011, uses the wall as an opportunity for community revitalization. “La fiesta en el desierto” is a brilliant painting of an outdoor party scene with children and adults playing, complete with a cake and piñata. His work is a reminder of the strong educational programming Desert X has with Coachella Valley area. Led by Carol Nash, talks and visits to the various art sites are planned throughout its running course. Local students will also have the benefit of being able to engage in film making and digital story telling through a collaboration with DIGICOM. The thoughtful presentation of art as community enrichment is thoroughly at work in the Coachella Walls project, and the educational components of Desert X.
Sherin Guirguis’s work “One I Call” is set in the Whitewater Preserve, the north most of all the exhibition sites. Nestled between two mountains that hug the Pacific Trail, Guirguis worked with traditional clay builders to produce a conical structure that despite its height, is actually a smaller version of Egyptian homing pigeon towers. Gold leafed holes at the top of the structure provide light inside and also serve as a protective home for regional birds. During production and at its opening, Guirguis worked with local members of the Native American community who came to sing traditional bird songs at the sculpture, calling to mind the most ancient of relationships to the area.
Located at a remote home that happened to also be advertised for sale, Richard Prince displayed a continuation of his social media infused work. Entitled “Third Place”, it was the newest iteration in a series of installations whose previous incarnations took place in Los Angeles and Upstate New York. Prince employed select “Family Tweets” from his Twitter account and Instagram, narrating his family history with a twisted sense of humor and grammar. Piles of newsprint (avidly grabbed by viewers) stacked outside the house, as the vinyl tweets and their spray painted interventions of “FFFAMILY” rustled in the wind. Perhaps it was the energy of these spray paint interventions, like a haunted house tagged by years of delinquency, that brought upon the rabble rousing that left “Third Place” closed just a few weeks into the biennial due to looting.
Moving from site to site, the cultural hub of the of the Coachella Valley was clearly evident, in the design friendly downtown, and the awaiting bustle of the festival season crowds. However, both Lita Albuquerque and Will Boone’s work as a reminder of the political and economic influence of the area as well. Set at Sunnylands, the famous summit and retreat location built by the Annenberg family, “hEARTH” has a sculptural and audio installation, the location combined against meditative quality of the work called to mind the inherent politics of being an artist. With a fluorescent royal blue female cast lying on its site with ear to the ground, her rest could be experienced as exhaustion as easily as it could be peace.
At its opening, Albuquerque staged an immersive dance and song performance, with choral singers chanting “hear” repeatedly in the circle. The performance, which took place mid-day on the Friday was attended not only by the supporting benefactors and enthusiasts of Desert X, but many unbeknownst tourists as well. Albuquerque’s energy of inclusion drew all to form a large circle of several hundred people to watch dancers, and looking onto the willing and attentive group there to engage in art at a location storied in vital decision making, art as a necessary tool of introspection and community revealed itself, highlighting the narrative of Desert X’s mission in the most brilliant of ways.
Written by Nicole Reber, a Contributor to Arteviste.