From a distance, Doug Atiken's Mirage house looks as if it has been painted like the California winter sky, faded blue streaked with cloud white. A short hike up a car-lined hill on the outskirts of Palm Springs reveals different tones as the structure begins to shimmer silver in the late afternoon light and gradually picks up the reflection of surrounding objects. Mirage, a house covered in mirrors, plays tricks on the eyes that aren't fully realized until you're standing right in front of the small structure, staring at a rocky landscape climbing up its exterior walls, wondering if this is all a figment of your imagination.
The truth is inside, where a crowd of people mills about pint-sized rooms that are empty save for the building supplies that remain in here. The Mirage is real and looks unfinished, its pane-less windows revealing breathtaking views of a desert city and rugged hillsides. Here, amid the showcase houses and undeveloped plots of Desert Palisades, Mirage is more art installation than abode, but it's at home in this environment. In a way, it is the environment.
On Feb. 25, Desert X opened to the public. The exhibition features site-specific works spread across the Coachella Valley that can take the viewer from hiking trails to city centers in the course of a day. This isn't a typical art show; it's one that requires wheels, patience and the knowledge that you probably won't hit every stop in one day.
Susan Davis, president of the board and founder of Desert X, says by phone that one board member did hit every site in one day, but that was unusual. "I didn't think anyone could do that," she says. "I always assumed that people who are here for five days might see two or three a day. People who live here might choose to see one a week." She adds that some of the works, such as Mirage or the similarly reflective The Circle of Land and Sky by Phillip K. Smith III, might bring back repeat visitors who would want to see the pieces at different times of day.
Davis describes the exhibition, which runs through April 30, as a "treasure hunt," and it is. You can't be quite sure what you'll find. At its best moments, Desert X will present you with more than just a glimpse of art.
One I Call by Sherin Guirguis isn't the easiest installation to access, but it's a thoroughly rewarding one. To get here, you'll have to drive into Whitewater Preserve, losing your cellphone service along the way. The tiny parking lot was filled on Saturday morning, but roadside parking was convenient enough to walk up to the point where I could see Guirguis' installation, which looks like an oversized beehive, out of the corner of my eye. It took only a short walk into the trail to get to the piece, which is designed to resemble pigeon towers in Egypt. The sand-colored structure was tall enough to invite humans to pass through oval doorways and temporarily nest inside a cozy space. Look up, and you'll see the sky through a small hole that's only partially obstructed by a triangle of branches. It's beautiful, but the drive here, particularly the point where a stream crosses the road, is so lovely that it feels as intentional as the installation itself.
"I think the desert has always had an incredible draw for a variety of filmmakers and artists in a way that perhaps no other landscape does," says Neville Wakefield, artistic director of Desert X, by phone. "For me, the exciting process was coming here and thinking of the desert as something of a blank canvas and then, as I got to know it, realizing that it's actually anything but a blank canvas."
Certainly that's the case in downtown Coachella, where Armando Lerma painted La Fiesta en el Desierto/The Party in the Desert for Desert X. The mural depicts a celebration with cake, balloons, party dresses and desert flora on the side of a party supply building. It's also one of many murals in this tiny center of a city with a population of more than 45,000. Lerma's contribution to Desert X might be the reason you drive out this far, but the neighborhood walls present an exhibition all of their own.
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In nearby Indio, L.A.-based artist Glenn Kaino erected Hollow Earth, a shed that's home to a blue-lit hole that looks as if it's bottomless. Situated at the end of a road, it's one of those spots you could miss if you aren't following a crowd of cars. That's the case for several of the pieces in Desert X. Richard Prince's Instagram art–heavy "Third Place" is installed on a derelict property in Desert Hot Springs that is barely noticeable from the street. Claudia Comte's gorgeous Curves and Zigzags wall is set up in the middle of Homme-Adams Park. Meanwhile, Smith's The Circle of Land and Sky was erected in a fairly residential area, but it's far enough from the street where you might miss it if you don't know exactly where to look. As for Jennifer Bolande's beautifully photographed billboards, make sure to look for those if you're driving down Gene Autry Trail between Vista Chino and the 10 in Palm Springs.
"I think it's a new paradigm," Wakefield says of the exhibition, "a paradigm for a new type of show, a continuation of a narrative that probably began in the ’60s with land art but hasn't really been given much attention recently because of the demands of the market." Desert X has manifested into something that ties together art with Southern California's road trip tradition and it works.
Desert X runs through April 30. desertx.org.