The Little Prince author Antoine De Saint-Exupery once wrote, "What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well." This past weekend, it also hid a secret restaurant, a crochet camp site and glowing googly eyes.
High Desert Test Sites drew art lovers out to the desert for an opening weekend of experimental art. The series, which runs through Oct. 19, feels like a scavenger hunt across the arid landscape of Joshua Tree and its environs, encouraging exploration and a heavy dependence on GPS directions.
Founded by artist Andrea Zittel and Aurora Tang, the program is now in its ninth incarnation, after starting in 2002. The projects are interventions into the desert terrain and range from cerebral explorations to psychedelic experiments to whimsical installations.
This year the program is more ambitious than past, with 60 projects taking place over the course of a week and covering 700 miles of desert road from Joshua Tree to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sites include Giant Rock in Landers, Acrosanti in Arizona, El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico, Palms Restaurant and Saloon in Wonder Valley and many others.
With so many projects and so much ground to cover, hitting them all is ambitious. Here is just a sampling of some of the projects we saw:
Desert Applique by Lea Donnan: Yarn-bombing goes high art. This cluster of salvaged crochet blankets have been reimagined as makeshifts tents, dotting the semi-barren earth with a colorful afghan encampment.
Roadside Monument 3 by Cayetano Ferrer: A desert megalith becomes luminescent. Ferrer erected twin columns off the highway that allow any would-be artists to "draw" on the surface using light in the dark. The images fade over time, leaving only the memory of neon graffiti.
Googly Eyes for Giant Rock by Bettina Hubby: One of the more quirky interventions at High Desert Test Sites, Giant Rock is now everyone's pet rock. The oversized, wind-powered googly eyes not only provided great Instagram fodder, they also provided light for a glow-in-the-dark cocktail party. Burning Man, eat your heart out.
Naima by Debbie Long: Long retrofitted a camping trailer with a skylight, and built a white interior chamber studded with hand-cast glass objects based on items collected in the desert. The natural light illuminates the plum-colored glass, so the viewer feels like they just stepped into a gleaming crystal cave.
We Build Excitement by Jesse Sugarman: In the midst of troubles times for America's automotive industry, it feels appropriate to find the now-defunct Pontiac brand in a landscape known for decay. Sugarman has created a temporary Pontiac dealership with precariously constructed car monuments, as part of an ongoing project of performances and sculpture.
Secret Restaurant by Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt: Dornberger and Piatt have taken the concept of an "underground" restaurant to an extreme conclusion. After digging a hole in the ground, Dornberger built a tiny, propane-powered kitchen out of metal. The self-described "frustrated sculptor" who has never worked in a professional kitchen before churned out duck confit and nopales tacos from his secret restaurant, while diners sought whatever meager shade was available to protect themselves from the unforgiving sun.
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: