Visual art is the key factor that makes the difference between a concert and a festival, and Coachella knows it. After all, photos from this year's event sell the experience to next year's newcomers, and the visual landscape is just as important as the sonic one to help create an immersive experience. Just make sure you don't show these pictures to friends who are frightened of bears, bugs, hippos, or 30-foot-tall ants.

Big Bear by Don Kennell

Last year, Don Kennell created the camping area's beloved roadrunner sculpture, with a hard, pecking beak made of silvery steel that held a friendly, welcoming swing. It was a great place for pictures, or just to relax. This year's bear sculpture is fashioned from rusted steel, giving it a soft, fuzzy appearance, and it also has a swing for sitting, as well as lap space on its legs. And who could resist crawling into the lap of a big fuzzy bear? Even one with immense claws and crazy, luminous eyeballs?

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Twelve Shades of Pass.Ani by Keith Greco

“It's an homage to the passing of the incandesent light bulb,” says artist Keith Greco of his installation of twelve giant lampshades of different, classic styles, all warm white, all lit from within by a 200-watt bulb. The lamps light the way to the DoLab stage, giving inviting illumination at night while evoking the somewhat comic effect of bringing the indoors out, on a huge scale. Greco is the artist who created last year's installation of house varieties — modern, popsicle stick, gingerbread, and so forth — and his talent lies in creating environments with a specific mood. The familiarity of the classic lampshade styles — like something you'd see in any number of typical American homes — is juxtaposed with an unfamiliar setting and scale, a push-pull between comforting and startling. 

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Credit: L.J. Williamson

A Festo Vitae by the Haas Brothers

It's big, but it's mostly unbelievably heavy, this cartoony-looking bear rendered in marble. Reading as a joke on the “party animal” (wacka wacka!) in the bratty-kids setting that is Coachella, this sculpture, atop a set of high of marble steps, surrounded by fake roses and velvet ropes, could be construed as a faux-exaltation of self-indulgence: as if partying weren't just a diversion, but a religious ideal to be worshipped, or in this case, literally put on a pedestal. 

Rather than using the gleaming white marble one might associate with other elevated icons, however, the Haas Brothers used a striated grey and white marble, which from a distance has the unfortunate effect of making the sculpture look as if it's covered in bird doo-doo. Which, in the litter-strewn polo fields, where festival-goers trash the very thing they love, somehow seems to fit. 

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Earth Mover by Christian Ristow

The process of his installing Earth Mover, his ant-like sculpture painted praying-mantis-green, was a lot more complex than artist Christian Ristow expected it to be. “I thought we would be using three forklifts, but that didn't work, so we had to use a 60-ton crane,” he says. “Then that wasn't enough, so we used a 100-ton crane.”

Earth Mover, built out of construction equipment, was inspired by two things Ristow did with his 4-year-old son: watching the demolition of a building, then a few days later watching ants build an anthill. “The excavator and the ants were doing the same thing, just on a different scale,” Ristow says he realized. 

The 30-foot tall ant rears up, lifting its front legs off the ground, metal mandibles ready to chomp. It's far more disturbing than the giant robot Ristow brought to the desert last year, which, though imposing, offered up a flower.

“It’s hard to psychically divorce yourself from the idea that you can just squash ants, because they're so small,” he says. “But ants, when magnified, are really menacing.”  

Unfortunately, Coachella's decision to sandwich Ristow's installation between the Sahara and Mojave tents undermines its impact — the sculpture would have been better served by placement on a more open area of the field. But still, it's hard to deny the fear factor that comes with a creature that could crush you like a bug. The fact that the cab of the earth mover is empty evokes the idea that this robotic insect isn't a human controlled machine, but an autonomous threat. And a big one. 

“I will never build something that heavy again,” Ristow says. “Unless I do.“

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Papilio Merraculous by Poetic Kinetics

Poetic Kinetics, creators of the iconic giant astronaut and giant snail, are back this year with a giant caterpillar. The iridescent yellow and black larvae inches its way around the festival grounds, dazzling the altered brains of the innocents who doze in its shade or try to hug its fabric body. Though impressive in size, the wormy caterpillar didn't seem to have the same impact as previous years' creations did — that is, until Sunday morning, when it was replaced with a yellow and blue butterfly, flooring similarly transformed first-timers who undertake a pilgrimage to Empire Polo Fields as a transformative rite of passage. 

When it became a butterfly; Credit: L.J. Williamson

When it became a butterfly; Credit: L.J. Williamson

The butterfly is both beautiful and jarring at the same time: little of its insecthood is glossed over. The long, snaking proboscis, spiky hairs, and buggy eyes remind us that the truth, when viewed close up, isn't always easy to look at. Still, no one who entered the festival grounds on Sunday morning to see this new visitor could escape a childlike feeling of delight. The fact of its newness, just as weekend visitors were beginning to feel like by Sunday they'd nearly seen it all, provoked a sense of giddiness around the installation, and as sense of “Look what I found!” discovery. And because it could be walked around the grass, the butterfly almost felt like an immense and magical pet.

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Credit: L.J. Williamson

Corporate Headquarters by Vanessa Bonet and Derek Doublin

What started as a performance art piece in a streetside hotel room mockup at downtown’s Hotel Cecil is now a star attraction at Coachella, towering over the polo fields and provoking amusement and confusion.

The three-story Corporate Headquarters, with a vine-covered helicopter crowing the roof, its turbines and lights spinning, served as a beacon to crowd, who watched business-suit wearing hippopotami in three levels of office space: file clerks and janitors at the bottom, cubicle dwellers in the middle and a hippo CEO at the top. All run their corporation in roughly the manner one imagines hippos would tackle the task: in total chaos. A copier flashes and spits reams of paper rapid-fire. An air canon on the roof periodically sprays the crowd outside with shredded bits of annual performance reports and junk mail. A hundred surveillance cameras, some of them real, eye the crowd. Hippos answer phones with toilet plungers, and file papers with leaf blowers, and a faux stock-ticker flashes messages like “Onions, $0.15 per pound.”

Artists Vanessa Bonet and Derek Doublin were given free reign to indulge their love of performance art and absurdist comedy. Back when the installation was in its earlier streetside form, Bonet explains, “People would ask us what it meant, we would say it was a Bank of America commercial.”

The hippos’ misinformation campaign continued when the artists first brought their Power Station installation to Indio in 2013. That year, rumors that Daft Punk would make a surprise appearance swirled through the fest, and those rumors about the mask-wearing duo somehow were grafted onto the mask-wearing hippos. Hippo staffers would answer fevered queries with, “We can neither confirm no deny that, but be here Sunday night.” Then, as the post-Red Hot Chili Peppers crowd filtered by, Doublin plugged the only Daft Punk song he had on his phone, “Around The World,” into the installation’s puny PA. Thousands rushed over, crushing the Power Stations’s barrier fence, thinking they were seeing Daft Punk. What they were actually seeing was Bonet in a hippo mask, strumming a ukulele with a banana.

This year, the hippos unintentionally disrupted AC/DC’s set: The rooftop light beams spinning on the helicopter were so bright, they blinded the band’s guitar player, sending Goldenvoice officials running over, frantically insisting that they be turned off so the band could continue their show.

Response has run the gamut from delight to bewilderment. At one point Doublin overheard a guy demand, “What the fuck are those donkeys doing in there?”

His summary of the crowd: “We get a good mix of people that laugh their asses off, are utterly confused, and bros who get really mad because they don’t’ understand it, so they throw something at it. “

Like a wild animal might do.

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