Desert X, the Coachella Valley land art biennial, has opened its fourth edition in a curious position — the project’s media profile has grown, even as its physical scope has contracted. Its inaugural edition in 2017 was festooned in mystery, novelty and a cheerfully brazen spirit of experiment and adventure; the 2019 return saw massive expansion in territory and social ambitions. Centering on large-scale sculptures and other temporary interventions in the desert landscape, the ethos was a journey-based take on the classic American western road trip with all the self-reflection and grounded attention that entails. Along the way, issues of land use, resource allocation, Indigenous stewardship, development, climate, spiritual and cinematic mythography, colonialism, labor, language, and the sometimes contentious discourse between international and regional culture were inevitably raised.
In 2021, the size was scaled back for pandemic reasons, but the edition still produced many poignant moments and prompted a revised perspective on our relationship to ideas like being outdoors, the influence of capital, and environmental justice. Now it’s 2023, and the new Desert X, which opened March 4 and will (mostly) remain on view through May 7, has so far been received as underwhelming — but in its lack of Instagram-breaking wow factors, it succeeds in raising a new set of interrelated questions like: Who is this really for? Why the desert? Why this desert? What is the difference between land art and public art? Whose vision is, or ought to be, prioritized — the outsider with a fresh unfettered perspective, or the local with a narrower but deeper experience of the place? Answers are not easy to come by, but just like the organizers remind us that with land art the journey is part and parcel of the holistic experience of the work, maybe for now it’s enough to ask.
“A place is a story that is told many times,” says Artistic Director Neville Wakefield; and when this year’s guest curator Diana Campbell speaks of selected works in terms of “what is generated at the meeting of extremes,” it seems clear that the story of this desert is the surreal juxtapositions it holds, from weather to wealth. The Coachella Valley generally, and Palm Springs/Palm Desert in particular, is the kind of place where the most ostentatiously luxurious and water-intensive developments are snug up against vast tracts of unused, sandy expanse. If land art is about being prompted to leave your normal routine, leave your city or your suburb and go off, out there, to a remote place, where after a long drive and some kind of hike, you encounter a work that exists in response to its location with a mix of site-specificity, phenomenology, and broader context, then what happens when you already live in a place that is half-remote, where the out-there already makes itself felt on every corner?
Public art by contrast comes and finds you. It appears in the middle of your routine, it’s stumbled upon in the ordinary course of life; it requires no special plans, nor even an interest in art. You look up and there it is, in your day, in your way. No journey required. In a place like Coachella Valley, where the beautiful but sometimes abrasive landscape already makes itself felt, there is no shortage of roadside instances of the out-there, great wide patches of undeveloped land just across the street. In Desert X 2023, the wide sweep of the horizon may not be calling, but the proximity of large-scale works to where people live serves to highlight the precariousness of the desert city. So while this fairly diminutive edition does not inspire as a land art biennial in the epic sense, it impresses as a public art festival in the attention-activation sense. For a festival known for having international aspirations, this year audiences who flock from all over on the promise of spectacle may leave nonplussed, but for the people who already make the region their home, there’s an exciting chance to see their familiar surroundings with new eyes — and the most successful pieces are those that underscore that dynamic.
Rana Begum’s No.1225 Chainlink rests more or less on the side of a neighborhood road — set back but visible, a building-sized confection of buttercup yellow chain link fencing rising in straight planar walls like a chunky maze-like building. Translucent but forbidding, those outside look immediately for a way in; once inside, an unexpectedly charming world of dappled shadows and framed, distant mountains creates a simultaneous sense of cage and shelter. It would be a lot scarier were it not for the bright and cheerful color beaming amid considerations of what and who is out and in, and the absurdity of asserting ownership over the eternal land. Should we make all our construction fencing beautiful colors to make the view seem less carceral? Should we beware of how easy it is to literally candy-coat a prison trap and thus ignore our society’s violent dysfunction? Yes.
Nearby, at monied political contemplation center Sunnylands, Paloma Contreras Lomas’ Amar a Dios en Tierra de Indios, Es Oficio Maternal (Loving God in the Land of the Indians is a Maternal Job) is a riot of mixed-media soft sculpture of human limbs and bizarre creatures and quoted bits of pop culture and violence, all piled atop and emerging from within a wrecked car. It’s grotesque and cheeky, and the best thing about it is how utterly out of place it is in this vaunted, hallowed, extremely fancy place. For as fancy as it is, Sunnylands also is free and open to the public, its dry-scaped greenspace a true oasis. People love it there. The perverse pleasure of encountering such an unavoidably subversive work of anti-patriarchal art occupying a site of serene, expensive, privileged beauty was nothing short of delicious.
Héctor Zamora’s performance series Chimera, which happened during opening weekend and now exists only in documentation, took the idea of intervening in local routines literally. Roadside vendors were set up with huge bunches of silver balloons spelling out words like home, gun, rescue, soon, source, and sun; anyone could buy them, they cost $25. Where one might expect and fail to truly see the hardworking folks who sell their wares at intersections, instead of rugs, flowers, food, and the like, men at four locations walked back and forth with big shiny objects. There were no visible comforts like food, water, shade or bathrooms, no support staff; they were out there on their own. Were they safe? Were they being paid fairly? How much did they understand or even care what was going on? What in the world did they make of carloads of white people driving up, taking their pictures, and driving off all afternoon? Is this the most time anyone in those cars has spent considering the well-being of roadside vendors? A commentary on the absurd idea of value when it comes to art? A gorgeous moment of Fellini-esque surrealism available to anyone and everyone who happened to be heading home that way, that day only? Yes.
Hylozoic/Desires (Himali Singh Soin and David Soin Tappeser) installed Namak Nazar up Desert Hot Springs way. A telephone pole with a series of blossom-like speakers in a broadcast array that shares spoken word and sound on the topic of salt — a substance that both sustains and snuffs life, preserves and destroys, evokes vacation and parable, and is busy creeping up the pole from the ground in a threat to subsume it. The act of sitting and listening, absorbing with a strangely activated attention not only the sound and the poem, but the view and the air. There’s a subtly ritualistic energy to the way the piece is experienced, a quality of hallucination enhanced by the lilting disembodied voice, as the art offers an excuse to linger on location, breathe more slowly, be more present, and think about common things differently — about 100 feet from the road. Perfect.
For more information visit desertx.org.
Editor’s note: The disclaimer below refers to advertising posts and does not apply to this or any other editorial stories.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.