In case you haven't heard, there is a very special reason to visit the Coachella Valley over the next two weeks. No, besides that. The 2019 edition of the sprawling Desert X land art biennial ends on Sunday, April 21, and if you haven't made the trek, it's time to make your plans. A few of the pieces have singularly dominated social media feeds (we're looking at you, Sterling Ruby), but as striking as so many photographs of installations have been, the whole point of the Desert X paradigm is to be in the presence of the work. It's not necessarily the art itself but rather the context of all that in-between space that's truly immersive.
Most pieces are easy enough to find, especially with the help of the Desert X app. With a little hustle, the slate can largely be viewed in one day, but two days is a lot better. That's not only because the 20-ish installations branch off the artery of Interstate 10 between Whitewater and Mecca, with clusters around certain town centers in Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Indio, the Salton Sea and Coachella (town of), covering about 50 square miles in total. It's also because the journey is very much the destination, and the natural and eccentrically developed landscapes, expanses of so much myth and mystery, form their own contribution to the meaning of the project.
The curators and artists dedicated themselves to creating vignettes that not only occupy but literally and metaphorically engage with their sites, and the luxurious sense of exploration both on the road and on foot is very much part of the experience of each individual masterpiece. Some of the works are more ethereal, even virtual, while others are performative or otherwise include screenings and other timed events, or perhaps exist inside properties with business hours. But the majority are free-standing works inhabiting the feral landscapes and urban neighborhoods of the region and are viewable around the clock.
The unchecked exposure to nature and the accessibility and interactivity of certain works has had some downsides since the biennial opened in early February. The art world deeply lamented the short-order loss of Eric Mack's piece, the operatic Halter, in which the artist draped an abandoned gas station on the coast of the Salton Sea with fields of fancy fabric. It fluttered and twisted and flowed, its shimmering patterns and texture-blocks veiling the structure, imagining architecture as a body, and making no sense in the most romantic, almost absurdist way. Apparently it was set on fire by some who failed to appreciate its eccentric glory. Desert X went through something similar when its 2017 installation by Richard Prince was looted and nearly destroyed before it even officially opened to the public.
The good news is that most of the work is sturdy and very much still standing, including converted but functioning municipal bus shelters by Mary Kelly and an indoor sound piece by Gary Simmons. If you don't think you can make it to all of the sites, here are seven works that are truly can't-miss.
Closest to Los Angeles where the road to Palm Springs branches off the 10, find Sterling Ruby. If you've encountered any social media from Desert X at all, this is the one you've seen. “Specter” is a safety-orange rectangular sculpture, a high-gloss geometrical abstraction at architectural scale, which reflects light and its surroundings, including mountains, figures and weather on its amped-up surface. Both poetic and disruptive, it's visible from the road but approached across damp expanses of sand. Its color evokes the surveyor's tape that peppers the undeveloped terrain, activating natural space even as its post-pop majesty is anything but naturalistic.
John Gerrard's Western Flag is visible from and closer to the road, off the southern side of Highway 111. A giant LED screen — the same that housed the artist's Solar Array video outside LACMA last year — presents a surreal and monumental environmental video work on the intersections between resource allocation, land use and geopolitical history. Not far from there, one of Nancy Baker Cahill's two app-augmented geolocative AR works (the other is out by the Salton Sea) generates floating, glimmering, brightly hued alien space-flower “paintings” that hover in the sky and follow the viewfinder of your smartphone in the most delightful manner, creating a variety of interaction with the viewer and the landscape that can only be viewed and captured through the artist's app. So do download 4thwall before you set off in search of Revolutions.
Ghost Palm by Katie Ryan, set in the slightly more unkempt flats of the lands on the north side of the 10 near Desert Hot Springs, is like a vertical chandelier, a tree made of industrial plastic whose fronds catch both the light and the wind. It's a bit of a walk from the closest you can park, so there's plenty of slow-reveal on the approach. You see it before you hear it, but the roar of the noise it makes in the wind is both dramatic and somehow emotional. It demands both attention and time; it is a place to linger over.
Superflex, a Danish collective, offers maybe the oddest but also the most perfect work with Dive In, a schematic temple-like sculpture made of pink porous walls that resemble elements of the local vernacular architecture, but with a transcendent purpose. Acknowledging that this desert was once a sea, and that by all accounts thanks to climate change it may well be one again, and having heard somewhere that “fish like the color pink,” the artists built this work for them, for the fish that will one day return. In the meantime, humans contemplate it against the stark background of a craggy ridge and a wide brush-dusted wash, their backs to the residential street it borders, whose residents still walk their dogs there.
Much farther afield, way out by the Salton Sea near the remains of the Mack, Ivan Argote's viewing platforms stand like awkward half-pipes in the middle of a wide patch of sandy hilltop. A Point of View is so much more profound than you'd expect from any description. You see the ramps from the road and are tempted to think you get it, but then once you commit and cross yet another pasture of sand and future tumbleweeds, the staircases grow larger, and you see there's poetry you can only read by climbing up them step by step. You get up there and the reveal falls into place and the allegories write themselves.
And last but not least (and closest to the Coachella Music Festival if that's your ultimate destination), Armando Lerma's Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds is one of the few works that directly addresses the presence of the region's working class, especially within agricultural industry. It does so as much with its content making reverential references to the old gods and spirit guides of the indigenous and Latino cultures that have defined the history of this region as it does with its location inside a working farm site. The view is amazing once you arrive, but first you need to drive through a suddenly rural agriculture zone (watch for the gated site's posted hours) until you come to the water tower and notice how far away the city lights have become.