Home Arts Desert X Returns to Coachella Valley and Considers Expansion

Desert X Returns to Coachella Valley and Considers Expansion

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When Susan Davis, Founder and Chairman of the Board of Desert X first envisioned the project almost ten years ago, she wanted it to “bring contemporary artists to this valley, to create works so that people could see the valley through another lens, a contemporary art lens”. Desert X, the outdoor installation and performance exhibition, is currently holding its fourth edition (until May 7) in the arid Coachella Valley. If the numbers are any sign of success, the fact that it was nearly impossible to book a reasonably priced hotel room in the area during Desert X’s first weekend was telling. The organizers are also in talks to set up another international Desert X after launching a controversial biennial in Saudi Arabia in 2020; they are now considering a third iteration in Mexico.

THE current exhibition will likely cost between $3 million and $3.5 million, Davis says, with costs rising as materials and labor have become more expensive. Each participating artist receives an honorarium as well as travel and production costs, some of the latter being covered by sponsors.

A Leviathan in the desert

On a cold March evening in Palm Springs, California, visitors gathered within the walls of a gated resort, around a swimming pool eerily lit by a single underwater light. The air pierced with the crackle of static electricity as a steel latticework sculpture slowly rose from the murky waters. The work was modeled after the heart of a blue whale, a bulky oval with arteries. Water flowed from the room as it levitated, on its own initiative, until visitors realized someone was slowly operating a pulley lifting the leviathan’s heart. That person was Lauren Bon, one of 12 artists selected for this year’s Desert X biennial.

Desert X 2023 installation view featuring Lauren Bon’s The smallest sea with the biggest heart (2023) Photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of the artist and Desert X

“The blue whale is the largest mammal that has ever lived on planet Earth,” says Bon, “and they used to winter near the Salton Sea.” Water for the pool was brought in from the Salton Sea, 60 miles away, a lake once used for recreation that is now so polluted it is unfit for human use.

Bon’s mysterious work, The smallest sea with the biggest heart (2023), aligns with the biennale’s goal of commissioning artwork that deals with the desert, the environment, and the people who live there and once lived there. Desert X’s artistic director, Neville Wakefield, has had a co-curator every year since the second edition of the exhibition, in 2019. This year, his collaborator is Diana Campbell, artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation in Bangladesh and curator in leader of the recent Dhaka Arts Summit.

Desert X 2023 view of the installation with photos of the Originals Tire Nichols series GoFundMe Tire Nichols Memorial Fundphoto by Lance Gerber.

“I really wanted to bring more women and artists of color into the conversation because they’re missing from the conversation about American Land Art,” says Campbell, who lives in Bangladesh but grew up in Southern California and has took a family vacation to Palm Springs. This year, just over half of the artists (seven out of 12) are women and there are participants from Mexico and Bangladesh, as well as other parts of the United States.

Most of the works are sculptures and installations, and several are participatory. Liquid one place (2023) by American abstract artist Torkwase Dyson is a semi-circular black monument that includes a central doorway as well as an accessible staircase on either side. “It’s based on geometries that allowed black freedom,” says Campbell.

Desert X 2023 performance view with Héctor Zamora Chimera (2023) Photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of the artist and Desert X.

Chimera (2023) by Mexican installation artist Héctor Zamora was an action staged during the exhibition’s opening weekend. Street vendors were hired to march through the streets of the town of Desert Hot Springs holding wads of inflatable silver letters that spelled out words such as “dream”, “denied” and “mirror”. While providing a moment of delight to passers-by, they also had to raise questions. “It’s a lot more political than it sounds,” Campbell says. “These are words that are relevant to the migrant experience.”

Perhaps the most interactive work is that of Gerald Clarke Immersion (2023), an outdoor game board built next to a community center in North Palm Springs. The artwork’s motif is inspired by Cahuilla basketry (Clarke is a member of the Cahuilla, a band of Native Americans who have inhabited this area for millennia). Using a deck of cards or an application, a player advances box by box towards the center of the work by correctly answering questions about the Amerindians. “What I really want is for visitors to understand what they don’t know about Indigenous peoples,” says Clarke, who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, and knows firsthand that students can learn games. “I expected some people to cheat because, you know, cheating is part of American history.”

Desert X 2023 installation view featuring Gerald Clarke Immersion (2023) Photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of the artist and Desert X.

A work that makes you smile as much by its scale as by its humor is Sleeping character (2023) by Matt Johnson. Made with stacked and tilted train carriages, it resembles a derailed train or, more abstractly, a man lying on his side taking a nap with his head resting on one arm. From time to time, a real train passes in front on the adjacent tracks.

The environmental impact of Desert X has been a priority for administrators and artists. Materials from the current edition will be removed and recycled, with some being donated, reused for other projects, or returned to artist studios. Bon’s floating whale heart installation is a good example: the electricity for its lights and speakers is generated by solar panels; and the static sound is created by the underwater exchange of three pieces of metal acting as an anode and the heart sculpture acting as a cathode. Bon expects that the salts and minerals in the water will be drawn to the heart and by the end of the exposure the water will have been purified. The solar panels will return to his studio in Los Angeles and the purified water to the Salton Sea.

  • Desert X 2023through May 7 at various locations in Coachella Valley, California

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