Desert X, the Coachella Valley’s sprawling outdoor art biennial, which opened on Friday, March 12, is one of the first large-scale public art events in California to take place in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic .
And while the works of art that will be on display along a 40-mile stretch of the Coachella Valley were not designed in response to the global crisis, the two-month public art event also cannot ignore it.
“This is not a pandemic show, but it is inevitably a show shaped by one,” said co-commissioner César García-Alvarez in a recent interview.
Originally scheduled for February, the exhibit, which runs through May 16, has been delayed in response to California’s latest stay-at-home order.
While many other international art fairs have been canceled or held entirely online, Desert X will stick pretty closely to the format it was designed in – an experience seen from a distance. Thirteen site-specific installations are planned, dotting the Coachella Valley.
The free event will include safety protocols, including hand sanitizers, as well as a limited attendance of docents, as well as on-site security personnel.
Curators seek to exhibit works that reflect the region’s many “hidden” communities and “lesser-known stories,” García-Alvarez said. The exhibition seeks to broaden impressions of the valley as more than a tourist destination.
“Desert X was formed… to bring artists to this particular desert and watch the Coachella Valley,” said Susan Davis, founder and president of the event.
“It has this fascinating history, an amazing environment and this socio-political thing that people don’t really know,” she said. “We wanted the artists to spend time here and figure out what project (they) can do that would provide a different focus for visitors, tourists and people who live here to see the desert with new eyes. “
Participating artists announced include Zahrah Alghamdi, Ghada Amer, Felipe Baeza, Judy Chicago, Serge Attukwei Clottey, Nicholas Galanin, Alicja Kwade, Oscar Murillo, Christopher Myers, Eduardo Sarabia, Xaviera Simmons, Kim Stringfellow and Vivian Suter.
“It’s really looking at the wilderness as a place defined by social geography as it is by physical conditions,” said art director Neville Wakefield, who has directed all three editions of Desert X. “It explores the state of the place and state of mind. “
The art ranges from billboards to mazes, walls and murals.
Davis said recurring themes from previous editions carry over to this year’s Desert X, including immigration, history, the environment and climate change.
“I think it’s more dramatic this year than in previous years,” she said. “Given our current social and political situation, this is not surprising. I think as a result, the show is probably the most exciting, intellectually and artistically, of the three (previous editions.) “
Desert X has typically featured stunning installations such as “Mirage” by artist Doug Aitken, a house covered in mirrors which was staged in 2017.
During his first year as a curator, García-Alvarez said he actively seeks to ensure that the art on display pushes thematic boundaries – and doesn’t just serve as an Instagram backdrop.
“I encouraged this version of the exhibit from an interest in the desert as a fusion of natural forms and to expand that sense of landscape that examines a socially constructed notion of it,” García-Alvarez said.
He says he has worked with artists to encourage intimate projects at scale but not necessarily temporal.
“It’s a show that feels invested in local history,” he said. “Not just the idea of the desert as a void from which to draw inspiration, but rather as a place forged by people and stories. “
According to García-Alvarez, one of the community-focused projects is the continuation of the “Frequencies” project by internationally renowned Colombian artist Murillo. Students at Coachella Valley schools will receive stretched canvases that they can use as a backdrop for their own art. The goal is to compile them and create a common work of art.
“What I like about this project is that it is deliberately organized for the people who live in the valley,” García-Alvarez said. “And takes place in the privacy of their homes.”
Besides the challenges posed by the pandemic, this edition of Desert X has also been mired in controversy.
Chicago, perhaps Desert X’s most notable artist, planned to present a work in the vein of his plays “Atmospheres” staged in the California desert and other venues in the 1960s and 1970s, incorporating fireworks and smoke machines. “Living Smoke: A Tribute to the Living Desert” was scheduled for April 9 at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert. However, in late February, the Living Desert withdrew in response to concerns from local activists that the smoke could scare off wildlife.
In January, the Palm Springs city council refused to sponsor “The Art of Taming Horses,” a work by New York artist Myers. The council’s objection stems from a partnership between Desert Biennial – the non-profit organization behind Desert X – and the Royal Commission for AlUla which sponsored an exhibition in 2020 in northwest Saudi Arabia. The partnership prompted some members of Desert X’s board to resign over concerns over the kingdom’s human rights record.
Citing the Saudi partnership, the council licensed – but did not sponsor – Myers’ work. The piece is made up of “equestrian sculptures adorned with narrative banners,” according to press documents. The sculptures illustrate the story of “African Americans who traveled south to escape bondage and Mexicans who traveled north for a better life.” It will take place as a procession at six locations along the Median on Tahquitz Canyon Way.
According to Lyn Winter, publicist for Desert X, the board offered to pay the artist directly, but was turned down. Instead, the funding came from the PS Resorts hotel marketing organization as well as an individual donor.
The board’s decision prompted Tories Davis and Desert X executive director Jenny Gil to write an op-ed in the Desert Sun newspaper, stating in part: “Over the past few months, as we have listened to inaccurate attacks and hurtful against Desert X by local elected officials, we were reassured that continuing to face difficult contexts everywhere is necessary if we are to one day live up to the ideals by which we claim to be guided.
Earlier this year, Desert X found a new home for another piece of art after objections from city officials. Coachella City Council has balked at the theme of Ghanaian artist Attukwei Clottey’s installation “The Wishing Well”. The artwork consists of yellow plastic containers used by many people in Ghana to transport large amounts of water from towns to villages. City leaders objected to the article’s message due to water issues unique to the area.
As a result, the piece was moved to the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center, located in a predominantly black neighborhood in Palm Springs.
Davis’s original vision of staging a democratizing artistic experience – allowing people to experience the majesty of the desert through the eyes of artists at no cost – seems to continually raise the jaws of politicians and environmentalists.
Controversies come with the territory, according to Wakefield. Asked about the reaction of city officials to Attukwei Clottey’s article, he said: “Some people don’t want more people to come to this area. They may be at odds with Desert X and other forms of socio-economic development. … (We) accept that there are those who (will find) these conversations interesting and those who find it less. And those who just don’t want it. Interestingly, an art exhibition raises more environmental questions than a development perhaps.
What: An exhibition of 13 works by internationally renowned artists installed at various locations in the Coachella Valley.
When: From sunrise to sunset, March 12 to May 16.
Or: The Desert X 2021 Artist Installations Map is available online at desertx.org and on the Desert X 2021 app as well as a hub at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club (701 E. Palm Canyon Drive) at Palm Springs.
Admission: To free
As well: A Desert X 2021 movie will premiere across multiple platforms to provide free access to the exhibit to audiences around the world.