This Outdoor Exhibition Brings Art to a California Desert

Desert X returns to the Coachella Valley, this time with works about landscape, migration, climate change and indigenous experiences

A boat equipped with research instruments allows for performative and visual study to take place on the lake. This platform enables researchers to observe environmental issues, land use and their link to the history of the area closely. Desert X installation view, Steve Badgett and Chris Taylor, The Great Salt Lake Exploration Platform, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
Lerma creates paintings, constructions, and installations reflecting the lives and traditions of the Mexican farmworker community in his hometown of Coachella. This piece includes various images from the American Southwest and beyond such as snakes, birds, parrots, fish, monkeys, seashells, plants, flowers, and rock art. He selected these images to illustrate a story of migration and the transitory. Desert X installation view, Armando Lerma, Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
A photo series on billboards feature four special time traveling visitors from the Chemehuevi people who have come to the ancestral lands of their sister tribes, the Cahuilla, Serrano, and Mojave people, in the Coachella Valley. Desert X installation view, Cara Romero, Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
This piece is a consideration of how humans and animals (real and imaginary) observe each other. Bengolea includes actual dance poses from her established performances, where she and dancers from Jamaica express animals to which they feel connected. Desert X installation view, Cecilia Bengolea, Mosquito Net, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
The intent of hybridizing human kind in mythological chimeras has existed throughout history. Cecilia Bengolea’s performance piece, Mosquito Net, is not a quest for the universal beauty of nature, but rather a display of social street dance to invoke the spirit of animals and nature. Desert X installation view, Cecilia Bengolea, Mosquito Net, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
Silks and tulles have been stretched with rope tensioned to form a line in space, or to reframe the building’s relationship to itself and its surroundings. Halter is at once evocative of an unfastened garment, vacant tent, or open umbrella, all fluid and shifting references that the artist has assembled as a physical embodiment of real and imagined desert wanderers Desert X installation view, Eric Mack, Halter, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
This installation depicts the site of the Lucas Gusher, the world’s first major oil find (in 1901), located in Spindletop, Texas, now barren and exhausted. The site is recreated as a digital simulation, the center of which is marked by a flagpole spewing an endless stream of black smoke. The computer generated spindle top runs parallel to the Texas site throughout the year, the sun rising at the appropriate times and the days getting longer and shorter with the seasons. The simulation has no beginning or end and runs by software that calculates each frame of the animation in real time as it is needed. Desert X installation view, John Gerrard, Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 2017, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
This interactive sculpture is installed at an elevation above the Salton Sea, the manmade body of water that has been California’s largest lake for the past century. The arrayed concrete scales sited near the sea’s North Shore project the viewer into the landscape. Desert X installation view, Ivan Argote, A Point of View, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
This piece is a Möbius strip made from concrete breeze blocks in a variety of fleshy pinks and browns. Technically, the strip is a surface with one continuous side formed by joining the ends of a rectangular strip, but it has a direct relationship to methods of psychology. As with the Möbius strip form, what is inside and outside the self can quickly become indiscernible. Desert X installation view, Julian Hoeber, Going Nowhere Pavilion #01, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
This artist’s pieces use augmented reality, producing a singular experience for each viewer due to the ever-changing conditions of the desert. Near windmill farms, "Revolutions" alludes to the capturing of energy, which we require to remedy a man made crisis. Desert X installation view, Nancy Baker, Revolutions, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
A reconstruction of the larges palm species native to California, the Washingtonia filifera (desert fan palm), made of steel, plastics and glass. At 20 feet, the "Ghost Palm" is a manifestation of the artist's fascination with the tenuous balance between fragility and sheer power. Desert X installation view, Katie Ryan, "Ghost Palm", 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
Set in two locations across the U.S.–Mexico border, Lover’s Rainbow is an identical set of rainbows made from painted rebar. Exposed rebar usually signals development, but too often in the Mexican landscape we see those dreams thwarted and abandoned. Historically, rainbows have symbolized rain and fertility. Located in desert territory, the act of bending the rebar into the ground is a way to re-insert hope into the land. Desert X installation view, Pia Camil, Lover’s Rainbow, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
The bright, geometric sculpture creates a jarring optical illusion, resembling a Photoshopped composite or collage, as if something has been removed or erased from the landscape. Fluorescent orange is traditionally used for safety, as a warning. Here that logic is reversed: a ghostly object, set apart from the natural environment, hiding in plain sight. Desert X installation view, Sterling Ruby, SPECTER, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
Using the preferred color palettes of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, Palm Springs, and marine corals, "Dive-In" merges the recognition that global warming will drastically reshape the habitat of our planet with another more recent extinction: the out-door movie theater. Desert X installation view, SUPERFLEX, Dive-In, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X
The Danish collective SUPERFLEX createsland-based forms equally attractive to human and marine life. In "Dive-In" the interests of desert dwellers and sea life come together in the coral-like walls and weekly screenings of a structure born of a deep past and shallow future. Desert X installation view, SUPERFLEX, Dive-In, 2019, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X

In the arid Coachella Valley east of Los Angeles, concrete steps with messages in Spanish and English ascend to a platform that surveys the landscape above the Salton Sea, California's largest lake. At the other end of the valley, a rainbow made of painted rebar rises and then plunges into the land. Still farther north, a large fluorescent orange monolith stands out in stark contrast against the rocky slopes of mountains in San Gorgonio Pass.

The works of art are free and open to the public, installed as they are outdoors in a striking landscape. Desert X, the second occurance of a biennial festival, opened this past weekend, reports Janelle Zara for Art News.

The "the vacant real estate of architectural ruins and empty plots of land make excellent sites for installation," Zara writes. The curators this year chose artists who create work that address themes of climate change, migration and the legacies of indigenous people. Nineteen artists contributed works to the show.

As with most art, pictures cannot do the pieces justice. In this case, it is because the artists take into account the landscape their work occupies. Zara writes of the fluorescent orange monolith called "Specter" by multi-medium artist Sterling Ruby:

Instagram is already full of close-range photos that do the work no justice by framing it as a sculptural object. In person, it’s more of a painterly intervention that from the highway reads in only two dimensions. The bright square that grates against the jagged textures of its surroundings also works as a point of reference, lending itself as a focal point that emphasizes the profound beauty of the landscape.

Many of the works similarly tie into the land. The Danish collective Superflex created "Dive-In," a sculptural, building-like structure made of pink, pitted and pocked material that evokes ocean coral. A statement on the Desert X website reveals that the name of the valley comes from the word "conchilla," meaning little shell, when settlers found fossilized marine life from 6 million years ago upon moving to the valley. The work recognizes that "geological history and the not-so-distant future meet" when you consider the long-term effects climate change: "rising water levels will again submerge the landscape along with all the structure and infrastructure that made it habitable for humans." The collective aims to make pieces that will be "equally attractive to human and marine life."

In 2017, Desert X brought more than 200,000 visitors to the valley to see 16 works, reports Kristin Scharkey for the Palm Springs Desert Sun. Writing for Architectural Digest, John Gendall called the inaugural show "the world's newest must-visit art fair."

The exhibition, which runs through April 21, covers roughly 60 miles from the northern end of the Coachella Valley to the shores of the Salton Sea. Visitors can learn about the locations for each piece on the Desert X website—there's even a free Desert X app to help plot a road trip.

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