Where the land meets the sky, and we meet the desert: Desert X
By H.C. Arnold
Through April 30th
Right now, terms like “scavenger hunt,” “site-specific”, “land-art 2.0,” “mirage,” and even “existential” are being used to describe Desert X. Opened on February 25th and running through April 30th, this exhibition transforms the Coachella Valley into an expansive and immersive art viewing experience that includes works by artists such as Richard Prince, Jeffery Gibson, Doug Aitken, Philip K Smith III, Jennifer Bolande, Claudia Comte, and Tavares Strachan among others. With such a diverse roster, all these words are in service of solidifying the idea that Desert X is about the desert. But what about the desert is up for interpretation?
Some artists such as Smith and Strachan rely on the dirt of the desert itself as a component of their work. Smith’s piece I Am is made from cutting 290 craters into a patch of land 100,000 square feet and installing neon tubes into each of them. At ground level, it creates an abstract pattern of glowing craters that when seen from above spell out the work’s title. Focused on how we understand our environment, Strachan explains that the work’s title comes from Vedic Philosophy and the underlying want to identify oneself within the universe.
Smith’s The Circle of Land and Sky pursues this same idea. Using 300-mirrored poles over 10 feet tall, and installed in a circle in a vacant lot, the work provokes a meditation on your sense of place and scale. In his statement, Smith highlights the importance of the land and the sky claiming that they are, “the environment’s two most prominent characteristics.” As you move throughout the installation, these two elements merge, collapse, and pull back from each other across the poles’ reflective surfaces. It’s a piece that illustrates the ever-changing nature of the landscape and how your movement animates the awareness of that evolution while metaphorically speaking to the ever-evolving reality of life itself.
Mirrors are also a key ingredient in Aitken’s piece Mirage. Unfinished at the time of the opening, the work consists of an empty house covered with them. Aitken claims its an image of manifest destiny that confuses the interior of the house with its exterior as it, “pulls the landscape in and reflects it back out.” While Mirage certainly demonstrates these ideas by being installed in a newly designed residential neighborhood with plots of land slated for development, it also makes one highly self-aware when others are present. Mirrors allow people look around corners, and it’s easy to catch yourself spying on the people in the next room, or catch someone doing the same to you.
As for ideas about commercialism, they creep into Desert X from all sides, and while Aitken uses real estate, Jennifer Bolande uses billboards. Mixed in with the ones lining Gene Autry Trail is her installation Visible Distance/ Second Sight. Unlike the adjacent billboards, hers depict the mountains visible in the distance. As you approach them, they momentarily align with the horizon, and those distant hills are suddenly only several yards away. Much how the landscape was brought into focus in Smith’s work by calling explicit attention to it, Visible Distance/ Second Sight shifts your view of nature through a sudden reframing. But instead of creating moments of meditative self-awareness, these billboards make you question the role of the consumer in the idealization of the American west.
Perhaps no other work in Desert X is as critical of idealization than Richard Prince’s Third Place. Located in and around a derelict house on the outskirts of Desert Hot Springs, Prince placed a variety of his Twitter images depicting random people with off the wall descriptions. According to their captions, such as “My aunt. Visiting her was always awkward. Nudist and all. It wasn’t like I was uncomfortable. Made me horny?” found above the picture of a well-endowed topless woman, Prince’s family partakes in an outlandish drama of voyeurism, sexual depravity, and the occasional act of incest. As a known appropriator, he seems less interested in creating a believable narrative out of these images and their obviously farcical captions and more invested in how social media encourages such fictions to thrive. The images don’t even attempt to come from the same location or the same decade. Instead, trashed, ripped, water-stained, and blowing around in the breeze, they echo the rotting house while embodying the over-ripe attention seeking ideology that pervades much of our Internet culture.
Not all of the works in Desert X co-opt the landscape in such a direct way. Jeffery Gibson’s Alive repurposes a decommissioned wind turbine blade by transforming it into a monolithic sculpture. Painted in a techno-colored patchwork of irregular rectangles and the phrases, “I AM ALIVE! YOU ARE ALIVE! THEY ARE ALIVE! WE ARE LIVING,” the sculpture now resides at the Palm Springs Museum of Art. While the blade can be appreciated for its aesthetics alone, being an beautiful abstract form, it also is intended to create a work that bypasses the romantic ideas that surround the desert as a mythic location of spiritualized self-awakening and focus more on the communities that exist there. As Gibson explains, “the text references the people who live in Palm Springs and the original indigenous people who occupied this land.” Much in the same way that it references different peoples, Alive evokes a plurality of ideas including renewable energy, socio-political issues of identity, and pure abstraction. It embodies the very diversity it celebrates.
Ultimately, Desert X is not an exhibition about painting the desert in idealistic glory. Instead, it illustrates the ways we come into contact with that landscape and reconcile our place alongside it. Claudia Comte’s Curves and Zig Zags exemplifies this idea. Being installed only a few yards from the division between Adam’s Park and the City of Palm Desert, this 10ft tall, 100ft long wall literally reinforces the border between the sprawl of suburbia and the wilderness beyond it. Delimiting this boundary, the wall feels less harmonious with its surroundings than Strachan or Bolande’s works. Instead, Curves and Zig Zags has an alien quality that makes it seem as out of place as the lush green grass of the nearby manicured lawns. However, like Strachan and Bolande’s pieces, it compels you to move around it and enjoy the optical illusions its patterns create. Beyond the work, trails lead up into Adam’s Park, and from the top of a nearby hill, you can see it below and the city beyond. That is about the best visual summarization of Desert X that exists: humanity and nature brought together and yet still separated by art.