Desert X 2019

Surrogates (2)
Iman Issa, Surrogates, Desert X; Photo Credit: Genie Davis

Desert X

through April 21st

Written by Genie Davis
The second iteration of Desert X – which functions as kind of scavenger hunt for the locations of large scale installation art works throughout the Coachella Valley – is wider spread than the 2017 model, and in most cases, just as compelling.

With works studded like hidden-in-plain-sight jewels from the Salton Sea to Desert Hot Springs, taking in all the works is really a two-day adventure – once one locates the correct geotag. In 2017, with pieces such as the seminal, mirror house installation, Mirage, by Doug Aiken and Claudia Compte’s astonishing illusion, Curves and Zigzags, there were plenty of Instagram-ready stunners. While a number of the 2019 works are smaller in scale, requiring perhaps a little more introspection to assimilate, many were just as bold, big, and supremely exciting.

Starting to the south, just outside Mecca, Ivan Argote’s A Point of View is a deeply engaging work that features five separate sculptures of steps leading to nothing more or less than the sky and a far off vista of the Salton Sea. With words inscribed on the concrete steps in both English and Spanish, there is a sense of raw poetry, potential, an innate sense of loss here, as well as the power of dreams in spite of it.

A point of view
Iván Argote, A Point of View, Desert X; Photo Credit: Genie Davis

At the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, the art is a scientific study. The solar powered Terminal Lake Exploration Platform (TLEP) serves as a floating laboratory, designed to explore remote bodies of water. Artist Steve Badgett and architect Chris Taylor center their work on terminal lakes with stressed ecosystems, such as the Salton Sea. The work resembles a boat; the primary goal of the lab is to capture images of the desert floor beneath the highly saline sea. Those images will be presented at the park’s visitor’s center. An incredibly worthy endeavor, as an art installation, this version of a boat is a boat is a boat.

Cecilia Bengolea’s Mosquito Net included a single weekend of performance art that we missed seeing. What remains, colorful cutout silhouettes placed in the Salton Sea, have an ethereal quality. Reflecting on the water, her free-standing sculptural works are like dimensional cave paintings come to life, then frozen, poised for motion even as the glassy surface of the dying sea seems ready for waves of change. Intertwined human and animal figures look like creatures from myths we forgot we even knew, shimmering on the water. A strong win for this piece.

mosquito net (2)
Cecilia Bengolea’s Mosquito Net, Desert X; Photo Credit: Genie Davis

On the same stretch of beach, but closer to the tree line, resides the chimeric vision of Nancy Baker Cahill’s AR work, Margin of Error. The work is one of two pieces Cahill has created for Desert X, both augmented reality. Here, silvery, fluttering things appear via the downloaded application on a viewer’s iPhone or Android. At first glance ethereal and lovely, the work packs a punch: it visualizes the outcome of environmental disaster. The sea is again a superb setting for this, tragically poised as it is for ruin. At the edge of Palm Springs nearest I-10, Cahill has set her other work, Revolutions, with a real-life background of windfarms. Splatters of vivid color appear here, strange blossoms of paint, reflective of the potential of these windfarms to disrupt the plants and flowers of the region, solving energy needs with another man-made problem. Like Margin of Error, at first glance, the image is simply visually fun, but exploring the meaning behind it, the work is a visceral reminder of even man’s best intentions gone awry for the planet. The interactive nature of both works imparts them with a deeply rooted power.

In Rancho Mirage, Pia Camil’s close-to-the road Lover’s Rainbow is a twin to a piece created in Baja Sur, Mexico. The work is a large arch of colorful painted rebar, with a different palette on the inside and outside of the arch. Touching on immigration and the perpetual search for the “pot of gold” at the end of the putative rainbow, Camil focuses on the true treasures of love and compassion.

Heading north to Desert Hot Springs, Going Nowhere Pavilion #01 is a maze-like, walk-through installation that is based on the idea of a Möbius strip, here constructed from concrete blocks that use brick and earth shades. The geometric work by artist Julian Hoeber is a fascinating walk-through that changes with one’s perspective within it; sinuous and compelling from the outside, it’s a place to explore through surprisingly varied passageways.

Also in Desert Hot Springs, Ghost Palm was one of my personal favorites in the exhibition. Located on a nicely private patch of desert land, there is a sense of mystery in approaching it, and the work itself is quite dazzling, fragile, dreamlike, and with a sci-fi aesthetic. Created by artist Kathleen Ryan, the work is positioned on a fault line, adding to the sense of our powerlessness in terms of nature’s grand plan, but also of our ability to shape and form a relationship with the desert, for good or ill. Made from steel, plastic, and glass, the piece is an evocative combination of shimmer and sound – the shining plastic leaves make a soft sound in the wind. It’s transparency in certain lights adds to the haunting beauty of the piece. It would be a perfect spot to re-read the Hans Christian Anderson literary fairy tale of the real and mechanical in “The Nightingale.”

Ghost Palm (1)
Kathleen Ryan, Ghost Palm, Desert X; Photo Credit: Genie Davis

Like Ghost Palm, another of my favorite Desert X works is also rooted in the nature of the desert, and its past. Fossilized marine life found in the area was an inspiration for the Palm Desert installation. The Danish collective Superflex has combined a reverence for the geological past and a prescient warning of humankind’s global warming-induced future with Dive-In, a lustrous, large pink sculpture meant to resembled coral. Visually monolithic and surreal, on specific weekend evenings, a “dive-in” movie simulating an under-water world is projected here; even dry and by day it is a stunning piece, part Stonehenge, part Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

Sterling Ruby’s enormous fluorescent bright orange monolith, SPECTER, is also reminiscent of the giant black rectangle that makes its appearance in Kubrik’s film. Part illusion, part mysterious architecture descended from outer space, the startling color notwithstanding, from the road it resembles a highway sign abandoned. It is only on close inspection that its power and size is apparent, and the surprise factor upon full perspective is part of the work’s pleasure.

Cara Romero’s billboard photo-graphic series, Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert, references Native American tribal culture in the desert, and figures from the past positioned as if alive again, bringing with them their culture, stories, and appreciation of nature. Nature itself figured into our view: each time we drove past the towering installations, a dust storm arose, obscuring some of the images, but also creating a dream-like space from which they could’ve emerged.

Referencing both Chicano pop art and ancient cave paintings, Armando Lerma has created a dazzling mural along the sides of a water tank. Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds, features images of animals from birds to monkeys, and the flora and fauna of the desert. It’s a terrific piece, with individual images each painted in a single color such as brown or blue; it is also easily the most obscure art site, located at the top of a landfill area in Coachella. The muddy road and our ability to view it solo, with clouds scuttling through the sky above, created a feeling that the work had been transported there.

visit us in the shape of clouds (1)
Armando Lerma, Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds, Desert X; Photo Credit: Genie Davis

Conversely, John Gerrard’s digital simulation Western Flag is perhaps the easiest site to reach, right off the road with a parking lot by the visitor’s center just off Highway 111 in Palm Springs. The large-scale digital work depicts the site of the world’s first major oil strike, the so-called Lucas in Spindletop, Texas in 1901. Now depleted, the site is reimagined here as a flagpole trailing streams of toxic black smoke. The computer-generated artwork changes constantly, running in tandem with the real site in Texas throughout the year from sunrises to sunsets. It is a deeply moving work, a sad emblem of our own flag of destruction fluttering boldly over the planet.

There are a variety of other works on view at Desert X that we found personally less successful: Mary Kelly’s bright yellow bus shelter installations, scattered throughout Palm Springs, Peace is the Only Shelter, eliminates bus stop advertising, replacing it with slogans from Women Strike for Peace (WSP), a Cold War-era feminist group; while another multi-installation exhibition, Cinthia Marcelle’s Wormhole, uses old television monitors in the premise of transporting viewers through a putative wormhole from empty storefront location to location, including an installation in Tijuana. Both are interesting multi-site works, but taken individually were not visually that compelling. Iman Issa’s Surrogates, A Film About Things To Be Used, In Order Of Appearance, By Self Or Others, For Touching Upon Larger, Insidious, Or Different Things, is located within Sunnylands, a botanical garden area; it is a piece used as part of a film set and placed in a grassy lawn with floral components added. A curving sculptural work with interesting lines, it does not stand out among the rows of cacti and other garden elements, and at first glance appears to be just a part of it. Perhaps in part, that was the point. Stopping by on the weekend, we also heard, as well as saw the installation located in Indio, Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark by Gary Simmons, consisting of stacks of speakers made from materials found in the Treme neighborhood of post-Katrina New Orleans. A looped video shows the musicians’ performing; the location is inside a National Guard Armory.

Just like Pokemon, you gotta catch ‘em all. Or at least give it a good try. Desert X runs through April 21st.

Desert X in the Coachella Valley

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