Desert X 2021

Serge Attukwei Clottey, The Wishing Well, Desert X 2021; Photo credit Genie Davis
Desert X – Large Scale Outdoor Art Most Welcome After a Pandemic Year
Coachella Valley, CA
through May 16

Written by Genie Davis
Now more than ever, the pleasures of outdoor art installations that are site-specific or are appropriate to a site, are vast and many. While there are fewer installations than in past years for this biennial art event, the works exhibited at Desert X 2021 are more than worth the drive.

Zarah Alghamadi’s “What Lies Behind the Walls” uses sculptural layers to create a lush monolith that is perhaps a distant cousin to the mysterious monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the impersonators of that prop that popped up globally last year. This work uses cement, soil, and dyes that are applicable to both Alghamadi’s Saudi Arabian home and the Coachella Valley. Rich in browns and golds, it is enormously tactile, and seems to have grown up in the arid landscape around it. Reachable after an approximately ½ mile walk, the remoteness of the location and the mountains behind it add to the “magical appearance” quality of the work.

Alicia Kwade’s “ParaPivot (semipiternal clouds)” is located, like Alghamadi’s, near Desert Hot Springs, north of the I-10 Freeway. Timed tickets are recommended for this attraction, with only 15 guests allowed to visit per half-hour after a steep climb up a hill – on which a paved road leads to a housing development site that either never was or perhaps someday will be. The seemingly fragile blocks of white marble are supported on metal frames arcing like a surreal jungle gym into the sky. It’s beautiful and strangely ephemeral, and at sunset, when we viewed the work, appears as if it is almost ready to float away, light as air, yet weighted by the earth itself.

Moving down toward Palm Springs, two attractions are positioned nearly across Highway 111 from each other. Serge Attukwei Clottey’s “The Wishing Well” consists of two large yellow and orange plastic cubes with a “carpet” of the same plastic material, used for water jugs in the artist’s native Ghana. The color of the desert sun, positioned on lush green grass in front of a community center, the work is surreal and lush, like strange square flora pulled up out of the earth. The artist’s use of these recycled materials speaks to the ecological urgency of the planet.

While somewhat less fascinating artistically than the two works above, the political power and evocative placement of the massive letters reading “Indian Land” which comprises the installation “Never Forget” makes it equally grand. Tlingit and Unangax Alaskan artist and musician Nicholas Galanin created a pointed message that shines against the hills leading to Palm Springs Tramway. This was the busiest installation we visited, in part due to its strong visibility from the highway. A call to action and awareness, the work riffs on the iconic Hollywood sign, which once read Hollywoodland and represented an advertisement for a racially restricted housing development.

Another terrific piece was located south of Palm Springs, in Palm Desert. On an empty desert lot, “The Passenger” looms like a hand-woven fortress, a maze and labyrinth created by Eduardo Sarabia. The Mexico-based artist uses traditional rugs woven from palm fibers to express the exodus of immigrants across nations, cultures, and borders. Timed tickets are also provided for this attraction, however when we visited on a late March Saturday, they were unnecessary.

Nearby, Kim Stringfellow’s “Jack Rabbit Homestead” on a small empty parcel near the Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce, offers a poignant discourse on the Small Tract Act in the Southern Californian Landscape. An audio recording provides site attendees a description of Catherine Venn Peterson’s 1950 homesteading experience along with original musical elements. Through the cabin windows, viewers see the contents of a homesteading cabin from kitchen to bed to typewriter, all contained in its 122-square-feet.

Less successful was Vivian Suter’s downtown Palm Springs window installation, “Tamanraset.” The Argentinian artist’s paintings are hung in 180 degrees of windows across the street from a branch of the Palm Springs Art Museum. Unfortunately, reflective glare made them difficult to view, and the delicate abstract desert images, based on photographs viewed by the artist, faded into a blur. Likewise, the billboard art along North Palm Canyon did not reach me as it should have; the flow of traffic makes truly taking in the salient messaging from New York-based artist Xaviera Simmons, “Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band a Militia,” hard to fully take in. This location for billboard art has appeared in previous Desert X installations and blowing dust and passing cars unfortunately make viewing a challenge.

Due to timing, we were unable to view the landscape-based art of Ghada Amer – note to attendees, the Sunnylands garden location closes at 4 p.m. rather than sunset. Two additional installations had yet to open. Felipe Baez’s mural and Christopher Myer’s sculptural works will be on view after April 9th; Oscar Murillo’s student-based project will be viewable in an online archive. While still listed on the Desert X website, Judy Chicago’s performance art has been cancelled.

For more information, free timed tickets to two installations, and a helpful app and map, visit the website.

Seeing art this involving is a special treat for 2021; locations are easy to find and viewable in a drive from Los Angeles within an 8-hour day.

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