Desert X 2019 was conceived as nineteen sites spread throughout the Coachella Valley, from the northeastern-most area of Whitewater to the southeastern-most Salton Sea. A project with Jenny Holzer was not realized due to concerns over the effect of the work on the local bighorn sheep population, which were in a fragile condition due to a pneumonia outbreak. John Gerrard’s Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), a huge LED display at the Palm Springs Visitors Center, had to be prematurely taken down due to the cost of powering it. A third artwork, Eric Mack’s Halter, somewhat mysteriously disappeared in early March and was no longer on view. The remaining sixteen artist projects were overall quite uneven, very little of what was shown approached the level of the 2017 edition of Desert X, yet the experience of visiting each of the works was extremely rewarding and enjoyable. My interactions with Desert X staff was always a pleasure, often providing a back story to some of the works that I wouldn’t have received anywhere else. In many ways, Desert X 2019 was experientially a great success while artistically disappointing. Each piece offered its own perspective of the Coachella Valley and unique experience of finding and viewing the artwork. Here is a travelogue of sorts, organized by the individual works within Desert X and other related experiences that occurred during my time in the Coachella Valley.
Sterling Ruby, Specter
Sterling Ruby’s orange monolith Specter was the first artwork I visited. Specter’s location at the opening of the Coachella Valley served as a funnel for the winds that drive the many wind farms throughout the valley. I could sort of sense the force of the winds on the short drive out, but on stepping out of the car I realized the true power of them. The weather history for the area put the winds at 29 miles per hour, merely a “strong breeze” or Force 6 on the Beaufort Scale, but they felt quite intense. They carried the sand, which was really more like tiny rocks, peppering the small group of viewers of Ruby’s artwork. Specter, at this point, had been in situ for two months and was showing some signs of wear. Surprisingly, the winds did not seem to be affecting the orange glow of the work, most of the scuffs and marks seemed to be caused by humans. The work itself was impressive, one of the more successful of the artworks in Desert X. The smooth, orange surface glowed in the powerful sunlight, casting an unearthly aura.
It was very windy.
Nancy Baker Cahill, Revolutions
Revolutions was the first of two augmented reality installations created for sites located at the opposite ends of Desert X. Revolutions was previously sited several miles from John Gerrard’s Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), but was virtually relocated due to flooding in that area. Its new location was two miles from Sterling Ruby’s Specter, looking out towards several wind farms. The augmented reality was accessed through Cahill’s mobile app 4th Wall, which allowed one to view the artwork through an augmented view of the wind farm. The artwork was designed to unfold over a period of time, unfortunately, that wasn’t immediately clear from interacting with it in the app. The combination of the bright sunlight and ambiguity of the location of the artwork itself made it difficult to experience.
Julian Hoeber, Going Nowhere Pavilion #01 (Breeze Block, Ben-Day Dot, Coliseum, Möbius Strip, Thought Problem)
Julian Hoeber installed two artworks next to each other in Desert Hot Springs. Going Nowhere Pavilion #01, made from concrete breeze blocks, is designed as a Möbius strip, if one follows the edge of the artwork it continues in a never-ending pattern. Going Nowhere Pavilion #01 is part of a continuing body of work whose goal is to present a physical, architectural manifestation of the shape of Hoeber’s thought. Hoeber’s work was among the stronger of those in Desert X 2019, its symmetrical design was visually pleasing and invited interaction. It displayed its references within its title, the circular holes created by the breeze blocks referring to Ben-Day dots used in the halftone printing process, the colors and visual appearance of the structure referring to Rome’s ancient Colosseum, and the use of the Möbius strip form referring to Lacan’s topological studies of geometric forms and their use as a psychoanalytic technique. The siting of Hoeber’s work in Desert Hot Springs, at an elevation of nearly 1200 feet, provided stunning views over the Coachella Valley and the San Jacinto Mountains in the distance.
Cabot’s Pueblo Museum
After viewing Julian Hoeber’s Going Nowhere Pavilion #01, I caught sight of a large carving of a head and went to investigate. I discovered Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, a building constructed in the style of a Hopi pueblo in 1941. It was built as a residence for Cabot and Portia Yerxa and intended as a museum for the artifacts from their many travels. Also on the property is Waokiye, Peter Wolf Toth’s 40-foot carving of the head of a Native American.
Cara Romero, Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert
Cara Romero’s photography was featured in Desert X as a series of five billboard installations. Desert X 2017 also used photography on billboards: Jennifer Bolande’s photos of the very mountains in front of which the billboards were placed was a conceptual intervention, while Cara Romero’s works focus on the Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Serrano, and Mojave native peoples. The works, individually titled Kiyanni, Evolvers, Spirits of Siwavaats, No Wall, and Indian Canyon, give a brief face to native peoples in an exhibition often criticized for its lack of native and local voices. No Wall is among the more explicitly political works in Desert X 2019, along with Mary Kelly’s bus shelters. Even though they are experienced at highway speeds, Romero’s billboards still provide the thrill of discovery and pleasure of viewing art in unexpected locations and represent one of the more successful installations of the exhibition.
Kathleen Ryan, Ghost Palm
Kathleen Ryan’s Ghost Palm is a desert fan palm created from manmade materials: a steel armature, dangling glass cylinders, and palm leaves and fronds made from cut industrial plastics. The artwork itself is visually impressive, standing about 20 feet tall. The stiff plastic fronds make a loud noise when blown in the wind. It is, unfortunately, a jarring example of the juxtaposition of human creations and the natural landscape. Where Sterling Ruby’s Specter evokes a feeling of wonder, amusement, and appreciation for the object itself, Ghost Palm felt crafty and underwhelming. Ryan’s skill and eye are not in doubt, she has created some amazing artworks that engage and draw you in, however, Ghost Palm feels more at home at Burning Man than Desert X.
Iman Issa, Surrogates, a film about things to be used, in order of appearance, by self or others, for touching upon larger, insidious or different things
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 was located on the grounds of the Sunnylands Center and Gardens in Rancho Mirage. Upon arriving at Sunnylands Center, I assumed that there was a film being shown somewhere on the grounds. I went inside and spoke with the folks at the front desk, and it became clear I wasn’t the only person confused by the title of the artwork, as I was informed that there was a Desert X work on the grounds, but it was not a film. Iman Issa constructed a prop from a film that does not exist, and its placement at Sunnylands is intended to create the experience of the narrative of the film in real life. The work is accompanied by a plaque that instructs its placement in the fictional film: “Film Set Prop of a Refining Facility. Credits over an aerial shot of a desert scape interspersed with 1991 news footage of burning wells, an establishing shot of the refining facility, a low-angle close-up of colorful botanicals that transitions into a tracking shot of the surrounding landscape, a wide-angle shot of the roadside façade of the facility showing a passerby looking at it, a reverse shot of the back view, an extreme close-up of another man’s face wearing head gear and glasses and staring into the distance, a tracking shot of the facility, and a long shot of a cloudless sky. Length of sequence is 2 mins, 36 secs, with diagetic sound of strong wind throughout. Other appearances of the facility in the film are partial, or with it in the background of other protagonists.” Iman Issa is an Egyptian artist who works in extremely diverse media, using themes of memory and how objects transmit meaning. Her 2007 film “Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial” explores her relationship to a war that she only experienced through images transmitted through the media. That the unknown refining facility from Film Set Prop of a Refining Facility is the subject of the opening credits of the film Surrogates suggests that it is somehow noteworthy, probably related to the Kuwaiti oil fires of the Iraq War referenced in the plaque. The colorful pipes seeming to either draw from or pour into a bed of desert succulents take on a much deeper meaning when imbued with the context of a refining facility in a film. Possibly coincidental, but the placement of a replica of a “Friendship Bench” that President Barack Obama presented to President Xi Jinping of China adds another layer of potential meaning to the work, bringing to mind drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, perhaps taking place at refining facilities in any of these countries.
Sunnylands Center and Gardens itself was a work of art well worth visiting. What was once Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s winter estate has become a museum and retreat center dedicated to the legacy of the Annenbergs. The grounds and gardens were beautifully tended, I couldn’t resist walking barefoot across the perfectly manicured lawn next to Iman Issa’s artwork. A couple exhibitions of decorative artwork were not memorable, but I thoroughly enjoyed their collection of historic golf balls salvaged from the property and lakes. Their gift shop was also wonderfully curated, with a focus on the empowerment of women, incongruously paired with a selection of kitchen gadgets that would make Williams Sonoma envious.
Cinthia Marcelle, Wormhole
Cinthia Marcelle’s Wormhole project was installed in empty storefronts throughout the Coachella Valley. Each storefront had a simple sign on letter size paper taped to the window saying “WE HAVE MOVED, PLEASE FIND US AT OUR NEW LOCATION” with the address of the next Wormhole. Inside each vacant storefront was a modest CRT streaming a view of the next location. With five locations peppered throughout the Coachella Valley and a satellite location in Tijuana, Mexico, the project created a web of wormholes linking sites and conceptually transporting viewers to places they may have already been to, will be traveling to, or will never see in person. Her artist bio contains the line “She is known for installations, performances, and videos that stage forms of labor to produce poetic situations.” Her project for Desert X accomplishes this in a way that is commonplace at the surface level but actually has some weight upon further analysis. The empty storefront is a familiar sight in any urban and suburban environment; one of the locations was even next door to a vacant storefront with actual “happy to be moving” text in the window. Creating a virtual pipeline between the locations and creating a network of wormholes can be a transcendental experience for the viewer, or for some visitors a confusing experience and the beginning of a search for the “actual” artwork.
Pia Camil, Lover’s Rainbow
Pia Camil’s Lover’s Rainbow is attractive and simple. The arch made of rebar and painted rainbow colors is one of two identical works, the other in Baja, Mexico. Lover’s Rainbow wears its heart on its sleeve. The use of rebar, a common construction material, refers to development, although as Camil states, “too often in the Mexican landscape we see those dreams thwarted and abandoned.” The search for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow parallels the search undertaken by all who cross borders in search of something better. This idea is underscored by connecting both sides of the US/Mexico border with identical works just over a hundred miles from each other. The painted rebar looked almost like an organic material when viewed up close, taking on a new dimension that wasn’t apparent when viewed from a distance.
Postcommodity, It Exists in Many Forms
Postcommodity’s It Exists in Many Forms was the most creative installation of Desert X. Their work was installed in the Miles Bates House, an architecturally significant midcentury home built in Palm Desert in 1955. The Wave House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018, the same year it was purchased by Stayner Architects. Stayner is in the process of restoring the home to its original state, and the entire property is a construction site. The Wave House’s namesake feature is its “roller-coaster” roof, a swooping, sloping arc that mimics the arcs of the mountains surrounding the Coachella Valley. For their installation, Postcommodity recorded conversations with owners of midcentury homes in Palm Springs. Seven standard-issue job site speakers were scattered throughout the site, each one playing a different soundtrack. The site was set up for timed tickets, which I was unaware of when I arrived, luckily there was no one in the site and I was allowed to enter. All visitors were requested to wear one of the Desert X hardhats on a table within the home. The Wave House itself was stripped down to purely structural elements; most walls had been removed. Studs and plywood delineated the layout of the home, but it felt more like being outside when one took in the installation. The home itself was quite small, and the placement of the speakers was designed to bleed into each other, bouncing the sound off of the arc of the roof, allowing for individual tracks to be heard when near a speaker but a cacophony of conversations when wandering around the site. The Desert X worker who controlled entry to the site noted one random element introduced by Postcommodity: one of the speakers was set to a local Spanish language radio station, a familiar soundtrack at many job sites. On their website, Postcommodity has a wonderful paragraph of text describing the project, focusing on the fetishization of midcentury modernism and the question of the role of stewardship of these homes. One could sense the underlying meaning of the conversations being heard when walking around the site, talk of home ownership and emotional responses to architecture. However, without the ability to focus on each conversation for more than a few moments, as the timed nature of the installation dictated, it was difficult to truly engage the content of the audio. The worker out front was quite helpful and pleased to talk about the work, making the overall experience quite pleasurable.
Melissa Morgan Gallery
While visiting the Desert X hub at Melissa Morgan Gallery in Palm Desert, I viewed some works by Anthony James that incorporated LEDs and mirrors to produce an infinity mirror similar to Glenn Kaino’s Hollow Earth piece from Desert X 2017. Works by Desert X artist Armando Lerma were also on view.
SUPERFLEX, Dive-in was my favorite installation at Desert X 2019. While flashy and the most “Instagram-worthy” of this year’s Desert X projects, the story it told was also multi-layered, incorporating prehistorical, historical and contemporary references and sources. The project was inspired by the fact that the Coachella Valley’s name came from a misspelling of the early Spanish name Conchilla, which means “little shell,” so named because of all the fossilized marine life found in the area. Six million years ago the entire Coachella Valley was underwater, connected to what is called the Western Interior Seaway. SUPERFLEX ties this pre-historical information to one potential near future where the area may once again find itself underwater due to rising sea levels. Dive-in is the first large scale artistic result from SUPERFLEX’s Deep Sea Minding, a three-year research project commissioned by TBA21, where SUPERFLEX considers a future world where objects and structures must be designed to meet the needs of both humans and aquatic creatures. SUPERFLEX call Dive-in “an architectural installation functioning as a drive-in cinema while awaiting to become infrastructure for fish.” The structure looks like a large-scale version of something one would find among tetra, betta, goldfish or guppies in a household aquarium. On closer inspection, the surface has the physical appearance and color of coral. The brilliance of the color and shape of the structure made it a big draw for amateur and professional photographers. In the short time that I was at Dive-in, there were large numbers of photoshoots happening simultaneously. One shoot, from Peach Studios in Los Angeles, recruited me to assist with crowd control as they all seemed to be under 30 and thought someone older might lend some additional professionalism to their shoot. They had rented two baby goats and were shooting them with two human models at the site. Dive-in took on another dimension, literally, that evening at dusk, when a film was screened onto the structure itself. The film started with a view of what seemed to be the structure at which you were looking, projected onto itself. Then fish would occasionally swim in front or behind the projected version of the structure. It became clear that you were looking at a small underwater replica of Dive-in. The camera slowly panned in, getting closer and closer to the structure as an ambient soundtrack got louder and louder, reminiscent of the sound of an air pump in an aquarium, although actually provided by Dark Morph, a collaboration between Jonsi of Sigur Rós and Carl Michael von Hausswolff. Eventually, the camera stopped at an extreme close up of the structure, so close that the camera could not focus, the soundtrack uncomfortably loud and claustrophobic despite being outside in the desert landscape. Slowly the camera started to pan back. As the camera panned back the soundtrack slowly began to quiet, until the structure appeared at its original size in the video. After a few moments of calmness and marine life interacting with Dive-in, the process began to repeat. Dive-in succeeded at both the flashy, candy-colored surface level and at providing a deeper way to access the concepts presented.
Heather James Fine Art
While in the area, I stopped by Heather James Fine Art in Palm Desert. Having received their email communications for years, it was a pleasure to see their facility and some of the impressive works available. I was greeted by Jesse Glick, who was extremely helpful and knowledgeable about their inventory. Their featured work was Sam Francis’ A Whirling Square, a massive painting almost 20 feet square. Much of the work on view was impressive in size, such as Julian Schnabel’s 21-foot-long Nicknames of Maitre D’s, or in weight, such as Anish Kapoor’s 2011 Untitled alabaster work. Norman Zammitt’s Light and Space painting North Wall was magnificent. Heather James was also showing Modernist work, two notable pieces were Irving Norman’s The Palace and a charming diminutive work by Hans Hofmann titled Yellow Vase. A large 2003 drawing by Enoc Perez was notable for its departure from his usual architectural subjects. Heather James was a welcome reminder that commercial galleries can also offer excellent art experiences.
Gary Simmons, Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark
Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark was a “literal and metaphorical platform for music and performance.” Located in a gymnasium on the property of the California National Guard, Simmons has built a stage and speaker towers that were constructed from wood scavenged from the Treme neighborhood of post-Katrina New Orleans. “Recapturing” two 2016 works Memories of the Black Ark 1 & 2, which were towers of vintage speakers visually inspired by Lee “Scratch” Perry’s legendary Black Ark studios. For Desert X, Gary Simmons has placed this speaker construction onto a stage and artists and musicians have reconfigured it for a series performances which were recorded, and a large monitor was set up in the gym on one wall and was playing past performances. In my case, MJ’s Brass Boppers were playing, although a diversity of musical and sound performances took place on the stage. The gymnasium itself was perfectly chosen for this project, with tenets of service in the National Guard in bold letters along one wall: Respect, Selfless Service, Integrity, Honor, Loyalty, Personal Courage, Duty. Some windows were boarded up and panes of glass broken, giving the gym a rough feeling that worked well with the look of the speaker tower. This was an engaging project, but I was disappointed that the performances were pre-recorded in another location, seemingly without an audience. Overcoming the logistics of staging live performances on-site would have added a tremendous element to this project.
Steve Badgett & Chris Taylor, Terminal Lake Exploration Platform
Steve Badgett & Chris Taylor’s Terminal Lake Exploration Platform was more of a scientific exploration than an art installation. Their Great Salt Lake Exploration Platform was rebranded for use in Desert X under the name Terminal Lake Exploration Platform. The TLEP is a floating laboratory that has been outfitted with life support and research infrastructure to investigate terminal lakes, lakes without an outlet. The TLEP was anchored a few hundred feet out on the Salton Sea. Within the Salton Sea Visitor Center, there was an installation, including video footage of sonar scans of the seafloor. The Salton Sea itself was impressive. The shoreline was made up of dead barnacles and crushed fish bones of the marine life that is no longer able to survive in the water, which has been taking on salt, fertilizers, and pesticides from nearby agricultural land. Accidentally created in 1905 when an irrigation canal from the Colorado River broke after heavy rains, the lake became a tourist attraction in the 1950s and 1960s, surrounded by highly desirable real estate. All this time, the terminal lake was leeching contaminants from the soil of the surrounding agriculture. By the 1970s, the lake was unfit for any kind of life and dead fish began to wash ashore. Since then, the lake and surrounding areas have been in steady decline, and now the area is surrounded by mostly abandoned homes. While at the lakeside, a gray sprinter van drove up onto the shoreline. I recognized it as one of the many vehicles used by Desert X staff and volunteers. Two men sat in the cab, one of which turned out to be Steve Badgett, one of the artists behind the TLEP. They were going to set up and run a test of a movie projection onto the TLEP that was going to take place the following weekend. I chatted with Steve for a while about the project, he had been in the area since the beginning of the year for the start of the project in February (it was then early April). Each day they would collect footage and information from the research equipment on the ship, sending it out for processing by researchers elsewhere. Most of the footage required complicated processing for it to be viewable on the screen in the Visitors Center, so what was on view there were some early scans. Although they had been hoping to make some interesting discoveries along the bed of the lake, at that point a bike was the most significant find provided by the TLEP. Terminal Lake Exploration Platform had a lot of potential but provided little in the way of actual information about the Salton Sea. I’m sure that a short film about their experiences creating and executing the project would be fascinating, unfortunately, the boat on the water and the unexplained footage in the Visitors Center did not provide much in the way of interest.
Nancy Baker Cahill, Margin of Error
I found Margin of Error, Nancy Baker Cahill’s second augmented reality work in Desert X, more successful and easier to navigate than Revolutions. While along the shore of the Salton Sea, Margin of Error swirls in the sky above the lake like a tornado of detritus. While visually interesting, the experience of fiddling with my phone while standing next to a lake seemed disjointed. I can’t say that I “ruminated on (my) own body within the scale and setting of the landscape, dwarfed by the implied giant-scale of the digital work” as written in the description on the Desert X site, but the animation held my attention. The experience of viewing the artwork in bright light was still difficult. The most interesting thing about it was swiping my phone open after holding a handful of dead sea life and leaving a salty residue that took some considerable effort to clean off.
Cecilia Bengolea, Mosquito Net
I really wish I had been able to see the performances staged at Cecilia Bengolea’s Mosquito Net because my experience of it on its own was quite underwhelming. The professional photography on the Desert X site compared to my images of it says a lot. The imagery is potentially striking, unfortunately by April and in late afternoon the images did not read very well. I walked around the art to try to find the best viewing angle but couldn’t. This piece just didn’t work for me.
Just inland from Cecilia Bengolea’s piece in the Salton Sea, a derelict building covered in graffiti was emblematic of the current condition of the area.
Iván Argote, A Point of View
Iván Argote is a Colombian born artist who works between Bogotá and Paris. Text figures heavily in most of his works, as it does in A Point of View. A group of five staircases was constructed and placed in a location overlooking the Salton Sea and Coachella Valley. Each of the seventeen steps in the staircase was made out of concrete with a word in Spanish and a word in English cast into either end. The top of the staircase was a platform, from which the viewer could interact with others at the site or simply take in the view. Each staircase was about ten feet tall, which was just tall enough to significantly alter one’s perception. Standing at the top was a little bit precarious without the presence of any handrails or barriers. The slight lift made the view of the lake and valley more prominent and direct, raising the sight line above the shrubbery nearby. Like SUPERFLEX, Argote was inspired by prehistoric geography. His project was sited in the region once occupied by Lake Cahuilla, a prehistoric lake that once encompassed the area including the Salton Sea and stretching all the way down to northern Mexico. Argote cites the mixed influences of pre-Columbian and brutalist architecture, with the resulting structures existing as non-functional sundials. A Point of View was ambitious and well executed, providing an experience to visitors that was both participatory and thoughtful.
International Banana Museum
While driving into the Salton Sea area, I noticed a sign for a building that said International Banana Museum. I made a mental note to check it out if I returned by the same path but was in a hurry to get to the Salton Sea Visitor Center before it closed to view Terminal Lake Exploration Platform. Luckily for us all, I did pass the International Banana Museum on my return, so I stopped in. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the museum lived up to any expectation elicited by its name. Parked out front was a yellow Camaro with the license plate “SS BNARO.” The small building was packed with banana memorabilia, trinkets, figurines, and tchotchkes. Every available surface was filled with something banana related, including cases filled with toys and small baubles. The proprietor was a jovial woman who didn’t say anything without injecting some banana related pun. Her consistency and effortless execution of banana puns was amazing to witness. I purchased a few souvenirs: banana pencils, stickers and a “disturbingly realistic” rubber banana.
Armando Lerma, Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds
Armando Lerma was the only local artist in Desert X 2019, and also the only returning artist from Desert X’s 2017 incarnation. An activist and “street artist” who created Coachella Walls, 13 murals spread across the Pueblo Viejo neighborhood of Coachella. Lerma has a distinctive style that is highly graphic and often utilizes local and native imagery, particularly in his work for Desert X. The location for Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds was a water tower that was tucked behind a large orchard and vineyard, adjacent to a landfill. Driving to it was an adventure, with the strong sense that I was trespassing in a place where I shouldn’t be. After nearly a mile on a dirt road behind various types of agriculture, the road opened onto the raised site of the water tower. It was approaching dusk as I arrived at the site, the light was golden and the artwork on the tower looked great. A variety of symbols and images graced the side of the water tower: animals, shells, what appeared to be basketry and art objects, even a spirit coming out of a lamp. The title could be taken as a nod to the site itself, the water tower holding the material of which clouds are made, and its elevated location was also reminiscent of tropospheric activity. Lerma’s art often deals with issues of immigration and the experience of viewing the mural through a chain link fence adds another layer to the story being told by the images. The journey and experience of viewing this work made it among my favorites at Desert X 2019.
Unsettled, Art on the New Frontier at Palm Springs Art Museum
Unsettled was a large group show at the Palm Springs Art Museum, curated by JoAnne Northrup in collaboration with Ed Ruscha. It was an impressive selection of works by artists living or working in “the Greater West,” defined as a “super region” that runs from the top of Alaska down to Central America. Including contemporary works and also pieces going back to the 1940s and 50s, it was a great exhibition exploring themes and ideas of special interest to the Greater West.
Bruce Yonemoto. Sounds Like the Sound of Music, 2005. video, 4 minutes, 14 seconds.
Desert As Situation, HDTS 2020 Preview
High Desert Test Sites, an organization based in Joshua Tree which was co-founded and directed by Andrea Zittel, presented The Desert As Situation in the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum. This was a panel discussion with six artists who are participating in HDTS 2020, an exhibition which will be on view in the High Desert region in April and May of 2020. The theme of HDTS 2020 revisits Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque, a slide lecture given to students at the University of Utah in 1972. The lecture centered on a hotel with which Smithson became infatuated with during a trip through Mexico in 1969. The Hotel Palenque existed as both a ruin and a site of reconstruction, to quote Smithson, a “de-architecturalized” site. HDTS 2020 and the panel discussion are part of an ongoing conversation about how art in the desert can reach beyond the romanticism that is often inflicted upon it. The panel discussion was presented in two parts, the first was titled Garden of Stones, with presentations from artists Gerald Clarke Jr., Paloma Varga Weisz, and Kate Lee Short. Gerald Clarke Jr. is a Native American artist who uses Native American symbols and imagery in unexpected ways to confront Native American stereotypes. Paloma Varga Weisz is a German artist who creates highly symbolic sculptures and drawings that investigate concepts like the reliability of memory and truth. Kate Lee Short is based in the Wonder Valley area of the High Desert and creates architectural installations that incorporate sound components. After each artist presented, there was a brief conversation moderated by Iwona Blazwick, Director of London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery. The second section was titled City of Snakes and featured artists Alice Channer, Erkan Özgen and Dana Sherwood. Alice Channer is a British sculptor who pairs natural and organic materials and shapes with highly refined industrial components. Erkan Özgen is a Turkish video artist whose works focus on the effects of military conflict and gun violence. Dana Sherwood is based in New York and explores the fringe area between humans and animals, creating elaborate feasts and leaving them for animals, then documenting their interactions with the food. This diversity of this selection of artists was intriguing and looks to make HDTS 2020 an exhibition worth viewing.
Mary Kelly, Peace is the Only Shelter
Mary Kelly is an artist who has been practicing for more than 40 years, incorporating ideas of power and history into her artwork which often focuses on personal and political issues of feminism. For Desert X, she was inspired by Women Strike for Peace, particularly their actions against nuclear testing. Kelly designed three bus shelters with large photographs featuring umbrellas with slogans from Women Strike for Peace such as “peace is the only shelter.” Inside the bus shelters were two infographics, a map of military expansion across California and a Doomsday Clock, noting its current position at two minutes to midnight, the closest to midnight it has been since 1953. Kelly’s project was notable for engaging the Coachella Valley on an urban level, interacting with a different audience through its activation of bus shelters.
Julian Hoeber, Executed Variant DHS #1 (Q1, CJ, DC)
After going through some of the Desert X materials, I noticed that Julian Hoeber had two projects at the site I had visited on my first day at Desert X. On my way to the airport, I headed back to the location to see what I missed. Executed Variant DHS #1 is part of a series of works titled Execution Changes and Executed Variant. Most works in the series, including Executed Variant DHS #1, are marked by concentric rectangles creating an infinity mirror effect. The work was installed in an empty pool at a property connected to the location of Going Nowhere Pavilion #01. A section of the fence around the property was removed; passing through brought one to what appeared to be a vacant house. The backyard pool was empty and Hoeber had painted the surface of the pool with concentric rectangles. The colors were a spectrum of pale reds, designed to relate to the color of the breeze blocks making up Going Nowhere Pavilion #01. At the center of the pool, sticking out of the drain at its lowest point, was a cast of a human head, possibly the artist. The painting on the surface of the pool was very muted, and one had to get down into the pool to get a good look at the cast head in the center. The naming convention of this series of works contrasts with the full title of Hoeber’s other work: Going Nowhere Pavilion #01 (Breeze Block, Ben-Day Dot, Coliseum, Möbius Strip, Thought Problem). The works in this series tend to employ similar abbreviations, separated by numbered Q sections, possibly representing quadrants of the image. Other images online show painting and a head in the connected hot tub section, I either didn’t notice this or the head was no longer there. The overall impression of Executed Variant DHS #1 was not immediately compelling, however, balanced by the strength of Going Nowhere Pavilion #01 and taken in context with other works in the series, I grew to appreciate the pool and was glad to have visited the site a second time.
Taken as a whole, Desert X 2019 was a pleasure to experience. While individual parts were often underwhelming, the totality of the exhibition was very memorable. The best part of Desert X was the opportunity to explore and experience the wide variety of communities throughout the Coachella Valley.
Text and images by Mark Fredricks except where noted.