Center for Art + Environment Blog

March 18, 2017   |   William L. Fox

Desert X

Phillip K. Smith's installation reflects time and space. Photo from Jeff:


Map of Desert X Sites, 2017, courtesy Desert Biennial

Last weekend I was in Palm Springs to give a talk at the newest festival on the international art circuit, Desert X, which offers site-specific projects by sixteen artists scattered across the floor of the Coachella Valley this spring through April 30th. Produced by the non-profit organization Desert Biennial, it was hoped that the program could spring off the popularity of the annual Coachella music festival that started in 1999, and has since become a global attraction. If the quality of work and the numbers of people that Sara Frantz and I saw visiting the sites is any indication, they’ve hit upon a smart strategy and the name of the organization foretells a recurring event.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1995, I asked the art critic Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times if anything interesting was happening in the desert—meaning the Mojave on the other side of the mountains that surround L.A. He replied there wasn’t really anything to his knowledge, but that it wasn’t really his purview, which was more what was happening around the world. So it was with satisfaction that I saw that Knight had not only reviewed Desert X a few weeks ago, but also given it high marks, noting that many of the works succeeded in avoiding, or toying ironically with the cliches of desert romanticism.

Blythe Intaglios, still from drone video, courtesy RV Copter.

Of course, Native Americans have made what we would call art in the Mojave for millennia, ranging from petroglyphs and pictographs—images pecked into and painted on rocks, respectively—as well as intaglios, or geoglyphs created by rearranging the surface of the ground. Modern and contemporary art have a history there, as well, with Agnes Pelton (1881-1961) living in and painting desert landscapes since the early 1930s, and Noah Purefoy (1917-2004) creating one of the country’s finest found-object environments in Joshua Tree. A notable denizen currently is Andrea Zittel, a world renowned artist and designer who lives and works in Joshua Tree. Since 2002 she and colleagues have organized High Desert Test Sites (HDTS) as an annual tour of experimental art sites in the higher reaches of the Mojave.

Yucca Crater by Ball-Nogues Studio from High Desert Test Sites 2012. Photo by David John.

Desert X is curated by Neville Wakefield, whose work I discovered while writing about public art in Switzerland a couple of years ago. He and his partner, the artist Olympic Scarry, had produced a festival of temporary works in Gstaad throughout different altitudes at the ski resort. Elevation 1049 was a hit and this last year they opened its second iteration. Interviewed during the first show, Wakefield commented that he could do something similar in Death Valley—and, in fact, he told me that he tried to do so but the legal and physical logistics were too complicated. Hence, Coachella.

We didn’t have time to track down all the works in the intricate, if pleasurable scavenger hunt required to locate them, but here are five we found especially provocative.

Lucid Stead by Phillip K. Smith, III. Photo by Steve King.

Phillip K. Smith III has been producing works in the desert for years, most notably a partially mirrored house titled Lucid Stead during the 2013 HDTS series. The house seemed to levitate off the desert floor, move in and out of your focal plane, and was all together one of the best mirrored architectural interventions in landscape anyone had ever seen. For Desert X, Smith has arrayed 400 mirrored square poles in a circle more than 200 feet in diameter, the tall sticks canted back at ten degrees in order to reflect the sky. As with the house, reality and its reflection alternate, but this time with the poles creating interwoven shadows and streaks of light on the ground, as if the earth were also throwing a reflection of the work. This complexity makes The Circle of Land and Sky engaging to enter and nearly ceremonial to contemplate.

The Circle of Land and Sky by Phillip K. Smith, III. Photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy Desert X.


Patterns of light and shadow on sculpture and ground. Photo by Sara Frantz.

The work that’s received the most press attention is an empty ranch house mirrored inside and out by Doug Aiken. Set on a hillside several hundred feet above the valley floor, at any given hour hundreds of people were snapping selfies, wandering through a kind of minimalist funhouse, and pondering the modest visual paradoxes. Perhaps the most interesting part of Mirage is the rhetoric surrounding it, that the house sits within Desert Palisades, an elevated and expensive development at the edge of Palm Springs. It’s a reflection back on not so much the landscape as the manifest dreams found in the desert.

Mirage by Doug Aiken. Photo courtesy of Dazeen.

A different kind of reflection was created by New York artist Jennifer Bolande, who posted large landscape photographs on six billboards along Gene Autry Trail, one of the main highways through the valley, three facing south, three north, all to be encountered while moving along at sixty miles per hour. The trick is that from a six vantage points along the highway, each photo-mural lines up exactly with the landscape behind it, so you get the same view reproduced close to you of faraway mountains. Except it’s not the same view, as the time of day, month, and season is different. The image and the reality, even when lined up, can’t be the same. The results are startling, once again bringing the viewer into active interaction with the surroundings.

Visible Distance/Second Sight by Jennifer Bolande. Photo by Lance Gerber.

Perhaps the work I like the most was one we saw that wasn’t working because it’s mostly meant to be viewed at night, and we saw it during the day when it was off. But, then, Tavares Strachan’s earthwork is really only viewed best when seen from the air, which means either renting a helicopter or viewing it with a drone. I Am consists of more than 200 small excavations in various geometrical shapes, holes around fourteen inches deep and lined with white styrofoam or some similar material. White neon tubes run around the inside perimeter of each. It’s as if the Michael Heizer of 1968 had been resurrected and was making a new version of Nine Nevada Depressions, but instead of being spread out over more than 500 miles of desert, were concentrated into a plot the size of two football fields. Just that gesture alone was striking, but the video footage from drones flying overhead at night makes apparent how the artist designed the work to look as if a meteor had splashed down and left molten language strewn across the desert.

Still from drone video, Nightfall—I Am by Tavares Strachan.

It’s too early to know if Desert X will be a recurring phenomenon. Considering the number of neon tubes installed for Strachan’s piece and the electrical infrastructure required to support it, and the engineering required to place and foot Smith’s reflecting circle—and then extending those logistics to the other fourteen works in the project—it’s clear that it would require major fundraising. But, also given the number of artists who contact us at the CA+E regarding their desire for a venue through which to make ephemeral desert interventions, there’s certainly a demand from that end. And the audiences clearly exist for it at the other end. Neville Wakefield has his hands on a terrific idea, and I hope we see more of Desert X in the future. In the meantime, if you can get to Palm Springs before April 30th, do so!