Ambitious as always, Desert X delivered on its promise to diversify its pool of participating artists—at the expense of conceptual coherence.
Desert X 2023
March 4–May 7, 2023
Desert X, various locations in the Coachella Valley, CA
The desert is a romantic place. As Michael Ondaatje wrote in The English Patient, part of the magic of the Earth’s desert regions is that they cannot be claimed or owned—they are “a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names.” About the effect the untamed desert wilderness has on the human soul, Ondaatje wrote: “we disappear into landscape.”
And yet, the desert can be claimed, can’t it? More than that, it can be stolen, developed, even demolished. If there is anything this year’s Desert X event has made clear, it is that our fantasies about the desert are mirages at best—illusions of luxury, adventure, escape—and culturally and environmentally disastrous, at their worst. The irony about the fourth edition of the site-specific, contemporary art biennial hosted in the Coachella Valley is that, somehow, it manages both to criticize and reify the latter possibility.
Standing on the edge of a steep hillside, overlooking Mario García Torres’ Searching for Sky (While Maintaining Equilibrium) (2023), I felt incredibly conflicted. On one hand, I was delighted by the Mexico City-based artist’s playful reflection on “cowboy culture.” At the base of the hill, Torres’ repurposed mechanical bulls—which replaced the bull-looking components with polished sheets of steel—whirl and stagger, jerking back and forth like drunk solar panels. From above, the herd of decommissioned machinery represents a striking meditation on the role of Wild West iconography in American culture. Up close, the aging hardware groans like a dying animal. It wasn’t until later that I learned Torres’ installation required the construction of an entirely new power line, which feels oddly inconsistent with the exhibition’s focus on the effects of human development on the desert.
“They’re really antithetical to nature,” said L.A.-based artist Matt Johnson about his mountainous sculpture of a reclining individual, composed of twelve storage containers and titled Sleeping Figure (2023).
“It becomes a nice contrast to the natural surroundings,” Johnson continued. While his monumental installation definitely contrasts the landscape around it, it doesn’t seem to engage with the questions the exhibition’s curators set out to ask, such as “How can art be an instrument of self-awareness, and help us sense our individual impact [on the environment]?” as co-curator Diana Campbell posed in an interview.
Part of me wants to excuse these apparent missteps, in favor of some of the exhibition’s more conceptually compelling installations. For example, Cahuilla tribal leader Gerald Clark’s immersive installation—cleverly titled Immersion (2023)—was razor sharp. Cradled in a massive basket, which wove together rows of hay to gesture toward traditional Cahuilla basket weaving techniques, Clark’s maze-like game challenges its players to review trivia questions based on information about local Indigenous tribes.
“Most people don’t get a single answer right,” Clark said in an artist talk. “A lot of people cheat, which really shouldn’t be surprising, considering the long history of white settlers cheating Native Americans out of their land.”
Clark argued that, if people don’t even attempt to understand Cahuilla history, they certainly aren’t going to understand art produced by Cahuilla people on Cahuilla land.
“We exist,” he stated about Indigenous Americans. “We’re one of the most important threads in the fabric of this country. And we certainly don’t see human beings as outside of the cons of climate change. We are a part of the environment that’s being ravished. Everyone is.”
Mexico City-based artist Héctor Zamora’s site-specific performance, Chimera (2023), approached the issue of land use from another angle. On March 3 and 4, Zamora roamed up and down various busy roads between Desert Hot Springs and Palm Springs, carrying a massive bouquet of metallic balloons and posing as a street vendor. Every balloon formed a word like “Rescue,” “Home,” “Wonder,” “Source,” each of which was chosen to conjure the idea of a “chimera” (i.e. an unrealizable dream or illusion fabricated by the mind, according to the Palm Springs Art Museum). A poignant visualization of the broken promises associated with migration to the United States, the spirit of Zamora’s performance represents an important component of any reflection on the sprawling landscape of the Coachella Valley. After all, Latin Americans have constituted the majority of the populations of Indio and Coachella for decades.
But even with all of these powerful contributions, another part of me wants to hold Desert X to a higher standard. Though the exhibition categorizes itself as “site-specific installations” that “activate desert locations,” Desert X seems to be in conversation with the Land Art movement, which emerged in the 1960s and 70s and has been criticized in recent years for reinforcing settler colonist attitudes toward the unceded tribal land many of its installations occupy. Whether or not Desert X considers itself a part of Land Art’s lineage, it doesn’t appear wholly committed to remedying that criticism.
To be sure, several artists in this year’s Desert X push against the damaging history of Land Art, in the United States. L.A.-based Lauren Bon’s massive sculpture of a heart, for example, hovers in the center of an abandoned hotel’s pool and is designed to process the salt water in the pool, in order to generate energy and deposit clean water back into the atmosphere. In a single, cogent gesture, Bon’s work gives much more than it takes.
On the opposite edge of the valley, London-based Rana Begum’s No. 1225 Chainlink (2023) wraps rows of yellow chain link fence in spacious concentric pattern to explore the ways the ubiquitous material communicates protection for some, at the same time that it connotes segmentation and violence for others. Meanwhile, several miles north of both installations, New York-based Tschabalala Self’s sculpture depicts a headless female torso perched atop a bronze horse, the figure’s legs spread violently apart, in a disturbing homage to the collective foremothers of contemporary America.
Looking back on my experience leapfrogging between each of the semi-remote sites, I feel more hopeful about co-curators’ Neville Wakefield and Diana Campbell work than I do frustrated. I would even say Desert X’s proven commitment to “the multiplicity of stories flowing through [the desert]” is its greatest strength. The question of whether that commitment successfully sidesteps over-romanticized associations with the desert and addresses the “real problems … facing humans and non-humans who live in the Coachella Valley,” instead, does not have a clear answer. However, considering the consequences of today’s debates over land rights issues, border crises, and climate catastrophe—any attempt at reclaiming Land Art for the sake of inclusive storytelling is well worth the effort.