I knew, even before I had opened the car door, that it was a mistake to release a five-year-old into a desert dust storm, even for art. The five-year-old didn’t care about art. What she wanted was fun. And to her, fun was the only explanation for all the people with hunched shoulders, chins pressed to chest, staggering against the rapidly shifting wind. Their destination, and ours, was an immense, neon-orange, rectangular box—Specter (2019), by the Los Angeles–based artist Sterling Ruby—resting on a patch of desert south of CA-111 at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains.
That was the fun of it, the journey of finding the works, or so I had thought.
We were trying to take in Desert X, a biennial contemporary art exhibition only in its second edition, whose calling card is the desert landscape of the Coachella Valley. Since its successful inaugural run in 2017, Desert X has distinguished itself from the crowded schedule of international art biennials with its dedication to site-specificity. Just as in 2017, all nineteen works in this year’s exhibition are placed at outdoor locations, some more accessible than others. And that was the fun of it, the journey of finding the works, or so I had thought.
From the freeway, Specter flashed by in an instant; its fluorescent incongruence to the surrounding landscape barely registered. But up close, the 3,000 pounds of painted aluminum glowed like a post-apocalyptic warning sign. It radiated total artificiality, from its biohazard-orange luminescence, the machine-perfected edges, and the semi-reflective surface that calls to mind Gerhardt Richter’s disturbingly mesmerizing Mirror, Blood Red (1991). Its message was clear: Approach with caution.
Arriving in Palm Springs by air always inspires in me a heart-pumping excitement. After the plane passes the San Gorgonio Mountain, the Coachella Valley comes into view suddenly, like a mirage. Neat, alternating squares of beige sand and lush greenery fan out to the very edge of the ragged mountain ranges. Shimmering pools of azure punctuate the checkerboard pattern, while straight, black asphalt lines cut through and across, sometimes forming a border between uninhabited desert and unfinished housing developments. Once on the ground, the air is dry and clear. As advertised, golf resorts with fountains, new homes with swimming pools, and water-thirsty green lawns abound. It’s the desert, after all.
In his curatorial statement, Neville Wakefield, Desert X’s artistic director, cites Bruce Nauman’s 1973 lithograph “Pay Attention Motherfuckers” as “the message of the art, in more or less subtle ways.” In the Nauman work, mirror-image capitals in bold type spell out the title phrase, stacked in four lines. It takes a moment for the eyes and brain to align. To solve the puzzle is also to follow its command.
Simply driving from one location to another is to go on an extended sociological survey of the American West.
For Desert X, Wakefield has also constructed a puzzle whose resolution requires following commands. In this case, the commands are those of a GPS. The 19 works are scattered on either side of a 60-mile-long diagonal line that traverses Coachella Valley. Bookended by the farming communities of Whitewater and Mecca, the route passes through six other cities, from the wealthy enclaves of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert, to the working-class neighborhoods of Desert Hot Springs, Indio, and Coachella. The neat squares seen from the airplane materialize as tracts with houses and inhabitants. Simply driving from one location to another is to go on an extended sociological survey of the American West.
In their choices of works, Wakefield and co-curators Amanda Hunt and Matthew Schum display a canny understanding of what visitors to contemporary art exhibitions desire—dramatic backdrops for screen-friendly photographs that double as signifiers of intellectual rigor. In 2017, Doug Aitken’s site-specific installation Mirage House, a typical suburban one-story house constructed entirely out of mirrors, achieved total social media ubiquity while serving up a critique of the attention-seeking flocks.
This year, the mantle of being virtual billboards for the biennial is shared by several works: Dive-In by the art collective Superflex, whose pastel pink temple or monumental fish tank furniture comments on the ecological past of the Coachella Valley, which was once the seafloor of the Gulf of California. The large-scale mural Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds, by Armando Lerma, a second-time participant and the only local artist, provokes with its location, a fenced-in water tank not far from the city of Coachella’s landfill. Ghost Palm by Kathleen Ryan is a transparent 20-foot replica of the desert fan palm, a beloved native California plant that gave its name to many nearby cities. The reproduction of an otherwise common object using industrial materials carries an echo of Mirage House. But Ghost Palm offers the additional sonic pleasure of plastic “fronds” rustling in the wind.
By themselves, none of these three works are difficult to find. But visited in sequence, the vast distances of the desert become inconvenient, almost prohibitive. The Mexico City–based artist Pia Camil embraced these limitations of distance, intentionally locating her work, Lover’s Rainbow, in the United States and Mexico. Camil commissioned two identical rainbows made of painted rebar, placing one in Rancho Mirage, the other in Baja, Mexico. The “lover” of the title evokes the thousands of families forcibly separated by the Trump administration’s prohibitive immigration policy. But to Camil, the vibrantly colored rainbows, strong as bundled steel, are also meant to be symbols of hope and optimism. The dual location encourages those who have the resources to cross the border and experience the differences, if any, at the other end of the journey.
The bridging of distances is also a theme in Wormhole, by Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle. Wormhole is a multi-site installation that takes place at six vacant storefronts in five different cities of Coachella Valley, plus one in Tijuana, Mexico. Television monitors set up inside the shops show the exterior of one of the other storefronts. The video feed creates a visual shortcut that grants access across time and space, from one site of abandoned commerce to another.
The television monitors animate the empty shop windows in a way similar to how Desert X and other biennials aim to focus attention on disregarded localities. The vacant shops are comparable to a local community that needs to be renewed, revitalized, reclaimed, and just as often, dominated. In today’s highly globalized art market, this “transformation” often goes one of two ways. One outcome is gentrification, the substitution of a rootless, ahistorical, internationalist perspective for the hard work of reckoning with the violence that had sucked the life out of many urban centers in the first place.
A second, and the possibility that Marcelle is demonstrating, which seems to be the goal of Wakefield and Desert X as well, is a network of interdependent, mutually beneficial, parallel futures. In the Coachella Valley, this could take the form of preventing the ecological collapse of the Salton Sea; organizing local resources to enliven historic downtown Coachella, as Armando Lerma has done; respecting the land rights of the Agua Caliente Tribe in Palm Springs; and possibly, holding golf courses accountable for excessive water use. It would also mean more houses, people moving in and out, more man-made changes to the valley.
But there is also a third option, that of accepting the ruin as it happens, as Iván Argote poetically articulates in his work, A Point of View. On a vacant plot north of the Salton Sea, five concrete staircases are arranged in an imperfect oval. Words in English and Spanish are engraved on both sides of every step on the staircases, bringing forth the possibility of new lines of poetry with every step. At the top of each staircase is a simple observation platform, from which the Salton Sea, the San Jacinto Mountains, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Joshua Tree National Park are all visible. Since it was first installed, some stairs have cracked, and pieces have fallen. A few of the words are no longer decipherable. And eventually, the staircases will be gone too. All that will be left will be lot itself, which one day might disappear into houses. Or perhaps the houses nearby will be abandoned first.
The five-year-old put on her unicorn-decorated hiking hat, then bounded out of the backseat into the dust storm. She approached nothing with caution. The wind immediately lifted the hat off and carried it into the desert. We both started running after it. It must have been a sight: a woman sprinting ahead, followed by a wailing child, while eddies of sand whirled all around.
Finally, a distance of two city blocks later, way past the normal viewing areas for Specter, the hat came to a halt, caught in the branches of a creosote bush. In the far distance, the electricity-generating windmills of San Gorgonio Pass spun round and round. The five-year-old, astonishingly, managed to catch up to me. But now she was tired and had had enough. She refused to walk one more step. The wind direction changed again and pelted sand in our faces. I put her on my back and slowly made our way to the parking lot.
Back in the car, exasperated and exhausted, I thought of Argote’s staircases again. On the day we visited them, a construction crew was busy renovating a small public playground next to the road leading to the artwork. The playground had a simple play structure, with one slide, a short monkey bar, and a sand pit. The workers were putting in fencing. Across the way were two weatherworn houses with rusted scooters in the backyard. A few houses in the neighborhood looked abandoned. It was midmorning, and there were no kids anywhere in sight.
I was sure that I would not be back to look at those houses again, not for a long time. But the new playground should be there for a while. The kids who grow up in that neighborhood, will climb to the top of the slide, look around, then slide down. They will do this over and over. They will see blue-gray mists rising up from the Salton Sea, the slope of the San Jacinto Mountains in the far distance, watch the train whistle past on the railroad. Then one day they will be all grown up, and they will want to go see something else.
Desert X runs through April 21 in Coachella Valley, California.