Desert X 2023
Twelve artists’ Coachella Valley interventions
examine layered histories
By Kate Mothes
Set against the snow-capped peaks of the Santa Rosa Mountains to the southwest, the San Jacinto Mountains emerging in the west, and the Little San Bernardino Mountains stretching to the east, California’s Coachella Valley has been a desert destination for decades for snowbirds and festival-goers. Desert X, a biennial conceived to produce recurring international contemporary art exhibitions that activate desert locations, returns to the valley for the fourth time since its inception in 2017 and presents an open air showcase of new commissions by twelve artists who examine themes of social justice and the environment.
When we think of the desert, a romantic notion of a vast expanse of arid wilderness springs to mind, summoning visions of grand outlooks for which the American Southwest is so well known. Human intervention defines the fabric of the landscape in the Coachella Valley, which boasts incredible views yet is also home to nearly half a million permanent residents, a number that increases dramatically with millions of tourists and festival-goers each year. The traditional lands of the Cahuilla Nation, or Ivilyuqaletem, the area was surveyed for development in 1857, and in 1926, connected to Los Angeles via a major highway for the first time—roughly along what is now Interstate 10. A string of municipalities dappled with gated communities and golf courses meet agricultural land and wind farms, bumped up against treasured glimpses of unbroken, brushy terrain.
Works by Rana Begum, Lauren Bon, Gerald Clarke, Paloma Contreras Lomas, Torkwase Dyson, Mario García Torres, Hylozoic/Desires (Himali Singh Soin and David Soin Tappeser), Matt Johnson, Tyre D. Nichols, Tschabalala Self, Marina Tabassum, and Héctor Gamora respond to their surroundings through installations that nestle into the contours of the ground, mimic infrastructure, and utilize existing architectural frameworks. Co-curator Diana Campbell says, “The artists in the exhibition create instruments of self-awareness that make visible the forces that we exert on the world: how we design our environments, how we live, the messages we send that reinforce systems that might or might not be beneficial for us.”
Rana Begum’s No. 1225 Chainlink, when viewed from a distance, looks like a pat of warm butter on the surface of the earth. Getting closer to it, its airiness is revealed, expanding on the artist’s interest in the relationship between color and light, especially through the use of meshy fabric. This piece elaborates on the mesh at an architectural scale with chain-link fencing that has been painted a brilliant yellow. A ubiquitous pattern across the Coachella Valley that serves to protect and enforce boundaries, chain-link fences also “carries associations of violence,” representing a physical barrier to access that Begum re-contextualizes into a labyrinthine series of paths that furl visitors into its center in welcoming gesture as opposed to preventing entrance or staking claim.
In another sprawling, monumental installation titled Immersion, artist Gerald Clarke taps into his work as a cowboy, professor, and Cahuilla tribal leader and draws on the patterns of traditional Cahuilla basket weaving and American board games to create a monumental, interactive game board on the valley floor. As an educator, Clarke grasps the powerful potential of games to both obtain and retain knowledge. Instructions propel players through a game of cards that reward participants with new perspectives on the landscape.
Water—or the lack of it—makes up a central tenet of the program’s focus, as desert regions are defined by their delicate relationship with the element and demonstrate delicate ecological balances while providing a barometer for the impact of climate change. Higher temperatures increase incidents of drought and fuel more wildfires, altering fragile ecosystems. Torkwase Dyson’s Liquid A Place, a geometric arch that can be walked through—as under a bridge—or over a set of steps, considers the body as an entity that can flow and cascade around the structure. Perhaps more succinctly, however, it examines the human interaction with the built environment that is thoroughly modern. Tinged with an otherworldly presence, it mirrors the alien influence of humans on the wilderness; an enigmatic, cosmic craft lodged in the ground or a portal to an alternate experience.
“There’s a saying attributed to the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation that a place is a story happening many times,” says Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield. “This idea of place as the multiplicity of stories flowing through it is central to Desert X. Artists are an essential part of this understanding and the ideas they bring to it irrigate our perception of place, nourishing the narratives already there and propagating those that have yet to be told.”
Matt Johnson’s ironically relaxed Sleeping Figure composed of shipping containers reclines within view of the rail artery that connects the Port of Los Angeles to the rest of the United States and nods to the approval of large distribution centers that have been approved for construction in the Coachella Valley. The figure strikes a laissez-faire attitude in the face of ever-increasing global reliance on the supply chain economy, which to the everyday consumer is a seemingly invisible system. Johnson’s container figure embodies an obsession with growth and nonchalant detachment that “speaks to the crumples and breaks of a supply chain economy in distress.”
Along another major artery—the I-10—a series of billboards feature photographs by Tyre Nichols, who grew up in Sacramento, California, before moving to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was brutally assaulted and beaten by five Black Memphis police officers during a traffic stop by on January 7, 2023. He died of his injuries three days later. On January 27, when the Memphis Police Department released body camera videos of the incident, widespread protests began around the country.
Nichols was an aspiring photographer who documented the world around him through a camera lens because he felt an image could express his sense of being in the world better than words. “My vision is to bring my viewers deep into what I am seeing through my eye and out through my lens,” he wrote on his website. “I hope to one day let people see what I see and to hopefully admire my work based on the quality and ideals of my work.” His images of textured surfaces, walkways, rivers, and the Hernando de Soto Bridge speak to his burgeoning interest in capturing the world around him to better understand his place in it. This work “represents not just a vision that was brutally denied the opportunity to develop but the potential of all those individuals whose lives have been lost to the state sanctioned violence of institutional racism,” says a Desert X statement.
At its core, Desert X is about the nature of experience over time in the interwoven, overlapping patchwork of a place that continues to see swift development and change. The exhibition continues through May 7 and is free to visit daily between sunrise and sundown. You can find more on the the program’s website.
Header image: Desert X 2023 installation view, Rana Begum, No. 1225 Chainlink
All photos by Lance Gerber. Images courtesy of the artists and Desert X, shared with permission.