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Desert X: Land Art at the Edge of the City

At one point in the bright, mantric hour-long performance ritual which christened Lita Albuquerque’s current sculptural installation hEARTH at the Sunnylands Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage, a throaty clarion chant rang out across the great lawn, staccato: Got to, got to, got to, got to listen to the silence. Why did you come here? Why do you listen? What does it say to you? In many ways, these are the foundational questions and the essential directive of the entire Desert X affair.

Albuquerque’s piece is about listening. The one-time movement and sound performance in the past, what remains is a semi-permanent single female form in the artist’s signature luminous blue lies on a bed of white sand, her ear pressed to the ground as if to hear the sounds of the earth itself. Installed in a quiet copse on the perimeter of the estate’s public gardens, the sculpture is accompanied by an intermittent audio element; we hear what she hears. Like all the works in Desert X, the context of its site and the impact of lengths of time spent in its presence are arguably more central to the work’s meaning than even its visual and material qualities. In this case, it is a dynamic of power, access, and the active blurring of public and private spaces on the planet — what Albuquerque described as enacting “Earth power at a site of geopolitical power.” And like many more of the 16 works than the Land Art moniker suggests, hEARTH exists not in the remote landscape, but in the quasi-urban heart of a small desert city.

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hEARTH by Lita Albuquerque | Osceola Refetoff

In fact, about half of Desert X happens “in town” or on its adjacent fringes, as opposed to the mythical and rather apocryphal “open” or “empty” desert per se. Gabriel Kuri’s witty and nasty installation Donation Box, for example, fills an empty strip-mall storefront with a cascade of sand dunes peppered with cigarette butts. It’s a wry comment on carelessness and pollution and a brilliant pun on the egoism of Land Art itself, which actually benefits both visually and conceptually from its forced last-minute relocation to a quasi-abandoned indoor commercial space when its planned outdoor site nearby was overtaken by mating deer of some kind and the artist was evicted. NB: that kind of unpredictable assertion of nature’s will into the best laid human plans is an authentic constant of desert living, with which anyone who has spent any real time out there is quite familiar.

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Jennifer Bolande’s surprisingly affecting and effective trio of billboards Visible Distance present variations on the view (one for sun, one for clouds, one for dusk) from a main access road and are meant to be seen while in motion. At a certain point they click with the mountains behind them and the illusion is nearly perfect (or one will be, which best matches that day’s weather). The recurring aha moments deserve repeated viewing so get ready to cruise the Gene Autry Trail strip. They both interrupt and highlight the surrounding vistas, commenting on the unfortunate ubiquity of advertising billboards and giving the area some of its pristine appearance back by another means.

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Donation Box by Gabriel Kuri | Osceola Refetoff
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Visible Difference by Jennifer Bolande | Lance Gerber

Other works occupy smaller open spaces within city limits in other ways. Doug Aitken’s spectacular Mirage, the already infamous and Instagram-breaking mirrored house, is built on a still unpopulated hillside in the early stages of being transformed into the swankiest luxury development imaginable. It’s gated, and you can only get in if you are there for the Aitken or a meeting with a real estate agent. On its perch facing across the valley to the north and east, the site’s commanding view is its own reward — but the simultaneous interruption and activation of that view is the accomplishment of the work. Again, it is best viewed either by being there all day or revisiting it at different times of day, because the shifting qualities of light interact with the structure to, by turns, render it invisible, flat, magical, kaleidoscopic, strange, and surreally chromatic. Yet the content of the imagery is the surrounding landscape, which is already all those things itself.

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Mirage by Doug Aitken | Osceola Refetoff
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The Circle of Land and Sky by Phillip K Smith III | Osceola Refetoff

Phillip K. Smith III’s The Circle of Land and Sky is installed in a wide open field of sand and brush, but directly opposite a huge walled property, so it feels both urban and remote at the same time. Its mirrored pillar posts operate similarly, through the properties of reflection, but this time from a point of view of flat ground, with the mountains and truncated horizons surrounding you on all sides. In paying attention to the optical effects of changing light, again, throughout the day and evening, you are both anchored to and transported beyond the place where you stand.

Richard Prince’s extraordinarily narrative, sentimental, and analog installation transformed a sketchy, dilapidated property on the outskirts of Desert Hot Springs into a site that both laments and contributes to the unexpected dereliction of much of the region. A trashed residence to which the artist added both beauty and litter creates a poignant and difficult aberration from the shiny spa-city archetype, thereby revealing the reality of the region’s poorer, crime-plagued, neglected areas, which are just as real as the fancier identities of other parts of the area. By this time, viewers are suspecting that their sense of place will need readjustment, and that the life and lands of the Coachella Valley are far from the monolithic, being, in fact, quite fractured.

Visiting former member of the Date Farmers, Armando Lerma’s new mural in the small, dusty but historic town of Coachella — at the far eastern end of the Valley — is the only reason you will ever go there. But having arrived, you discover a small but salient downtown activated by a proliferation of large-scale world-class murals all over the historic core (4 square blocks) of the very real, yet often overlooked, namesake township of the region.

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​Third Place by Richard Prince | Osceola Refetoff
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​Forthcoming by Armando Lerma | Osceola Refetoff

The idea that so much of the work would actually occupy developed space was not necessarily the plan going into Desert X. “The artists when they got here, they drove around and got inspired,” says Executive Director Elizabeta Betinski. “[Curator] Neville [Wakefield] was all about allowing that to happen, and developing whatever they gravitated toward. It made the process uncertain but ultimately much more rewarding.” Betinski’s insistence that Desert X was about “activation not decoration” of all the various kinds of terrains and towns the region had to offer is echoed in Wakefield’s presentation of its gestalt of self-narrated journey, a journey of discovery to be sure, but not like a scavenger hunt. Wakefield urges viewers to slow down, take time and attention to discover what’s in between the works of art, on the way to them, and to find their own passage, at their own pace. In a very real sense, the deep content of Desert X is not even the impressive array of site-responsive sculptural installations, but the durational experience of crisscrossing the world the artworks inhabit. The art is a busy person’s much-needed excuse, occasion, and anchor for an enterprise of duration, discovery, and slow-moving presence. “I learned this after a trip to Walter de Maria’s Lightning Fields,” says Wakefield. I expected this Michelangelo-like epiphany of God creating the world but there was no such drama. Instead, there was a lot of watching the sky and walking the roughly square mile of the work and not knowing when to stop, when to turn back, when to just notice the microecologies that you pass on the way.” All of this takes time, and Desert X viewers do themselves a great service by leaving themselves enough of it.

One of the most successful in-nature works is One I Call by Sherin Guirguis. Building on her career-long interest in architecture, shelter, veiling, and transience, Guirguis learned and employed a special technique of nomadic engineering, in which the earth (don’t call it dirt!) of a given site is first wrangled into a kind of mesh-reinforced adobe brick, and erected with the understanding that rain and wind will eventually break it down and return the earth to its ground. Hers is sited inside the gorgeous Whitewater Nature Preserve, and in its welcoming, North African form is a functional work of socially engaged sculpture that is both the form and the archetype of human shelter, yet exists in an empathetic intimacy with its environment that in many ways is the opposite of Modernism’s pristine, boxy monumentality. In embracing, rather than resisting, the imposing powers of nature, Guirguis offers a new model for existing in and engaging with these lands, as well as the temporary duration of Desert X itself.

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​One I Call by Sherin Guiruis | Osceola Refetoff

An accomplished fine artist with public-art experience, Guirguis is an example of an artist who, as Betinski says, “might not typically be tapped for this kind of project,” and there are others like Guirguis in the roster, as well. “What has always been important to me is rising up to meet challenges that seem impossible, that can’t be done, or that are outside the market system. We were after a breakthrough on a collective level, something no one could ever do alone — and that’s where the importance of our team has been paramount. Mara McKevitt and a small but fierce crew of dauntless women worked tirelessly alongside Neville to wrangle this into a reality. I thought it was going to be this crazy Wild West guerrilla-style, romantic thing in this vast space — but what I learned is that every inch of all this land is owned or governed by someone or some entity. It was not like the old glory days of rogue Land Art.” Wakefield, for his part, concurs. “People are drawn there on the dream of total freedom, but it’s the most territorial place, all about borders and boundaries. But of course, artists have always been interested in boundaries, mark-making,” and navigating the interstitial places between, say, nature and industry, or myth and reality in battle lines, keeping the forces of nature at bay — the same elements you first longed to be one with when you set out.

“I’m from Europe, of course,” says Wakefield (a Brit), “and I know what it is to consume the Wild West mythologies from afar, and that is definitely represented in the artists.” Many are locals to Coachella Valley, many from the greater Southern California area, and some are from faraway elsewheres. “Living there does nothing to inure artists to the power of the region’s mythology. If anything the artists living there are more invested in it. Maybe they lose the romanticism, but they never lose the obsession.” In an expansion of the core of 16 commissioned Desert X projects, a series of “parallel programs” tap into the community of artists and institutions that have long been operating in the region. For example, Andrea Zittel and High Desert Test Sites, or the more centrally operational Epicenter Projects — a residency program operated by artist and Indio native Cristopher Cichocki, which in its support of temporary land-based art projects perpetrated along the nearby San Andreas Fault, in so many ways provided the guideposts for how this sort of thing can be possible and sustainable, and scaled up, conceptually and practically. Cichocki curated one such group exhibition, the vibrant and unflinching Desert Island, at Coachella Valley Art Center in the city of Indio, on view through April 20, and featuring the work of some 24 artists in photography, painting, sculpture, installation, performance, and video, all with their own abiding interests in the region, not all of whom live there, but all of whom do their best, most explosive and salient work in the desert lands. Similarly, view Desert Waters, at College of the Desert Marks Art Center in Palm Desert through April 13, curated by photographer Sant Khalsa and featuring 12 photographers and paired with a sprawling survey of her own very many water-based projects.

The timing and scope of Desert X’s next iteration is still in formulation, but you have until April 30 to experience this one — bring sunscreen, sturdy shoes, and if you can, give yourself a few days at least so you don’t have to rush around. Remember, the real story is the story of the road and the walk, the looking and the being there — and not just the hunt.

Desert X runs through April 30, 2017

Maps etc. are available online and at the Ace Hotel in Palm Desert.

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