In 2012, my partner and I took a three-month road trip around the States, starting on the west coast and finishing up on the east. That was this Indian-born Brit's first extended experience of the majesty and vastness of the great American landscape. For much of the journey, my observation of the panoramas that we drove through turned into a quiet mourning. My mind insistently juxtaposed upon the surrounding country towering words to the effect of Nicholas Galanin's unforgettable "Never Forget" installation, which reads in 45-foot high letters:
When I first saw photos of this work on social media, I was immediately transported back to that experience; to that spontaneously arising, visceral response to this land, this country and its creation story as the United States of America.
Visiting the installation in person proved to be equally poignant and emotional. When you walk up to it and look at it head on, with its enormous letters in the Hollywood sign typeface, Galanin's clear and unapologetic pointing towards the roots of this country's colonial genocide and racism reveal the rawness of a wound that has yet to heal.
When looked at head-on, the words appear as enormous and undeniable as the mountains that frame it.
Despite the palpable grief that this installation evoked in me, as a "foreigner" I have some sort of mild cushioning against the true impact of these words and this history. I looked around me at the white Americans who had come to visit the site: What was going on for them? Were they prepared to look at this head-on, without flinching and denial? Were they prepared to put their phones down, stop taking photos for their social media and begin to lean into this wounding that is also theirs?
A couple of young, pretty blondes skipped past me, tripod in tow, and set up for a mini photo shoot with INDIAN LAND as backdrop: the ubiquitous trauma response of numbing.
The write-up in the Desert X brochure for this installation resonated deeply; specifically Galanin's intention that: "The work is a call to action and a reminder that land acknowledgments become only performative when they do not explicitly support the land back movement."
As I flipped through the rest of the brochure, nestled among considerable advertising, including luxury golf resorts on this Indian land, Gucci and Desert X's 2021 sponsor, a luxury Swiss watchmaking brand, there was a page entitled "Land Acknowledgment," with a short paragraph acknowledging "the Cahuilla People as the original stewards of the land on which Desert X takes place."
This gave rise to inevitable questions — such as: How is Desert X, whose brand and commercial currency has been considerably elevated by the "Never Forget" installation, explicitly supporting the land back movement? Is it enough that the biennial provides Galanin a larger platform to make these issues more prevalent in mainstream conversation? The artist is organizing a fundraiser in support of the movement, and perhaps artwork and exposure like this provides a larger platform for those efforts.
Truly, Galanin's sculpture evokes a lot of uncomfortable and urgent considerations. The notion of life imitating art in this instance, within the context of a brand-bolstering corporate appropriation of a popular social justice movement, is just one of many.