Strange landmarks pop up in the arid landscape of Southern California’s Coachella Valley every other spring, and we’re not going to joke them about flower crowns. Imagine something that looks more like a bright red structure or a house made of mirrors. They’re all part of Desert X, an event that began in 2017 as a series of art installations around Palm Springs, each designed to thoughtfully interact with the location in the desert. The artist Jennifer Bolande, for example, created a series of billboards depicting the mountains behind them. The image and the mountains themselves would align perfectly at one point as the audience drove by. Desert X is a biennial event, and little knew the organizers that the year of its third iteration, 2021, would be the most perfect year for outdoor art exhibitions. This spring’s projects cover a range of topics including migration, desert life and indigenous rights. Those lucky enough to live nearby can tour the exhibits for free until May 16. However, for social exhibits, tickets for certain exhibits must be reserved every Thursday through Sunday. For everyone else, here are some highlights of what is currently the most artsy ride in the US.
“ParaPivot (Sempiternal Clouds)” by Alicja Kwade
(Photo: Lance Gerber, courtesy Alicja Kwade and Desert X)
The work of Polish artist Alicja Kwade stands on a hill where a winding path leads to a sculpture made of several square metal frames that support white marble chunks (which are supposed to create pieces of glacier). The way to the exhibition is intentionally part of the visual experience: the sculpture seems to move and almost wobble with every turn. The overall effect is a comment on a principle of physics that says that observing something can change it – each person looking at the piece experiences an entirely different sculpture. In her work, Kwade often plays with illusions of movement and questions of reality. Feel free to think about the physics away while admiring the surrounding grassy hills.
“What Lies Behind the Walls” by Zahrah Alghamdi
(Photo: Lance Gerber, courtesy Zahrah Alghamdi and Desert X)
Zahrah Alghamdi’s work goes naturally with an outdoor art exhibition: she usually uses organic materials like clay, stone, leather, and water to explore her interests in memory, landscape, and architecture. For Desert X, she constructed a massive, squishy-looking wall made of stacked squares, each filled with different cements, floors, and dyes. There’s the obvious comment on building walls (and why it’s bad), but the bigger idea that Alghamdi addresses here and in most of her work is embodied memory. The story is in the wall itself; Each layer contains natural substances that actually exist in the environment. A native of Saudi Arabia, Alghamdi makes comparisons between the desert landscapes of her home and those of Palm Springs, saying that the layered composition of the wall depicts deserts around the world that are changing due to development.
“Never Forget” by Nicholas Galanin
(Photo: Lance Gerber, courtesy Nicholas Galanin and Desert X)
The original Hollywood sign actually read “Hollywoodland” and was a white-only property advertisement for apartments. Tlingit and Unangaxit artist Nicholas Galanin, from Sitka, Alaska, pokes into the mythology of the land that surrounds his piece with a sign in the same block style as INDIAN LAND. (Specifically, all of the Desert X sites are in the ancestral lands of the Cahuilla.) It’s no coincidence that the piece is Instagram friendly. Galanin hopes it will attract attention on social media and encourages people to learn more about the LandBack movement, which aims to bring Native American land back into Native American ownership. “This work tries to invite everyone to understand and participate in these stories,” he says. He also invites donations to a fund that helps indigenous communities acquire legal titles for their home countries.
“The Passenger” by Eduardo Sarabia
(Photo: Lance Gerber, courtesy Eduardo Sarabia and Desert X)
From above, this triangular maze looks sharp and smooth; On the floor, it surrounds visitors wandering in it with walls made of woven palm fiber carpets called petates. Sarabia is from Los Angeles and works in Guadalajara, Mexico. His work focuses on the lives of migrants and the identity of two home countries. He chose petate because it is often used in travel items. He sees The Passenger experience as a representation of travel, especially for immigrants. Visitors eventually find their way to the open center of the triangle and when they do, Sarabia says, “I hope they are ready to reflect on their situation and have a little perspective on someone else’s situation. You imagine all the possibilities before you see the light at the end of the tunnel. “
Main Photo: Lance Gerber, courtesy of Zahrah Alghamdi and Desert X.