The likes of Doug Aitken have decamped to the outskirts of Palm Springs to exhibit large-scale works that challenge the history of the western expansion and appear along the route to a certain music festival
Speeding down the Gene Autry Trail, a Palm Springs desert road named after the singing cowboy, there are mountains to the north and south, and billboards on each side. Somewhere between the ads for milkshakes and legal counsel, there are large-scale images of mountains, and from three exacting positions on the road, they suddenly snap into place; for a few brief moments, they perfectly align with the jagged scenery. And just as quickly, theyre behind you. Perhaps you had imagined it, or perhaps you didnt notice them at all.
This fleeting mirage is LA-based artist Jennifer Bolandes new work, Visible Distance/Second Sight, a site-specific homage to the landscape. She and 15 other artists have come to Palm Springs and the surrounding area as part of Desert X, a new exhibition of large-scale installations that stretches across 45 miles until 30 April. (Not coincidentally, theyre sited along the path leading from Los Angeles to behemoth music festival Coachella, which also takes place in April).
I live in New York, so I was interested in this sort of manifest destiny of the migration west, English-born artistic director Neville Wakefield explains, citing a 19th-century idea that divine sanction validated the United States merciless, violent westward expansion, regardless of who was already living there.
Yeah, no, it was awful, Wakefield concedes. But in terms of New York having evolved or devolved into a marketplace, I was a little bit disillusioned at having watched wealth evacuate art from the city center. It was interesting to do a show that recognized whats happening on this coast.
He invited the artists to search for their own sites in the desert, offering little in the way of curatorial direction in order to allow the place itself to become the curator. In the rich tradition of 1970s land art, it would be the myriad conditions unique to the desert the pristine daylight, the untouched expanses of land, the brutal climate that shaped the work.
After a bit of research, trial and error, Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan found himself an unused, 100,000 sq ft plot of land to use down a little dirt road in Rancho Mirage, a desert town where the population hovers around 18,000. He has carved an alternative landscape into the sand: 4ft deep craters and trenches in vaguely celestial shapes, lined with bars of cool yellow neon. From above, the lights spell out the simple proclamation, I Am, amid exploding shards of light, although youd only see that online via images captured by drones. Standing inside this work during an inky black desert night is like standing on a glowing planet.
With a set of wheels and a decent 4G connection, anyone can come visit these sites, which have been conveniently plotted as Dropped Pins on Google Maps courtesy of the Desert X website. The best work engages the viewer with a dialogue with the land, including Sherin Guirguiss One I Call, a clay bird refuge with glittery bits of gold in the open roof, nestled in the shadow of a steep cliff in the serene Whitewater Preserve. Theres also Lita Albuqerques hEARTH, a cobalt sculpture of a woman lying inside a circle of white sand, ear pressed to the earth as a low, looped reverberating chorus rhythmically repeats the question, Why did you come here?, which turns out to be an excellent question in the context of this show.