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Desert X 2021

Paris Cotz
June 2, 2021
Nicolas Galanin’s Never Forget. Photography by Paris Cotz

Desert X, a visual art biennial held in the vast desert lands of the Mojave outside Los Angeles, offers up some of the most appropriate conditions to view art in the moment we’re living in. Spread out across highways 10 and 111, the exhibition, sponsored by a California non-profit and charitable organization, The Desert Biennial, aims to “create and present international contemporary art exhibitions that engage with desert environments through site-specific installations by acclaimed artists from around the world.”

With installations spread across miles of the desert landscape, strategic selection is key. First stop, Serge Attukwei Clottey’s The Wishing Well, near the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Center. In the Ghanaian artist’s large sculptural installation, Kufour gallons, cut up into squares and stitched together with metal, are shaped into large blocks. Here in the Coachella Valley, with the snow-capped San Bernardino mountains looming behind them, these blocks, repurposed relics of empire, speak to the dire international crisis that we will all face—and soon—if such desert oases continue to consume water so conspicuously.

Serge Attukwei Clottey’s The Wishing Well

Alongside Highway 111, a twenty minute walk from The Wishing Well, stands Nicolas Galanin’s Never Forget,. 45-foot tall letters spell out  ‘INDIAN LAND’ alluding to the Hollywood (originally HOLLYWOODLAND) Sign, erected in the 1920s as an advertisement for a whites-only property development. In this striking piece, Galanin urges us to never forget the history of American settler colonialism as it relates to such sites. Thus, he says, the most important part of his work for Desert X is the land the sign itself sits on and the lost history it represents.

Finally, I stopped by Vivian Suter’s installation on Palm Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs. Set behind the floor-to-ceiling glass of a typical mid-century modernist building, unframed canvases hang like tapestries. Unable to make it out to the desert due to travel restrictions, the Argentine-born artist Suter relied on photographic documentation to gain a sense of what feelings the desert inspires. Without ever visiting, Suter manages to capture the sense of endlessness and awe, with a touch of the true sublime, that we feel when looking out into the dusty expanse. Beyond the size of the work, it’s the abstraction and relative figurative emptiness of these large canvases, blended with bold and strong colors like black and neon green, as well as warm pastels, that conjures the shock and meditative effects of standing in this landscape.

Due to distance and a shortage of time I missed many sites that appealed to me, especially Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead, which recreates one of the typical cabins built through the 1938 Small Tract Act. The outdoor viewing experience, which is standard practice for Desert X, meant this year’s iteration went off without a hitch, unlike so many which are bound to a particular venue. California has long been driven by car culture, something that can detract from the viewing experience, unless you are intentionally going out to enjoy nature. Desert X offers a thought-provoking way to enjoy art in nature.

March 12 – May 16 (a few installations remain on view)
Coachella Valley, California

Paris Cotz is the Arts & Culture editor at Dispatches Magazine. She works with the Associate Vice Chancellor of Arts + Design at UC Berkeley and lives in Berkeley, California.