What We're Exploring Now: DesertX | Mar 2019

Just in time for Spring, DesertX lured us to Palm Springs, a city rich in mid-century style, architecture and retro signage - three things we love and tend to seek out. We were thrilled to experience the art and love how this festival helps place special attention on the environment of the Coachella Valley.

On through April 21, 2019, this freshly minted biennial is a brilliant fusion of art and environment, where contemporary artists stage their works against the dramatic landscapes, leaving us in a state of hypnosis.

This year, we explored the highlights of DesertX at magic hour, just before and after the sun set. Here are a few of the compelling installations that stayed on our minds, post-visit.

Can’t make it to Palm Springs? Explore the art via the DesertX app or the DesertX Instagram.

All photos and copy below via desertx.org

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Sterling Ruby’s fluorescent orange monolith, SPECTER, appears as an apparition in the desert. The bright, geometric sculpture creates a jarring optical illusion, resembling a Photoshopped composite or collage, as if something has been removed or erased from the landscape. The block acts as a cipher or stand-in, mimicking the form it could be — a shipping container, a military bunker, an unidentified object, an abandoned home-stead. Fluorescent orange is traditionally used for safety, as a warning. Here that logic is reversed: a ghostly object, set apart from the natural environment, hiding in plain sight.

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Set in two distinctive locations near the extreme poles of the Coachella Valley, the artist’s pieces use augmented reality, producing a singular experience for each viewer due to the ever-changing conditions of the desert. The work at the northern windfarms, Revolutions, alludes to the capturing of energy to remedy a man-made crisis. But in doing so, the net effect is disruptive to the flora and fauna of the region. The artist thinks of the drawings as a call-and-response of sorts. The work at the southern Salton Sea, Margin of Error, presents the toxic outcome of human progress leading to an environmental disaster. This experience will prompt viewers to ruminate on their own body within the scale and setting of the landscape, dwarfed by the implied giant-scale of the digital work.


Set in two locations across the U.S.–Mexico border (Baja, Mexico and the Coachella Valley), Lover’s Rainbow is conceived as an identical set of rainbows made from painted rebar. Exposed rebar usually signals development, but too often in the Mexican landscape we see those dreams thwarted and abandoned. Historically, rainbows have symbolized rain and fertility. Located in desert territory, the act of bending the rebar into the ground is a way to re-insert hope into the land. The mirror rainbows are also meant to throw light into the current immigration policies, prompting viewers to see things from two perspec-tives. Those who cross the border get the full experience. After all, going in search of the rainbow should highlight its symbolic power to re-establish hope, love, and inclusive-ness when we need it most.

Western Flag depicts the site of the 'Lucas Gusher' - the world's first major oil find - in Spindletop, Texas in 1901, now barren and exhausted. The site is recreated as a digital simulation the center of which is marked by a flagpole spewing and endless stream of black smoke. The computer generated Spindletop runs in exact parallel with the real site in Texas throughout the year: the sun rising at the appropriate times and the days getting longer and shorter according to the seasons. The simulation is non-durational (having no beginning or end) and is run live by software that is calculating each frame of the animation in real-time as it is needed. Situated at the very gateway to the Coachella Valley and the city of Palm Springs Western flag acts a stark reminder not just of the willful exploitation and depletion of resources that millions of years ago covered this former sea floor with an abundance of life, but of the energy taken to return the deserted land to its current state of artificial habitation. The invisible gas responsible for climate change is here made visible. Flying the flag of our own self-destruction we are asked to consider our role in the warming of the planet and simultaneous desertification of once fertile lands.


Going Nowhere Pavilion #01 is a Möbius strip made from concrete breeze blocks in a variety of fleshy pinks and browns. Technically, the Möbius strip is a surface with one continuous side formed by joining the ends of a rectangular strip, but it has a direct relationship to methods of psychology. Famed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s own attempts to use topology – the study of geometric properties – as a vehicle to describe the human mind is a subject artist Julian Hoeber has explored for years. As with the Möbius strip form, what is inside and outside the self can quickly become indiscernible.


Executed Variant DHS #1 (Q1, CJ, DC), the painting sited in a pool connected to the property, is a loose variant on a series of works Hoeber titled the Execution Changes. It is connected to its neighboring Möbius strip by proximity, but also by color. The painting, like the pavilion, is an image of the mind in its own way: the painting is a study of phenomenological consciousness. Both the sculpture and the painting attempt to parse out how forms can represent the logical, irrational, historical and corporeal experiences of human consciousness.


Using the site of a defunct gas station at the edge of the Salton Sea, artist Eric Mack employs his distinctive language of material as gesture to create a living architecture. Silks and tulles have been stretched with rope tensioned to form a line in space, or to reframe the building’s relationship to itself and its surroundings. The iconic Southern California car garage, draped and reanimated as a site-specific sculpture, brings something singular to an already-striking natural location. Halter offers its visitors a respite or site for gentle reflection that can be explored by moving between and among the folds of undulating, colorful, and lush fabrics. It is at once evocative of an unfastened garment, vacant tent, or open umbrella, all fluid and shifting references that the artist has assembled as a physical embodiment of real and imagined desert wanderers. 

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Wormhole occupies empty storefronts in the Coachella Valley cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Indian Wells, Indio, and Coachella as well as one in the city of Tijuana, Mexico. Beyond the glass, a television monitor displays the exterior of one of the storefronts in the grouping. The viewer encounters the wormhole, a shortcut through space and time, creating a kind of physical, temporal, and subjective crossing between spaces. Wormhole “transports” viewers to another location, addressing the close proximity of the Coachella Valley and Tijuana, the fragility of the frontiers, and the boundaries between the cities and countries.


Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark is a sculptural installation that serves as both a literal and metaphorical platform for music and performance. Simmons is best known for his “erasure” drawings, partially erased chalk drawings on chalkboard walls — works that evoke a sense of loss and convey the persistent power of memory, foremost around the erasure of black voices and bodies.  In Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark, a similar ghostly residue remains in the space through looped video documentation of the musicians’ performances. Inspired by the Black Ark, Lee “Scratch” Perry’s famed Jamaican studio and the site of the birth of dub, Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark includes a series of speakers hand-built from vintage parts and wood scavenged from the Treme neighborhood of post-Katrina New Orleans. Each performer can reconfigure the speakers according to their needs.


It was the unexpected discovery of an abundance of fossilized marine life more than 100 miles inland from the Pacific shore that led the early Spanish settlers to name this valley Conchilla, which means “little shell.” Because of a mis-spelling the region became known as the Coachella Valley, thereby stripping it of the reminder that 6 million years ago, what is now desert had been underwater and connected to the so-called Western Interior Seaway.

For the Danish collective Superflex, geological history and the not-so-distant future meet in the recognition that with global warming, rising water levels will again submerge the land- scape along with all the structure and infrastructure that made it habitable for humans. Rethinking architecture from the point of view of future submersion, their mission has been to create land-based forms equally attractive to human and marine life.

Using the preferred color palettes of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, Palm Springs, and marine corals, Dive-In merges the recognition that global warming will drastically reshape the habitat of our planet with another more recent extinction: the out- door movie theater. Here the interests of desert dwellers and sea life come together in the coral-like walls and weekly screenings of a structure born of a deep past and shallow future.

Mary Elise Chavez