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21 Feb 2019

The Return of 'Desert X': The Second Edition of the Coachella Valley's Biennial Features an Amazing Array of Site-Specific Installations

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A photo of people visiting Iván Argote's "A Point of View." A photo of people visiting Iván Argote's "A Point of View."

The second Desert X biennial exhibition, on display through April 21, consists of 19 site-specific works of art, created by an international group of acclaimed artists, spanning the Coachella Valley—including eight of the nine valley cities.

The sites, all open to the public for free, stretch from the windmills of North Palm Springs down to the Salton Sea—but the impact is being felt worldwide.

Desert X is the fulfillment of a dream by founder and president Susan L Davis, a public-relations professional and founding member of the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities. The idea was to create a conversation between cities, art organizations, local residents and visitors. The inaugural event in 2017 was acclaimed by the international art community, with more than 200,000 visitors. Excitement has been building over the last two years for the second edition.

I had the privilege to participate in this excitement at the two-day press briefing and tour, held before the opening to the general public. Neville Wakefield, Desert X’s artistic director, explained how artists and curators collaborated with the desert environment, while co-curator Matthew Schum said one of his inspirations was a desire to make Palm Springs more contemporary. However, the most prophetic statement came from co-curator Amanda Hunt: “The purpose of Desert X 2019 is to make the invisible visible.” This, she said, was possible through the exploration of the dynamics of things like the wind, psychology and energy. This statement resonated with me at each of the installations.

At the Salton Sea’s “A Point of View,” viewing platforms were constructed in a combination of pre-Colombian and brutalist architecture by Colombian-born, Paris-based artist Iván Argote, allowing visitors an elevated view of the landscape and an opportunity to communicate with each other. Messages in both Spanish and English are pressed into the concrete steps and change in meaning depending on whether they are read top to bottom or vice-versa.

The most enigmatic and environmentally friendly installation comes from Los Angeles-based Nancy Baker Cahill. The installation is actually in two locations which serve as gateways to the biennial: “Revolutions” is located near the windmills to the north, with “Margin of Error” at the Salton Sea to the south. They speak to the capturing of energy and the toxic results of human intervention in the natural order, respectively. These pieces are invisible to the naked eye and can only be viewed through a cell phone app called 4th Wall. (“Revolutions” had to be moved due to the Valentine’s Day flooding; watch the Desert X site and 4th Wall app for updates.)

Another installation with two locations is “Lover’s Rainbow” by Mexico City artist Pia Camil. Brightly painted rebar is used to construct identical arches—one in Rancho Mirage and the other across the invisible international border in Mexico. The only way to get the full experience of her work is to cross that border and view it from two perspectives.

My personal favorite comes from local artist Armando Lerma. “Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds 2019” is a mural painted on a water tower near an east valley landfill. The work is monumental in scale and utilizes iconography of the American Southwest to create a sacred site in a location usually thought of as utilitarian.

I met with Coachella native Lerma at his studio/gallery to discuss this work, his evolution as an artist, and his views of what Desert X means to the oft-neglected east end of our valley.

Lerma, born in 1975, grew up on a local ranch. His interest in art began early in childhood, as he spent hours going through the family's encyclopedia, looking at art to escape from the boredom. Running served the same purpose and fostered a deep appreciation of nature in general, and the desert in particular.

“I felt like an orphan culturally,” he said. “There were no artists (within) 10 years older than me. I had to begin my own journey to find out what art is.”

Lerma studied art in college and taught middle-school art for two years. He left the valley for a number of years but returned and started after-school art classes for local children at a church in Coachella. This led to the first art shows held in the city. With a group of friends, he created the first organized “Day of the Dead” celebrations there as well.

In 2012, Lerma purchased an abandoned building on Grapefruit Boulevard and began transforming it into his studio and events center. He’s currently working on his “Coachella Walls” project. It encourages and creates murals in his beloved hometown; one of these murals was featured in the first Desert X.

I asked him how he become involved in Desert X.

“Susan Davis was working at Sunnylands,” he said. “I went there to do a presentation of ‘Coachella Walls.’ Several months later, she contacted me and invited me to participate in her new project, Desert X. The whole purpose of ‘Coachella Walls’ was to bring people to a town they might never visit. It was a slow start. Desert X came around, and I started seeing a diverse group of people showing up. There was a new cultural exchange happening.”

I asked him about the process of creating his new work for Desert X 2019.

“The idea was already brewing,” he said. “I approached the city last year about painting a water tank. My original proposal was rejected, because the tank I selected was scheduled to be refurbished. The city offered me a different site. At first, I was hesitant. I didn’t like the location. The road leading to it was in bad shape, and it was next to the landfill. The city agreed to regrade the road.

“I began to change my mind. The new location was away from the city. There would be less pressure from people living near it about what I was doing. I could be more creative. It was elevated, and you could see the whole desert, the raw desert, from it.”

I noticed a small collection of bottles and small rocks at the base of the water tank.

“It is a shrine,” he said. “Those are objects I found while working on the mural. I've always had an interest in building altars. I was hoping that visitors would add their own pieces to it.”

There are many other compelling, thought-provoking, timely and perhaps controversial works of art to be experienced in this new incarnation of Desert X. It is impossible to see all of them in one day; even a two-day tour was far too rushed. I’ll be going back to revisit many of them.

Desert X 2019 is on display through Sunday, April 21. For more information visit desertx.org.

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