In the Vast Beauty of the Coachella Valley, Desert X Artists Emphasize the Perils of Climate Change
Visiting Desert X 2019, the enormous art biennial spread over 55 miles of southern California’s Coachella Valley, is a real undertaking. To see all the works by the 18 artists included in the show, scattered across the desert sands, you’ll almost certainly need more than a day. But the rewards for the intrepid art traveler who undertakes the challenge are considerable.
Artistic director Neville Wakefield and curators Matthew Schum and Amanda Hunt have organized the exhibition with a thoughtful eye toward the history of the desert. There are works that tap into the rich culture of the region’s indigenous people; art that acknowledges the desert as a site of nuclear testing; an homage to California’s famed mid-century Modern architecture; and even a piece that builds on the tradition of 20th century Land art.
There’s also the ever-present palm tree, recreated in clear materials for Kathleen Ryan’s eerily beautiful, chandelier-like Ghost Palm. The plastic pieces of this kinetic work—which Hunt describes as “a sound piece in ways we didn’t anticipate”—act as wind chimes in the breeze. Meanwhile, that California icon, the gas station, has been transformed by Eric N. Mack into a billowing canopy of 2,300 feet of multicolored fabric (donated by Italian fashion house Missoni) to surprisingly painterly effect.
It’s all set against a dramatic vista, craggy mountains, some capped in snow, all rising beyond the flat sands dotted with scrubby greens and the occasional burst of wild flowers. The verdant green lawns outside Sunnylands—home to Iman Issa’s elegant sculpture of an oil refining facility (which was once a film prop)—are an exception. Her work seems to condemn both the fossil fuel industry and the unnecessary use of water to transform the desert into an unnaturally greener landscape.
The Planet in Crisis
The looming specter of climate change is a recurring theme in the exhibition (which is sponsored, in part, by the electric car company Evelozcity) and the works here regularly criticize human mistreatment of the planet. The curatorial team’s decision to spotlight these issues was wise, and the extreme desert environment reflects the fragility of planet earth as a whole.
One standout piece is John Gerrard’s Western Flag, a massive video screen that superimposes a digital landscape against the actual one, with a flagpole spewing noxious-looking black smoke representing carbon monoxide. The land surrounding the flag is a digital recreation of Spindletop, Texas, where the discovery of oil in 1901 triggered the Texas oil boom.
“Carbon monoxide is invisible, so it’s about giving it an image,”Gerrard said at the Desert X preview, noting that the animation is based on a computer simulation of gas under pressure, and that gas released from a pole normally would fly straight up, rather than stream outward like a banner. The piece isn’t supposed to represent the American flag, he explained, but a “flag for all society” in recognition of “the transnational risks of climate change.”
For Superflex, climate change is more than a risk. There’s a reason that Dive-In—a massive, bubblegum pink architectural structure—resembles the colorful castles that decorate fish tanks, or porous pieces of coral. In introducing the piece, the Danish art collective (made up of Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen, and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen) explained that it was designed to attract the fish that will some day be swimming in the Coachella Valley, itself once the site of an ancient sea. (Coachella is actually a misspelling of conchilla, a Spanish term for the sea shells still to be found in the long-dry area.)
“Sea levels are rising and human habitats will be taken over by marine habitats,” the artists told the crowd before projecting a video of a copy of the sculpture, submerged in the seas of the Caribbean.