Eduardo Sarabia, The Passenger, 2021. Photo: Timothy S. Allen

Desert X 2021

Coachella Valley, California

Desert X 2021, on view through May 16, 2021, is the third edition of a biennial site-specific sculpture exhibition “explore[ing] the desert as both a place and idea.” The arid Coachella Valley in Riverside County, southern California, includes the winter resort city of Palm Springs and several other, smaller communities. The works are all installed outdoors, and most are open free of charge from sunrise to sunset; only a few installations require reservations or have specific opening times. There is something for almost everyone, including hikes into the desert and through a maze, stops at gardens and parks, as well as visits to a downtown storefront and a community center. 

Many of this year’s artists—selected by artistic director Neville Wakefield and co-curator Cesar Garcia-Alvarez, founder of the alternative space The Mistake Room in Los Angeles—raise current social and political concerns in their works, from the Covid-19 pandemic to Black Lives Matter and issues around racism, migration, gender, and the environment. History and culture are also examined in works bridging geographies and offering new perspectives on problems faced around the world. Though many of the selected artists are recognized internationally, with well-established reputations on the biennial circuit, the diversity of Wakefield and Garcia-Alvarez’s selections is outstanding. (It was disappointing to discover that Judy Chicago, who had planned to create a version of her colored smoke performance installations, decided not to participate in Desert X 2021; her work was canceled amid concerns about its potential impact on animals near her site at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.) 

What Lies Behind the Walls, by Zahrah Alghamdi (Saudi Arabia) makes the entire show worthwhile. Her large monolithic work instantly recalls Donald Trump’s Mexican border wall, as well as traditional architecture and geological forms. Rising perhaps 20 feet or more into the desert sky, it perfectly suits its remote site surrounded by distant mountains. This is a process- and materials-oriented work; Alghamdi uses earth colors (shades of tan, gray, and umber), natural textures (sandy and grainy), and a layered construction method based on sedimented rock cliffs that also evokes quilt batting or unevenly folded carpets. The sculpture is about a foot thick, with an irregular, softened shape. One can walk around it freely to examine its surface and construction up close. What Lies Behind the Walls is imposing but not overwhelming, and it provides a contemplative place to think about shared environmental and cultural experiences. 

Zahrah Alghamdi, What Lies Behind the Walls, 2021. Photo: Timothy S. Allen

The Passenger, a large-scale maze sculpture by Eduardo Sarabia (born in Los Angeles and now living and working in Guadalajara, Mexico), is constructed of rustic wooden poles, with walls covered by traditional petates—woven palm leaf rugs used as sleeping mats in Central America since the days of the Aztecs. The yellow-brown color of Sarabia’s structure blends into the colorations of the desert, while the geometric, arrowhead-like form contrasts with the undulating landscape. Visitors can walk inside and step onto plywood platforms to gaze out over the surrounding desert. This work recalls journeys made by migrants in many times and places and the exchanges between cultures. 

Ghada Amer’s Women’s Qualities spells out the words “loving,” “nurturing,” “resilient,” “strong,” “caring,” “determined,” and “beautiful” in metal planters containing living plants. Her version of land art elevates planter gardening, traditionally a type of women’s work, to high art. Ordinarily, the Egyptian/French artist (now living in New York) asks local people to tell her what they see as feminine qualities; she then compiles and edits the responses, sometimes adding her own. Here, the words seem stereotypical, almost tongue-in-cheek descriptions of feminine characteristics. With Covid-19 restrictions in place, Amer was not able to interact with as many people, which illustrates one of the many difficulties involved in presenting even outdoor sculpture exhibitions during the pandemic.

Women’s Qualities is located on a particularly unfitting site, plopped in the middle of a very green lawn set among the prolifically blooming and carefully manicured formal grounds at Sunnylands Center and Gardens in Rancho Mirage, perhaps the most affluent community in the Palm Springs area. Out in the desert, it would have presented a sharp contrast. Its placement at Rancho Mirage, however, does ironically comment on the fake greening of human settlements around Palm Springs.

The Wishing Well, by Serge Attukwei Clottey (Ghana), refers to the daily struggle to find clean drinking water in Africa and other places around the world. The sculpture consists of two giant cubes composed of squares cut from plastic jerry cans, which are used in Ghana to transport water from sometimes distant wells. The forms are painstakingly joined with wire and draped in bright yellow fabric that contrasts with the green grass of the community center park site. Placing a work about water shortages on such a well-watered lawn again questions the wisdom of maintaining such artificial oases. 

Nicholas Galanin, Never Forget, 2021. Photo: Timothy S. Allen

Other notable works include Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead, part of the Joshua Desert-based artist’s ongoing research- and photography-based project about the culture and history of her home. Visitors can enter the simulated shack (incongruously sited next to the Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce) and absorb the atmosphere, which is reinforced by recorded stories of early desert settlers. Along a highway outside Palm Springs, Xavier Simmons (New York) has installed a series of billboards provocatively titled Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band a Militia. The text and images focus on racial injustice and Black history in California. Simmons’s works are impressive but almost impossible to take in at driving speed, and there’s no place to stop along the busy highway. Never Forget, by Alaskan Native-American artist and musician Nicholas Galanin, spells out “Indianland” in 45-foot-tall letters, instantly recalling the iconic “Hollywood” sign. It is memorably positioned just as one approaches a sign marking the entrance to the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation.

I only saw Alicia Kwade’s ParaPivot (sempiternal clouds) from a distance. Sited at the top of a hill out in the desert, it requires a 15-minute walk, as well as timed appointments (Thursdays through Sundays). Commenting on global warming, its white marble stones resemble icebergs suspended in precarious balance inside a configuration of giant black metal framing. Four works had yet to be installed when I visited in late March. The Art of Taming Horses, a multi-part sculpture installation by Christopher Myers (New York), opened on April 9. Spread across six stations along Tahquitz Canyon Way, his large-scale sculptures with draping banners tell the fictional story of two ranchers—one Mexican and one African American—whose personal experiences and love for horses lead them to create a community in the place that eventually would become Palm Springs. Oscar Murillo’s (Colombia) Frequencies continues an ongoing documentary art project with school children around the world, presented online. The Palm Springs iteration involves giving blank canvas and art materials to local students attending remote school and asking them to create daily artwork about their thoughts and experiences. 

Like Murillo’s work, many of the other newly commissioned sculptures and installations in Desert X 2021 present continuations or new iterations of projects already done elsewhere. Though these works are enjoyable, there is little stretching of curatorial vision or artistic imagination in this edition of Desert X.

Complete information, including a visitor guide, can be found here.