Curated in 2017 by Neville Wakeﬁeld, the Desert X biennial spans 40 miles of California’s Coachella Valley, in what might just be the largest and most spectacular outdoor art exhibition in the world. Wakeﬁeld paraphrased Balzac in his curatorial statement: “If the desert is indeed God without man, Desert X is art without constraint.” Yet for all the spiritual inference of that quote, Wakeﬁeld believes the notion of the desert as a blank canvas to be something of a misnomer.
The ﬁrst ever Desert X took place in early 2017, coinciding with Palm Springs’ Modernism Week — the annual exposition of mid-century Modernism, featuring buildings by architects such as John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Albert Frey, some of which were once home to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
Wakeﬁeld, previously the senior curatorial advisor to New York’s MoMA PS1 and curator of Frieze Projects, describes the biennial’s motivation as a desire to “activate” the low desert of the Coachella Valley. “The high desert [in and around Joshua Tree] is known as a place where artists live and work,” he explains. “Andrea Zittel’s High Desert Test Sites, an annual exhibition, occupies that part,” however, Desert X, Wakeﬁeld says, adds the “art spoke to the cultural wheel” in a region where music, architecture and ﬁlm are already well represented.
With Desert X welcoming 200,000 visitors in 2017, across a broad spread of ages and backgrounds, Wakeﬁeld believes that the appetite for experiencing art outside the usual bounds of the white cube is down to a resurgent interest in the Land Art movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Seminal works of this period, such as Michael Heizer’s City required bulldozers to move and sculpt tons of earth and were thus “near-impossible to own,” he says.“It was anti-material and anti-institutional. And I think people are interested in those narratives again today for precisely the same reasons — we’ve reached saturation point in terms of art being framed by the market.” There’s also the undeniable sense of adventure that comes with setting oﬀ on a pilgrimage, sometimes to the other side of the world, to take in sights like Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada store in Marfa, Texas, or Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin on Naoshima harbour in southern Japan
"Arguably, it is this interstitial experience that visitors to sculpture parks and outdoor museums such as the Heidi Museum near Melbourne, Australia, the Inhotim Institute in Minais Gerais, Brazil, and upstate New York’s Dia Beacon ﬁnd most rewarding about viewing art in nature."
But while works such as Robert Smithson’s iconic Spiral Jetty in Utah’s Great Salt Lake or Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field in New Mexico are mostly conceived as singular experiences, Desert X is designed as a group exhibition, intended to be viewed collectively. In response to this, Wakeﬁeld explains that each work is marked by a pin on Google Maps for ease of navigation.
“You don’t go and see The Lightning Field in the morning and then go see something else later that day. The conditions prohibit that [visitors must stay in an on-site cabin overnight],” he explains. “I think what’s interesting about Desert X bringing multiple pieces together is the interstitial space — the spaces in between the artworks. The artworks create this nodal map, which you can interpret in whatever way you choose. But the experience in between is an essential part of it.”
Arguably, it is this interstitial experience that visitors to sculpture parks and outdoor museums such as the Heidi Museum near Melbourne, Australia, the Inhotim Institute in Minais Gerais, Brazil, and upstate New York’s Dia Beacon ﬁnd most rewarding about viewing art in nature.
It’s evident that the artists featured in Desert X have also been guided by the landscape when navigating their own creative process. With the mirror-coated installations of artists Doug Aitken and Philip K Smith III, for example, the inspiration is quite literal. Smith III’s The Circle of Land and Sky is composed of 300 thin mirrors angled at ten degrees and arranged in a circle. Its reﬂections merge and displace the land and heavens like a Sonoran Stonehenge — particularly spectacular when it catches the sunrise and sunset.
Roughly 15 miles west, on a hill overlooking Palm Springs, sat Aitken’s Mirage, a bungalow whose sleek lines echoed those of the modernist villas in the city below. As audience members walked through and around the pavilion, its mirrored surfaces caught various glimpses of the surrounding area: the suburban sprawl, the wind farms just beyond, and the colours and shrubs of the desert all appearing in an ever-shifting kaleidoscope.“It really ampliﬁed the land around people, whether they were inside or outside of Mirage,” explains Matthew Schum, who, alongside curator Amanda Hunt, will co-curate Desert X in 2019. Schum draws a connection between Aitken’s mirrored pavilion and Donald Judd’s notion of a non-relational art, where there’s neither a top nor a bottom: “Scale is distorted; things seem close when they’re not, and the world is turned upside down in a way that is transcendental.”
"Artistic director Neville Wakeﬁeld paraphrased Balzac in his curatorial statement: “If the desert is indeed God without man, Desert X is art without constraint.”
Likewise, pieces by Claudia Comte and Jennifer Bolande also challenge audience perceptions of size and distance, particularly Comte’s two-dimensional monochromatic paintings of zigzags and waves superimposed onto a three-dimensional curved wall. Bolande’s roadside billboards carry photographs of the very landscapes they obscure, creating an almost disorientating trompe l’oeil when perfectly aligned.
As Desert X’s inaugural outing was a case of proving the concept, the next iteration, scheduled for spring 2019, will take a diﬀerent approach.
While Schum, Hunt and Wakeﬁeld are planning fora similar number of works, each one will have a deeper sense of place and stronger engagement with the region’s culture and history. “Ideally, the artists would spend two weeks in the Coachella Valley to research and to really get a feel of the land and its psycho-geography, and then hunker down and create a proposal out of that research,” says Schum. “The desert has always been a place to go to rethink everything, so hopefully we can rethink the process of curation with this exhibition,” he continues. “It’s an interesting age, an uncertain age. We’re trying to offer something that allows people to escape reality a little bit — I think that’s what is so important.”