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The Desert X Biennial in the California Desert Appears to Ignore Its Surroundings

For a site-specific art exhibition that claims to be about attention to the environment, Desert X 2019 seems surprisingly insensitive to context.

A service station on the North Shore where Eric Mack’s artwork “Halter” was once installed (all photos by Jason Underhill)

LOS ANGELES — By the time I got to Eric Mack’s “Halter,” an installation on the North Shore of the Salton Sea, all that remained were brightly colored hanging cords. A week earlier, on March 10, 2019, something happened to the artwork: it either burned, was stolen, or blew away. When it debuted on the opening weekend of the second Desert X biennial, fabric was draped over the awning of a former, now-derelict service station and billowed elegantly. “The fabric was Missoni, a beautifully woven, high end couture,” artist Sarah Sarah Scheideman, who helped Mack install, told The Desert Sun after it all disappeared. New York-based Mack has worked with fashion before: painting on and dying wools and silks, sometimes hanging vintage jackets and trousers on the wall. Missoni “had to be extra generous with the yard of silk, knits and tulles” it donated, according to fashion mag WWD, which took Mack’s installation as an opportunity to chronicle the fashion line’s generosity to artists in general (installations in their showrooms, knitwear inspired by sculptures). The Desert X catalogue called the artwork “a respite or site for gentle reflection,” one that “reframed the building’s relationship to itself and its surroundings,” and served as a “physical embodiment of real and imagined desert wanderers.”

Neither the catalogue nor any of the PR mentioned that the station, functional into the 1990s, was across the street from a neighborhood inhabited not by desert wanderers, real or imagined, but rather a community largely comprised of immigrants and farm workers. The sea itself — the accidental result of a 1905 canal building effort that flooded the Colorado — began to evaporate in the early 2000s, thanks to more manmade interventions (a rerouting of water to San Diego); years of chemicals from the irrigation water dumped into the sea entered the air and poisoned residents, exacerbating the area’s economic struggles.

Soon after Desert X opened on February 9, photographer Kim C. Martin, who is based in Joshua Tree, came to document the installation and found squatters at the gas station. “They stayed in frame, approached us, sat in front of the wall, urinated on the other wall,” Martin wrote beneath one of Desert X’s Instagram posts. “It felt wrong being there where they obviously have to live.” Later, via email, she said she felt unsafe, and suspected that the biennial’s organizers had not carefully considered the dynamics of the community before placing art around the Salton Sea: “They did not take residents’ — homeless as well as local artists — lives into account.”

Imari Kariotis, a Red Cross disaster responder, community advocate, and Salton City resident, had concerns about the safety of the installation when it first appeared. Desert high winds blow even harder on the shore of the sea, and she worried it could come off and blind a driver on nearby Highway 111. “There was a lot of rumor, speculation that went around,” she said by phone, but she suspects Mack’s artwork either blew into the sea — winds the night it disappeared were a moderate 6mph in nearby Thermal, with 25mph gusts, and likely higher on the shore — or has now become part of someone’s roof in Slab City, a community of campers a few miles south. “You come out and you plop something down and you expect it to stay there, that’s not going to happen.” If nothing else, the disappearance of Halter served as a needed reminder that the Salton Sea was far from a blank canvas, despite what artistic director Neville Wakefield said back in 2016 on an art fair panel: that “generally and kind of philosophically the draw of the desert has always been this blank canvas.”

Sterling Ruby, “Specter”

Since its founding, Desert X has been a weird vehicle for Westward Expansionist rhetoric. The catalogue and press releases teem with striking examples, for instance: “Since biblical times the desert’s allure has resided in the fact that we go to it not knowing what we are looking for […].” Susan Davis, the biennial’s Palm Springs-based founding president, said at the inaugural press conference in 2017 that her goal was for everyone to “learn more about the desert and how beautiful the desert is.” This year, in her opening letter in the catalogue, she stayed on theme: “participating artists were profoundly moved by this special place.” Certainly, since hardly any are from the area, they had every opportunity to be moved. In 2017, two participating artists — Palm Desert-based Phillip K. Smith III and East Coachella Valley’s Armando Lerma — were desert locals. This year, in the iteration co-curated by Amanda Hunt and Matthew Schum, with Wakefield overseeing, only one of the 19 artists is, and he participated last time: Lerma, again contributing a mural.

For a site-specific art exhibition that claims to be about attention to the environment — “the message of the art,” said Wakefield, quoting Bruce Nauman in the catalogue, is “‘Pay Attention Motherfucker’” — Desert X 2019 seems surprisingly insensitive to context. Perhaps this is because the artist list was finalized relatively late, and only announced weeks in advance of the launch, and some sites difficult to secure. But whatever the reason, the disconnects remain striking.

John Gerrard, “Western Flag” (2017)

One work at the entrance to Palm Springs, John Gerrard’s “Western Flag” (2017), a gigantic, generator-fueled LED screen showing a flag pole spewing black smoke (made to critique our irresponsible use of resources), was shut off due to cost on March 30. The Wildlands Conservancy rescinded permission for a proposed Jenny Holzer projection at the Whitewater Wildlife Preserve over concerns that it would disturb ailing bighorn sheep. A two-story-high sculpture by the Danish collective Superflex worried residents who live around its location, the Cap Homme / Ralph Adams Park in Palm Desert. Ruth Nolan, a writer and environmental advocate who lives near the park, posted on Facebook as Superflex installed their sculpture “Dive-In”: “They’ve carved out an ugly dirt road through the creosote,” referring to the brush along the park’s floor. The sculpture, colored to match the endangered coral reef and the coral homes in resort-filled Palm Springs, resembles a drive-in theater but also could, hypothetically, encourage the rebuilding of the coral reef if the desert were ever, in the far future, once again turned to sea and the artwork discovered by fish. Rasmus Nielsen of Superflex explained over email, “certain species involved in building coral reefs are attracted to pink and the foam-like structure would constitute the perfect starting point for them to live in.” But the sculpture’s potential effects on species remain unproven, and for now, it is an aluminum monolith in a delicate habitat.

Superflex, “Dive-In”

The Salton Sea, included as a Desert X location for the first time this year, may be the most fragile environment the biennial reaches. It, too, has a sensitive natural ecosystem, but it is also locked in a battle with the state of California over its right to continued health and safety (the longer the sea is allowed to evaporate, the more toxins enter the air). The area has high unemployment and a low median income (approximately $14,000). Its status as metaphor — a manmade treasure that became a manmade disaster — has attracted artists before.

“Many of the arts events in Coachella Valley […] seem totally disconnected from the lives of the families that reside in areas like North Shore, Mecca and Thermal,” emailed artist Andrew Dickinson, currently working in Italy but normally based in the North Shore. He mentioned the Bombay Beach Biennial, in which artists from elsewhere descend on the South Shore for a compact three days of performances and installations. Even Alma Ha’rel’s elegant 2012 documentary Bombay Beach, which treats its subjects with dignity, manages to romanticize poverty. Desert X mostly ignores it.

Ivan Argote’s “A Point of View” on the North Shore of the Salton Sea

Less than a mile east of the service station briefly home to Eric Mack’s “Halter,” Ivan Argote’s “A Point of View” rises out of a sandy plot of land. Comprised of five staircases arranged in a loose arc, the artwork has a surreal, precarious quality. The stairs, made of wooden scaffolding and concrete that has begun to crumble, are each just over a story high and words engraved on each step become messages: “We are not guilty. It’s not about that. It’s about taking care of each other,” and “This place had no name, then it had many.” The Bogota-born, Paris-based artist said on the Desert X podcast that climbing the staircase is about “enjoying the landscape and, at the same time, […] raising consciousness about how we are all part of this and there are so many layers.”

Ivan Argote, “A Point of View” (detail)

Look east from one of the five platforms and you’ll see one very real “layer”: the sculptural, colorful silhouette of the North Shore Community Park, designed by residents, fought for over years, and eventually opened in October 2018, only to be closed a week later due to a devastating storm. “We had to show that it was still important for the community to have this safe public space,” Noelle Furon of the Desert Recreation District told the Desert Sun after the storm, recalling how hard the park had been to fund. The park should finally reopen in July of 2019, but it is pragmatic realities like this that certain community members wish Desert X organizers and artists had better acknowledged. “Communities should be involved in that, the artists should have to go to the community,” said Kariotis. “How can we fix this so that residents don’t feel put upon and we can bring awareness to what we’re fighting for out here?”

Neither Kariotis, nor any of the neighbors she’d spoken to, knew of the North Shore Community Council Meeting on January 9, which co-curators Hunt and Schum attended, or the additional March 5 meeting that Riverside County Supervisor Manuel Perez’s office facilitated, held after residents began to voice complaints. “That meeting went very well,” said Supervisor Perez’s communications director Darin Schemmer over email. “All parties agreed to work together, communicate and engage on the remainder of this year’s activities and in the future.” Days later, Mack’s “Halter” disappeared, and Desert X organizers filed a police report. “Don’t use your art to criminalize my community in any way @_DesertX,” wrote Oliva Rodriguez on Twitter. Rodriguez recently collaborated with filmmaker and photographer Bryan Mendez on a short documentary about living near the sea, Estamos Aqui. Young North Shore resident Nereida Montes says in the film, “You can do as much research as you want but, like, we live it.”

Sign near Sterling Ruby’s Desert X installation

Desert Xcurated by artistic director Neville Wakefield with co-curators Amanda Hunt and Matthew Schum, runs through April 21, 2019 in Coachella Valley, California.

Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that Ivan Argote’s “A Point of View” had six staircases, instead of five. It also misspelled the names of Phillip K. Smith III and Armando Lerma. We apologize for the errors and they have been fixed. 

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