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Living Desert Zoo and Gardens (via Wikimedia Commons)

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A smoke-based artwork by Judy Chicago planned for the upcoming third edition of Desert X’s biennial in Coachella Valley has been put on hold. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, which had agreed to host Chicago’s colorful smoke display on April 9, withdrew its participation after a local activist and journalist expressed environmental concerns.

In letters sent to the Living Desert and the Palm Desert City Council, Palm Springs resident and former Los Angeles Times writer Ann Japenga said she feared the work would startle endangered peninsular bighorn sheep currently lambing on the 1,200-acre park.

“I did not criticize Judy Chicago or ask that the show be canceled. I suggested it be moved to a safer location,” Japenga told Hyperallergic. “Huge volumes of colored smoke obviously have a frightening and unpredictable effect on wild and captive creatures.”

“Desert X is good at convincing organizations to overlook environmental harm in exchange for magazine covers,” she added. Japenga also spoke out against the biennial in 2019, when Desert X had to cancel an anti-gun violence projection by Jenny Holzer that some feared could also put the bighorn sheep at risk.

The recent controversy is the latest faced by Desert X in recent years. Three of its board members, including artist Ed Ruscha, stepped down in 2019 in protest of the biennial’s partnership with Saudi Arabia, whose government has been accused of human rights violations. And although Desert X’s platform is focused on desert preservation and conservation, some local residents have raised questions about the show’s environmental footprint.

In a statement, Desert X executive director Jenny Gil Schmitz denied the “baseless claims” by Japenga and other critics of the project and said Chicago’s “Living Smoke: A Tribute to the Living Desert” had been vetted by environmental experts.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Living Desert has reversed its decision to host Judy Chicago’s work after months of research and preparation to ensure the safety of the animals and their natural surroundings,” the biennial’s executive director Jenny Gil Schmitz said in a statement. “We stand by Judy and all of our collaborating artists and are actively seeking alternative sites so that Judy’s work may be enjoyed peacefully and safely by a global audience as planned.”

Gil Schmitz also told the New York Times that Living Desert’s own specialists had ensured the artwork would not damage the desert’s wildlife, calling their decision to pull out of the project “perplexing.”

Allen Monroe, President and CEO of the Living Desert, said the decision to suspend the project “was not made lightly.”

“The Living Desert began discussions with DesertX in December 2020 with the desire to partner together to produce an exceptional work of art that supported their efforts,” Monroe told Hyperallergic. “However, with the event only six weeks out, no formal contract finalized, and environmental concerns, The Living Desert concluded that there is just not enough time to address all of these factors in order to reach a contractual agreement.”

“Living Smoke” harkens back to Chicago’s earliest experimentations with colored smoke in the late 1960s, an aerial alternative to the male-dominated Land Art movement that often included digging into the earth. The spectacle of swirling plumes blending in the air raises environmental awareness by drawing the viewers’ attention to “the beauty and fragility of the landscape,” the artist said to the New York Times.

Chicago also told the Times that she took special precautions for the Desert X piece in particular, siting the work a mile and a half away from the zoo and using electronic ignition, a quieter system for lighting the smoke, so as to not scare living creatures on the site.

In a post on her Instagram yesterday, Chicago said she was “devastated” that Living Desert had rescinded its contract with Desert X, “all because of one ill-informed woman who thought I was going to set off a 1,200-acre smoke bomb.” In a more recent post, she confirmed plans for the work’s redesign and relocation and thanked the “hundreds of people” who expressed their support for the project.

Meanwhile, Japenga told Hyperallergic she has been targeted by Chicago and her supporters in the wake of the work’s cancelation.

“I feel completely bludgeoned by the social media mob Judy Chicago called down on me,” she said, citing hundreds of comments on Chicago’s Instagram. In one comment, a user asked: “Can the spirits of Christo and Jean Claude please descend upon this ignorant woman and smack some sense into her?”

“Judy herself is responsible for the cyberbullying,” Japenga said. “She set up her post to deflect any blame for the cancelation onto me: One person who wrote a letter. I do not have the power to cancel the event. I wrote a letter.”

Japenga also says that Chicago deleted several comments in her support from the post, including one accusing Chicago of “dogpile feminism” for attacking her. In an email shared with Hyperallergic, a multimedia producer who asked to remain anonymous also said their comments in Japenga’s support were deleted, and that they have been blocked from Chicago’s Instagram and Facebook pages.

Chicago’s publicist Ron Longe confirmed that he advised Chicago to take down the comments because “these quotes were inflammatory and abusive — and definitely crossed the line into a form of cyberbullying.”

“Judy declines to comment on any of Ann Japenga’s unsubstantiated and baseless claims,” Longe added. “With Judy’s decades of involvement in environmental justice and animal rights, she would never create anything that posed a risk to the planet or any living creature.”

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