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.”
Increased oil tanker truck traffic would “seriously degrade” the experience of viewing the canyon’s Indigenous rock art, said one advocate of the site.
This week, AP Style Twitter goes wild, the “enshittification” of TikTok, and did people actually come flooding back to New York City after COVID?
Scores of cultural heritage sites are in ruins amid a fragile truce and an ongoing war of narratives.
Jafar Panahi was arrested last July, after he participated in protests at the notorious Evin prison.
Join the New-York Historical Society on February 10 for a virtual conversation about our changing relationship to the natural world with Julie Decker, John Grade, and LaMont Hamilton.
Designed by artist Christine Egaña Navin, the items will be offered by Project Art Distribution at this weekend’s NADA Flea Market.
The French painter felt he had to rise to the challenge of one question above all things else: What exactly is it to be a modern artist?
Philipsz’s haunting sound and video artworks serve as a poignant witness to the lives and artistry of victims of the Holocaust.
Passamaquoddy citizen Chris Newell is imparting his knowledge of the Wabanaki Confederacy to advise on the Portland Museum of Art’s expansion.
Presented by Northwestern’s Block Museum and McCormick School of Engineering, this new exhibition seeks empathy at the boundaries of life. On view in Evanston, Illinois.
The artist’s site-specific museum exhibition Three Parallels glows with choreographed colored light.
In an open letter, European institutional leaders defend Manuel Borja-Villel, who has faced right-wing attacks for his progressive programming.