February 1, 2019–In the next few weeks, desert art will have a moment. We’ll be gracing the pages of major magazines and newspapers around the world: Vogue, Architectural Digest, W Magazine. If the 2017 coverage is any gauge, the 2019 coverage of Desert X–a site-specific extravaganza that clogs the Valley from February 9-April 21, 2019—will be fawning. You might think this means desert art has finally come of age, but actually Desert X is not about the desert at all.
Consider the biggest act slated for this year. (I say act because Desert X is truly a large-scale tourist attraction, a sprawling carnival sideshow.) An internationally famous artist named Jenny Holzer plans to light up a mountainside with huge letters protesting gun violence. The problem is, her lights themselves will do violence to the locals–chuckwallas, foxes and moths. Artificial light is profoundly harmful to wildlife. Birds become disoriented and crash; coyotes still their songs.
The Holzer rave party was turned away from the La Quinta Cove because of the potential traffic problems. The Desert X crew then turned to a far worse location: Whitewater Preserve. If there is a “last best place” in the Coachella Valley, this is it. Bighorn sheep, bear, cougars and deer use the canyon as a vital pathway between the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountains. Landscape painters adore this place, which is under the caring and able stewardship of the Wildlands Conservancy.
The Conservancy must have been temporarily blinded by the glare of Desert X, however, because they approved a six-night light show in the protected lair of the tanager and vermillion flycatcher. Don’t feel bad Wildlands, as so many have been similarly blinded by Desert X’s promise of glamour and influence.
As of yesterday, Conservancy executive director David Myers said he is canceling the ill-conceived light show at Whitewater. Now we have a cliff-hanger. Where will Jenny Holzer find a new mountain on such short notice? Snow Creek? How about the Mecca Hills? There is no one there to tell her No.
Desert X in fact seeks out the places where no one will tell them No. They are littering the shores of the Salton Sea and even the Sea itself (an exhibit about to debut is a solar-powered floating laboratory), seemingly oblivious that this is one of the most important stops for migrating birds in North America. Migration–which coincides with Desert X–is easily disrupted by huge art installations and a flood of Instagram tourists. The Salton Sea is no more a blank canvas than the golden cliffs of Whitewater.
When you look deeper into Desert X, the glamour starts to curdle. It’s part of an art world model known as a biennial (occurring every two years), and is propelled by tourism and the marketing of destinations. In recent decades biennials have populated the entire planet–with some 200-300 of these events worldwide. A shrewd artist or curator could live on the biennial circuit and rarely sleep in his or her own bed.
In case you’d like to try this yourself, here is the template: Find a location with lots of wealthy people (the desert qualifies.) Find a place likely to draw attention. (Lompoc won’t work but Palm Springs will due to the huge popularity of the Coachella festival and spin-off industries.) Connect with locals who will help you sell the idea to city councils and tourist boards. Find a curator with European flair and a gift for blather.
As curator, you then think up some vague political themes–say, the environment and the Salton Sea. (People have been holding fruitless symposiums on the Salton Sea since I moved to Palm Springs 25 years ago.) Schedule a symposium or two. Then you can claim the entire sideshow is motivated by serious convictions.
In the 2017 version of Desert X, artistic director Neville Wakefield famously described the desert as a blank canvas just waiting for the imprint of artists. While he later swallowed those words, Desert X still seems to see blank slates everywhere.
All of this might be a passing transgression if it weren’t for the powerful copycat effect of Instagram. If you are the curator of a biennial event, your first criteria: Is it Instagram material? All across the world, impressionable young people see photos of a mirrored house in the desert and light shows on cliff faces–and a new generation of wildlands vandals is born.
Do some of you Desert X artists and organizers truly care about this place bighorn sheep call home? No doubt some of you do. But sincerity is easily warped by big money; conviction wobbles in the presence of big names.
Today, days away from the Desert X kickoff, where is Neville Wakefield? He is in Gstaad, Switzerland opening another site-specific carnival and unveiling a copy of the mirror house that blinded bats and residents in Palm Springs in 2017.
Today Neville Wakefield is telling the Swiss locals how much he cares about their mountains. What will you say when he comes for yours?
Although I love the idea of art loving visitors coming here, I am mortified by the insensitive attitudes of the Desert X enterprise.
I probably won’t visit the sites, as I worry too much about disturbing the wildlife and plants.
Hi Sharon, Any irritation I felt at the invasion of our mountains vanished when your note prompted me to look at your remarkable work. I see that you’ve been compared to our own Agnes Pelton. As an antidote to DesertX, I urge everyone to Google “Sharon Ellis art”!
Thank you, Ann.
Thanks Ann always enlightening
I couldn’t agree more. The desert is a living, breathing environment for wildlife & plants….not a blank canvas.
So tired of artists coming from other places and sticking their work out in the pristine high desert and somehow thinking this renders their work meaningful.
It is one of the reasons I left Joshua Tree and moved to New Mexico. (I still have a studio in JT, Ann, and do visit once in a while – I still love the Mojave!)
excellent journalism! dear ann! expecting planet earth to rehabilitate us from our unwillingness to be responsible to her! shame on you! jenny holzer!
Incredibly well-said. Thank you for writing and posting this.
Thank you Ann for exposing Desert X for what it is: bright lights, big bangs, shiny objects–razzle-dazzle to the many, who come, leave and do not know the harm. Meanwhile the quiet creatures who call the place home cope and try to survive until its over. Not all that glitters is gold.
Ann thank you for having the guts to write and publish this well reasoned and
frank editorial. This idea that public spaces, whether in nature, or the local
coffee shop, are to be corralled for one’s personal desires, as if they were one’s
own living room, disregards common civility and decency at best. We can
express ourselves and go about our daily routines without having to encumber
our fellow citizens. Again, you’ve proved your web magazine to be an essential
part of the Southern California Desert experience.
Thanks for commenting, Diane. You have so much desert cred. I didn’t know you’d moved to New Mexico. I’ve been looking in that direction myself as I ponder ways to escape the Xploiters (DesertX and others.)
Thanks for the solidarity on this issue, Ruth. For those who’d like to read Ruth Nolan’s thoughts on the colonization of the desert, see: https://www.desertsun.com/story/opinion/contributors/valley-voice/2018/04/16/too-many-us-now-loving-desert-death/522613002/
I love the idea of desert X, and support it…any art installations that bring more people to see art is good…no charge and no big gallery trying to sell stuff..many ordinary people never see art , And this can be a family outing, just something for fun, and to make people THINK..and the artist gets to send their message…
Thank you Ann, for stating the reality of DesertX so eloquently. As artists, there is no excuse for disturbing the fragile environment we co-exist with.
By the way Ann, beautiful choices of artwork to accompany your article. They are
eloquent themselves, and your point is furthered by them
Thank you, Jim. Your friend J. Smeaton Chase should be required reading for the DesertX staff and artists. To sample Chase’s deeply grounded passages on the California wilderness, see Jim Develyn’s blog: https://josephsmeatonchase.blogspot.com/
Whitewater Canyon is a fine work of art.
I would encourage those who support Ann to speak up about this issue. A good
place to start would be a comment with the Feb 5th, L.A. Times article on this.
Let your local officials know what you think about this. There is an air of
superiority that seems to be associated with Desert X. Despite their ‘ concerns ‘
for the environment, if you look at the projects you will no doubt see a very large
carbon footprint, never mind the using of our public spaces in ways that you and
I may not. Ann has stuck her neck out here and we should strongly support her.
Thank you, Ann. I have chosen not to visit Desert X in the past; never fully articulated why. Now I understand and deeply appreciate your article. BUT as a 15-year resident of the valley, the overwhelming reality is that everything is for sale; and there is never enough hotels in PS. Our valley is tilting to “what will please the 20-30 age range” visitors. Residents, whether seasonal or full-time, are not considered important. I worry that you are whistling in the wind, but I am grateful for your voice regardless.