Bright Orange Blocks, Translucent Trees, and Rainbow Arches Pop Up in California's Desert

The second edition of Desert X turns the Coachella Valley into a vast sculpture park, with works from big-name artists like Sterling Ruby and Jenny Holzer.

SPECTER by Sterling Ruby.

Lured by the large-scale installations that turn the famously balmy Southern California desert into an al fresco art gallery, I said a quick “yes” to a chance to preview the second edition of Desert X, on display through April 21.

DX19’s artistic director, Neville Wakefield, a former senior curatorial advisor for PS1 MoMA and curator of Frieze Projects at the Frieze Art Fair, along with co-curators Amanda Hunt and Matthew Schum, commissioned large scale works from 19 international artists including Jenny Holzer—whose BEFORE I BECAME AFRAID, 2019 will juxtapose poetry addressing gun violence against the stark desert landscape at a still to be determined location due to ecological concerns surrounding its intended spot in the San Bernardino Mountains—and Mary Kelly. The established Los Angeles–based artist’s Peace is the Only Shelter offers a damning social commentary on America’s U-turn back to the Cold War, manifested in feminist photographic imagery plastered over three central Palm Springs bus stations. Another 18 site-specific installations get strategically scattered around the Coachella Valley from Desert Hot Springs to the Salton Sea, with three projects reaching over the border into Mexico. Hunt describes the constant theme as “making the invisible visible, about what you can and cannot see.”

Mary Kelly's Peace is the Only Shelter.
Cara Romero’s photographic billboard series Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert.

Admission to DX19 is free and visitors are encouraged to “create their own viewing journey” based on GPS coordinates available on the Desert X app. Founder Susan Davis shared with me what motivated her to undertake what became Desert X after she decamped here from New York City, four years ago. “I wanted to bring artists to Coachella to be inspired while offering a lens for others to take a new look at the Valley.” Though Davis launched Desert X in 2017, “to create conversations about art and the environment” the latter has become a stronger focal point in its sophomore season, which overlaps with Modernism Week (Feb. 14–24) and includes collaborations with the Palm Springs Art Museum.

One day before DX19 opened to the public, I set off into the fabled oasis with my mother. We headed first for New Mexico artist and Chemehuevi tribal citizen Cara Romero’s photographic series Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert, which appears as five billboards along Gene Autry Trail, a major desert thoroughfare. Turns out I am not dexterous enough to simultaneously drive safely and contemplate detailed digital photography examining indigenous life. Perhaps Romero appreciated the challenge presented by the delivery of her deeply personal, complex imagery, because the last one centers on the words “No Wall,” scrawled in black on white subway tiles.

Nancy Baker Cahill's Revolutions.
Western Flag by John Gerrard.

I felt stymied again at the next destination, wishing someone had advised us beforehand to download a 150-megabyte app called 4th Wall developed by Nancy Baker Cahill. Her Revolutions is land art on a vast scale, using what she calls “virtual reality brushstrokes in augmented reality.” We peeked at strangers’ phones to see her colossal kaleidoscopic blossoms exploding over the wind turbines. Another geolocated work by the L.A. artist, Margin of Error explores the toxic impact of human progress, its spiraling debris hovering only in augmented reality over the Salton Sea.

Our luck improved on this cultural treasure hunt. Irish artist John Gerrard was on site as we arrived at his Western Flag, a digital simulation of the Lucas Gusher, the world’s first major oil discovery. The message behind his flag of smoke projected on a massive screen—mankind’s abuse of earth’s natural resources—was as clear as the desert sky above us. At our next stop, I overheard one Desert X docent reference James Turrell when describing SPECTER by Sterling Ruby. A stretch, I think, but it was fun to watch the forklift ease the artist’s incandescent orange monolith onto the drab desert floor.

Julian Hoeber’s Going Nowhere Pavilion #01.

We never did find Dead or Alive, the favorite Palm Springs dive bar of Brooke Hodge’s, the Palm Springs Museum’s director of architecture and design, but we did weave her vintage shopping recommendations into our DX19 itinerary. After dark, we dined on chef Jason Niederkorn’s wild king salmon, sustainably fished by Native Americans on the Columbia River at Pink Cabana, the Rat Pack–inspired restaurant inside Sands Hotel & Spa in the tony Indian Wells enclave. Martyn Lawrence Bullard’s Moroccan–tinged revival of the 46-room roadside motel felt as artfully relevant as any DX19 installation but far more comfortable as I snuggled under the custom Revival New York bed linens after a bath infused with Acqua di Parma bubbles.

Well fed and rested, we set off in the morning light for Desert Hot Springs and Julian Hoeber’s Going Nowhere Pavilion #01, a walk-through sculpture of pinkish-brown concrete blocks that plays with notions of inside and outside the self. A few blocks down Two Bunch Palms Trail, we came upon my favorite DX19 installation. Kathleen Ryan’s commentary on the mythology of California called Ghost Palm manifests as a translucent tree directly on the San Andreas Fault. Built to scale at 30 feet, this solo column in an otherwise empty field between natural palm clusters mimics nature using manmade materials. “It‘s about what you can’t see but can feel,” says Hunt about the area’s constant earthquake threat, while the Lucite plastic fringe “fronds” reference the area’s penchant for everything Midcentury Modern.

Ghost Palm/i> by Kathleen Ryan.
Lover’s Rainbow/i> by Pia Camil.

This year’s DX19 footprint stretches 65 miles and includes art visible only at night as well as works that draw that upon the inaugural DX17, like Norma Jeane’s autonomous vehicle ShyBot. We continued southward to more provocative works nearer to the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s easy to spot one of Mexican multimedia artist Pia Camil’s identical colossal arcs made of rebar and painted in a playful spectrum of candy colors along Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. The twin to Lover’s Rainbow sits over the border in Mexico. While only the one was visible to us, the other seems to exist in tandem, like a phantom limb, and together they explore the dreams for a better life represented by this now contentious stretch.

While DX19 is unquestionably a refreshing escape from the phantasmagoria of world events, it would be hard to imagine finding art anywhere right now more relevant amidst our current political climate. And if the activist themes begin to take their toll, you can always kick off to the spa. This is Palm Springs, after all. 

All Stories