A Pared-Down Desert X Opens in Palm Springs

The closely watched sculpture biennial returns to the Coachella Valley with a modest but more socially charged program with 12 artists chosen by artistic director Neville Wakefield and curator Diana Campbell.

“Sleeping Figure” by Matt Johnson. Image courtesy of Desert X

When the second edition of Desert X peppered California’s Coachella Valley with a smattering of large-scale sculptures by the likes of Sterling Ruby and Jenny Holzer, co-curator Amanda Hunt described the show’s theme as “making the invisible visible, about what you can and cannot see.” Much has changed since that edition, held in 2019 to fanfare and Instagram virality: a pandemic, racial protests, and backlash to the biennial’s polarizing decision to show in Saudi Arabia despite the country’s human rights violations, namely the state-led murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Four years later, the fourth edition—spearheaded by artistic director Neville Wakefield and guest curator Diana Campbell—forgoes flashy subjects for socially engaged artworks that touch on cerebral and political themes. Chief among these is Matt Johnson’s slapdash pile of salvaged railway freight cars that, upon closer look, are welded together to resemble a classical reclining figure. Conceived as trade routes choked during the Suez Canal blockage, the colossus is both a sly riposte to Land Art’s undying self-seriousness and a poignant reminder of the promises of prosperity and inevitable ruin stoked by railroads, especially in the wake of the toxic freight-train derailment in Ohio. 

“Immersion” by Gerald Clarke. Image courtesy of Desert X

Other works are more subdued, but still have much to say about social and environmental themes. Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio crafted a to-scale steel sculpture of a blue whale’s heart, which will be electrically charged with solar power in order to purify pollution from murky Salton Sea water placed below, in a derelict roadside motel’s swimming pool. Steeped in regional traditions is Native American artist Gerald Clarke’s maze-like aberration, a giant board game that beckons visitors to answer Trivial Pursuit–style questions about Indigenous culture and history. A bronze equine statue by Tschabalala Self, whose bright paintings typically explore Black female forms, subverts macho monuments of male heroes presiding in public squares.

This year, the most evocative works on view aren’t sculptures. They instead came from the lens of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who was fatally beaten by Memphis police officers during a traffic stop in January. An aspiring photographer and avid skateboarder, Nichols captured serene shots of glowing sunsets and luminous bridges in his adopted hometown. Six photographs grace billboards along the busy North Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs, a pointed venue as adventurous art lovers prepare to take to the desert again. 

Billboard by Tyre Nichols. Image courtesy of Desert X

“I find it exciting, compelling, and also challenging to address the many histories that make up the changing landscape of the Coachella Valley that has inspired so many people, especially artists and architects, for such a long time,” Campbell says in an interview. “The desert is full of mythologies, ones that equip people with a strong will to survive in conditions some might think to be impossible, and this combination of tenacity through storytelling contributes to the important role of ‘the desert’ in many cultures around the world.” Despite the art’s political and environmental statements, we can’t help but agree with Oliver Wainwright’s assessment that Desert X still requires too much driving.

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