PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Desert X, a young and scrappy biennial, has been prone to last-minute cancellations of major art projects. This year, it had a last-minute addition instead. Moving faster than most cultural organizations would or could, its curators arranged within a month to devote a series of large billboards to photographs by Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man in Memphis who was fatally beaten by the police in January.
Nichols’s shots of Memphis, including images of glowing sunsets and bridges spanning calm waters, tend to be serene and hopeful. They become more pointed through their placement on roadside billboards along a busy desert thoroughfare — a reminder that Nichols died during a traffic stop.
From its start in 2017, Desert X has featured outdoor art projects scattered in and around Palm Springs. But this is the first time that almost all the artworks in the show are socially engaged and site-specific, and it’s hard to imagine them working half as well in a museum or gallery.
The London-based collective Hylozoic/Desires has made the most mystical and mystifying work in the show, a sound sculpture in the form of a salt-encrusted telephone pole equipped with loudspeakers, resembling a flowering cactus. The speakers broadcast the voice of one of the artists, Himali Singh Soin, spinning an odd conspiracy theory about a particle of salt as the prime mover of the world, hailed alternately as an “oracle,” “ominous omen,” “the arsenic in the salve” and “the trinity in duality.” Planted in a sandy, thirsty field within sight of working telephone poles, the work raises questions about the vulnerabilities of human communication and belief systems.
The Death of Tyre Nichols
Five Memphis police officers have been charged in the death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man, after a traffic stop escalated into a brutal beating.
An artwork steeped in this region and its history comes from Gerald Clarke, an enrolled member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians in Southern California who said he welcomed the chance to participate in an exhibition so close to home. “The hardest thing for a Native American artist is to show your work where your own community can appreciate it,” he said, while walking through the large, circular, mazelike sculpture he made for the biennial.
Titled “Immersion,” Clarke’s artwork is made of plywood paths set against straw wattles, with the coiled straw nodding to Cahuilla basket weaving traditions. The work also serves as a giant walk-on board game designed to quiz visitors on Indigenous culture and history, using a deck of Trivial Pursuit-style cards of Clarke’s own creation. Answer a question on Native American voting rights or on the Cahuilla word for bighorn sheep correctly to take a step forward on one of four paths.
The stated goal is to reach the center, but Clarke expects many people to get stuck or cheat — “there’s a whole American tradition of that,” he said. “Native people have been cheated out of land, food, wealth: just about everything.”
“Pioneer,” a bronze sculpture by Tschabalala Self, celebrates “our foremothers, the many Indigenous and Black women who have allowed America to develop,” Self said. Based in New York and best known for her colorful paintings exploring Black female forms, she has for Desert X created her first equestrian monument, in which a strong, feminine figure — really a torso with legs spread, perhaps in a birthing pose — displaces the classic macho hero on horseback. While clearly a twist on monuments that preside over public squares, the figure was smartly placed near a shady grove of tamarisk trees on a sandy trail in Desert Hot Springs, where an actual horse and rider might seek shelter.
The Los Angeles-based artist Matt Johnson plays with the very idea of figurative sculpture, and scale, in his massive “Sleeping Figure,” built out of 12 decommissioned shipping containers, the same kind used in the freight trains running behind his project south of Interstate 10. Johnson has composed bodies out of cinder blocks before, and this time positions the giant containers as if they were children’s blocks, stacked here or tilted there (with the help of a welder) to suggest a classical, reclining figure. The containers’ Chinese, Korean and American logos hint at the inescapability and interdependence of today’s global distribution networks, but this is not an academic critique masquerading as art. Johnson puts a playful spin on it all with a large smiley face painted on one container, evoking a head.
Also from Los Angeles, Lauren Bon and her team, called the Metabolic Studio, created an installation that, like all of their best work, harnesses the power of biological or natural processes. Bon has lowered a steel mesh, to-scale sculpture of a blue whale’s heart into a motel swimming pool filled with murky, mineral-choked water taken from the Salton Sea. Over the run of the show, as the water is electrically charged by solar power, the sculpture will grow a hard white shell by attracting those minerals and in the process purify the water. (She already accomplished this on a smaller scale in her studio, and that crystallized mesh heart hangs near the pool.)
Bon calls this evolving heart sculpture, which she sees as a model for larger water purification efforts, a “device of wonder,” and its setting — an abandoned roadside motel — conspires to cultivate a sense of mystery and curiosity. “It’s important for us to feel our way into ecological thinking,” Bon said, “because we often grow numb with the scale of the problems when faced with the facts.”
The only artwork in this year’s Desert X that seems out of place is by Paloma Contreras Lomas, a Mexico City artist who makes soft, textile-based sculptures that take on hard issues of colonialism and gendered violence. Her installation consists of a 1991 silvery Chevy Caprice with windshield and roof removed so that an abundance of colorful fabric creations — from a pair of oversized, ultra-phallic black sombreros to clumps of lacy purple flowers — can sprout from the vehicle. Inside the car, a short video features three fictional characters, including a masked man based partly on the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos.
On the car’s hood stands a playful cactus character holding a stuffed gun, while long plush arms with claws extend from the open trunk in homage to Wile E. Coyote. Her work brings together pop-culture delirium and the threat of bodily violence, but parked in the beautifully manicured gardens of the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, it loses much of its menacing edge.
The work begs to be shown at the side of a dusty, remote desert road where someone’s car could break down and remain abandoned for weeks. Granted, it’s not an easy choice. Set this installation at Sunnylands and it loses some of its bite. Place it outside, and it’s bound to be ravaged by the elements or by people taking home pieces of it. One way, the artwork doesn’t fully flourish; the other way, it doesn’t physically survive — a dilemma that points to the risks and rewards of staging an exhibition in public spaces in the desert.
Through May 7; Coachella Valley, Calif.; www.desertx.org.