Neville Wakefield is the Curator and Artistic Director of Desert X, a site-specific contemporary art exhibition ongoing throughout the Coachella Valley from February 25 to April 30, 2017. RIOT MATERIAL spoke with Neville on the eve of Desert X’s launch.
CHRISTOPHER HASSETT: What is it about these artists you’ve selected for Desert X that speak to you personally, or speak to a greater vision you’re trying to articulate through the exhibition, and I refer to them more as an inter-connective group as opposed to distinct individuals?
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD: It’s a good question. There are two sorts of curating, and I think that there’s one where you start with a thesis and you set out to illustrate it. And there’s another way where you set out with a set of conditions and those conditions become the platform from which artistic endeavors can grow. The way that I have approached it, certainly for Desert X, and I think in general, is the latter. What you hope to create is a kind of conversational petri dish in which the microbes of conversations are grown into distinct and unique things. So the approach to inviting in the artists has been equally organic. A lot of artists came and did site visits, and everyone responded to the conditions in different ways. So its really more about the site acting as the curator than the show being driven by a specific directive or voice. That said, it’s a pretty LA eccentric show — so I wanted it to represent this moment we’re in, which is a version of manifest destiny, where the centers of cultural gravity seem to be migrating West. I live in New York and while it remains the market capital, that same market and that same capital has had the effect of creating a city with an essentially empty center. LA specifically, and the West in general, have never laid claim to a center, and this may be what makes them so interesting now.
HASSETT: Before moving our base to Los Angeles, we spent many years in New York and were becoming all-too-aware of the changing dynamics in Manhattan, with the art market in particular, which had fast become saturated, its presentation of art formulaic and too often lacking in originality. LA on the other hand, has a notable freshness in the scene, a refreshing boldness to it.
WAKEFIELD: Yes, it’s become in some ways untenable, New York, just in terms of prices. Artists first went to Williamsburg, then Bed-Stuy, next stop LA.
The Oceanic and the desert have more in common than just the withdrawal of feature and topography. I grew up sailing and my experience of the desert is in many ways similar — monotony stalked by fear.
HASSETT: How might the deserts of the West, referring specifically to the land itself, be a more liberating and/or confounding space to pull together an exhibition, as opposed to the more rigorously defined, wholly calculated geometries of New York City?
WAKEFIELD: I grew up on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The Oceanic and the desert have more in common than just the withdrawal of feature and topography. I grew up sailing and my experience of the desert is in many ways similar — monotony stalked by fear. You have these vast open spaces that are utterly inviting, until they’re not. And that switch can be thrown very quickly. I think that’s part of the excitement of it.
But the idea of freedom that the desert represents is equally paradoxical — a paradox which is most visibly manifest in desert architecture. Whether you think about mid-century modern or trailer parks, the people who are drawn to the desert, who come here to experience its freedom, have actually gone to extreme lengths to keep the desert out (laughs). Whether a mid-century modern half-wall or a chain-link fence around a trailer, its all about keeping the desert out. So there’s also apparently this territorial paradox to it: we go to openness to seek containment.
HASSETT: Are we seeing allusions to that in Desert X?
WAKEFIELD: I think it is reflected in some of Desert X. I think a piece like Will Boone’s Monument, which is an Atlas survival shelter with a sculpture of JKF inside of it, is about that. It is a literal and figurative underground, a place we retreat to to escape authority or fear. It’s a claustrophobic place to be relegated to, and the image of JFK and the political ideology that he represented bunkered in this way reminds us that we haven’t come that far, that the idea of nuclear threat has resurfaced within the current ecology of fear.
HASSETT: Which leads in nicely, this idea of fear, to the enormous appendage I’d like to address next. That being, how might the Mojave put its barbed and crooked finger on that space in your head which rarely gets touched on, and what is it, or who is it, who responds?
WAKEFIELD: (laughs) It really does go back to the Oceanic, to a primal thing that is fundamentally elemental, and you can’t get away from that. It is in some way always reducible to these basic elements of sun and sand, sky, air, with a kind of visceral awareness to all of that, coupled with an awareness of mortality, nutrition, dehydration and so on… But it’s also to do with what we perhaps don’t get enough of in the course of our normal, un-windswept daily lives.
You feel acutely aware of these two time scales that operate simultaneously — of geological time and biological time – and how completely different they are, and how at some point you become aware of that space between the two, which is a silent space, an interesting contemplative space, which is part of the draw of being in the desert.
HASSETT: Which might be something as profound and largely absent from our lives as silence, which the desert offers us in spades. I’m reminded of something you spoke of in your curatorial statement, and perhaps you can elaborate further on this idea, that of the “visual silence of sand and rock” you see in desert settings — the silence of the eye — which may or may not equate with a silence of Mind. That in contrast to the traditionally sought-for audible silence of the desert, a silence of the ear. And how, with this exhibition, were you aiming to express and expand on this concept of visual silence as a working aesthetic, and which of your artists do you feel best convey that aesthetic?
WAKEFIELD: Yeah, but you mustn’t take my curatorial statements too seriously! (laughs)
HASSETT: Well, I loved the poetic image of silence being visual.
WAKEFIELD: Thank you. I think there’s a part to that silence that has to do with the weird way in which the desert makes you aware of time. You feel acutely aware of these two time scales that operate simultaneously — of geological time and biological time – and how completely different they are, and how at some point you become aware of that space between the two, which is a silent space, an interesting contemplative space, which is part of the draw of being in the desert.
HASSETT: You’ve spoken of the social and cultural entropy depleting the Cahuilla traditions — the Cahuilla being the local tribe here in the lower Mojave – and with such loss comes the more devastating loss of connection, to homeland, to the lineage of self. With such an awareness on your end, might there be an obligation on the part of yourself or the exhibiting artists of Desert X to offer something in return, something that might address or redress some of the social and cultural depletions you speak of? Be it funding for the arts, or setting up networks for local tribesman and artisans to intern in artist studios around the country…
WAKEFIELD: Well, yes, it’s complicated. One of the artists we are working with has indirect connections, Jeffery Gibson being a Native American, a Choctaw-Cherokee painter and sculptor. And we have a member of the Tribal Council on our board of directors. But, I can’t say what the Tribe would want to get out of the show, or whether it’s even interesting to them or just another expression of another culture being rolled over their own. What I do hope is that it can draw attention to some of these things that are going on in the desert, whether directly or indirectly, that relate to a culture that’s much older than the one which we are imposing on it now, or perhaps more hopefully insinuating into it. Certainly it is much older than the one which for many is a first-stop, in terms of the culture of Palm Springs, the mid-century one, the gay one, and all these identities which have been very strong presences, but that have distracted from the fact that this is a place that has been inhabited for a very long period of time and has its own distinct culture. It’s just not a culture that we have chosen to pay attention to.
So if the show can do anything to bring awareness of the desert as being something other than a blank canvas, which is the rote characterization, then I think it is doing something worthwhile at a social level.
HASSETT: Looking beyond the tribal or even societal, is the exhibition in any way attempting to address issues of environment, of existing or impending threats, either directly related to the desert or to global concerns the desert might symbolically represent?
WAKEFIELD: (laughs) Well, in truth, I think the desert is going to prevail (laughs). My environmental concerns are for the not-desert.
Read RIOT MATERIAL‘s conversation with artists Jennifer Bolande, Glenn Kaino, Phillip K. Smith III and Tavares Strachan here.