Desert X, a site-specific contemporary art exhibition in the Coachella Valley, curated by Artistic Director Neville Wakefield, will become the sweeping canvas for work by established and emerging artists, whose projects will amplify and articulate global and local issues ranging from climate change to Tribal culture, immigration to tourism, gaming to golf. The exhibition, which opens to the public this weekend, 25 February, will focus attention on, and create a conversation about, environmental, social and cultural conditions of the 21st century as reflected in the greater Palm Springs area.
In an online roundtable discussion, RIOT MATERIAL spoke with Desert X artists Jennifer Bolande, Glenn Kaino, Phillip K. Smith III, Tavares Strachan about the desert, their driving visions, and their particular installations.
RIOT MATERIAL: The desert demands a certain reckoning with, amongst other things, its ego-crushing enormity, its relentless ferocity, its halting, jaw-dropping beauty. Could you speak to your relationship with the desert and your response to it, particularly after having spent time out here preparing for this adventurous exhibition?
PHILLIP K. SMITH III: My relationship with the desert is at the core of who I am because this is my home. I grew up here and after 11 years on the East Coast, moved back in 2000. I have been working and creating here since. The desert can certainly seem overwhelming and at times merciless, but the resolution is time. The desert demands time—impressive time—to absorb its pace of experience and to hone one’s eyes and ears to the details and unchartered beauty that exist in both the way out and the across the street sites. Mostly, one must be aware of one’s surroundings and the strange, calm mix of absolute beauty and risk involved with leaving the man-made and stepping out into the quiet.
GLENN KAINO: I have visited the desert throughout my life, more frequently in the past few years, and even more so in the past few months preparing for this exhibition. At first it appeared to me as an in-between space, an environment of transition, which to me provoked thoughts about possibility and connection. When I started to spend more time here, time slows down and what was once transitory became a destination, and the nuances hidden within the enormity that you describe expand and become substantial variables to engage with.
TAVARES STRACHAN: I remember almost all of the Bible stories from my childhood as taking place in the desert. The desert has always had this mystic otherness to it. It’s pleasantly hostile and a great place to remember who you are.
JENNIFER BOLANDE: I have lived in the desert since 2002 and so I’ve experienced it over quite a long time. I was going to say that I know it intimately, but then realized that’s not right— intimacy seems incongruous in a place of such extremes. The experience of the desert is so much about distance. When I first came to the desert from New York I was held captive by the long views and the ability to see for miles, referring to it as my “view therapy.” It may have even improved my eyesight. One way I like to experience the desert is through the windshield of a car — the distant horizon and landforms shifting and changing and continually eluding arrival. When you stop what you immediately notice is the sound or lack of it. The distance of sounds and how they articulate space; of birds, the sound of the wind, the occasional eruption of man-made sounds, or a dog barking a half mile away. I like living near and being continually reminded of the rhythms and cycles of the natural world including struggle, decay, death. Plants that look completely dead will suddenly spring to life after a brief rain. There is an incredible and almost ferocious will to survive that you witness daily and it’s inspiring.
RIOT MATERIAL: In deciding to exhibit in such an unusual, incalculable, truly indomitable space, how did the grand venue of the Southern Mojave affect your thinking process in regards to your installation: your perception of audience, choice of materials, the environment in which it sits and the footprint it might lay?
BOLANDE: This is the first work I’ve made that is set in the desert. I’m not sure if that’s because I felt I couldn’t add anything meaningful to something so vast, or that I felt it was somehow sacrosanct. That this project is sited on a thoroughfare between the city of Palm Springs and and the wilderness of the San Bernardino mountain range, allowed me to sidestep issues I had about making an imprint on the land. My intervention was in the already existing built environment both drawing attention to and away from it.
This rather desolate stretch of road has virtually nothing to the east and west but sand and scrub, yet there is a multiplicity of billboards on both sides that compete for attention with the beckoning views of the spectacular mountains to the north and south.
With this project I was able to find a way to work in the space existing between nature and culture, between direct and mediated experience.
KAINO: Rather than unpack that question into its various layers, I’ll just say that the harshness of the space and the vast context inspired me to really focus on a singular idea that could contend with the landscape, on its own, without trying to physically compete to fit in.
STRACHAN: I look at making as a form of negotiation and I try to be as dialed into the other side of the conversation as I can. The desert is perceived to be more alive than say a room with four walls that people use to put paintings in. However, the desert can also be quite minimal and blank. For me this kind of sensitivity and awareness is necessary for survival no matter where I happen to be.
SMITH: I want people to become aware of the desert through my installation. The Circle of Land and Sky is a reflective space in the valley of the desert that is composed entirely of the desert. As the desert changes, so the piece changes. As people move through, within and around the installation, the experience changes, unique to each individual’s decisions. It is an installation that can never be experienced the same way twice.
I wanted to create a bridge, in terms of pace and intensity, to the extreme raw desert that exists on the other side of the mountains from the Coachella Valley—the true raw desert where there are no typical homes or grocery stores or paved roads or expected conveniences. Those places can be scary and intimidating for the uninitiated. I hope that my site provides a way in for one’s understanding of the Coachella Valley’s desert environment, while providing a glimpse of the excitement of that raw, calm, impressively beautiful, and potentially dangerous desert that exists 100 miles or so into the Mojave Desert from Palm Springs.
To be clear, even the Coachella Valley can be foreboding in terms of environmental forces. During the install, we’ve been sandblasted by winds, rained on, pressed with heat—physically challenged by the reality of working out amongst the creosote. The desert requires respect. Accordingly, your own pace of work, method of work and your choice of materials for the artwork must take that into account. Otherwise, your artwork and your body will bend in the heat, blow away in the wind, or rapidly lose its initial lustre.
RIOT MATERIAL: As singular, seemingly autonomous individuals, we are yet defined, if not indivisible from the cultures we’re born into. Our early years often see us adhering to society’s myriad obligations, be it through family or our institutions at large, and this goes on and is most often the defining periphery of our lives. The Arts, however, offer us a different way in, newly on our own terms, and with it comes the opportunity of challenging or redefining existing cultural mores. How did you go about considering that entry point, and in what ways are you expecting the viewer to respond, which at the highest level could be an awakening or some profound understanding, a transformation, perhaps — art having the power to shift or elevate the heart to its highest state.
Desert X installation view of Glenn Kaino, Hollow Earth 2017, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of the artist and Desert X
KAINO: My practice is heterogeneous and I am constantly asking questions about access points to ideas and culture within the various forms and actions that manifest in my work. My piece for this show is a semi-private space for contemplation that takes the form of a small shed which houses an illusion of a hole that extends deep into the earth. It engages first on a visceral and then visual level, then subsequently opens up numerous paths for philosophical exploration, or not.
STRACHAN: I am not sure that we are indivisible from the culture in which we are born, what is more likely is that the notion that art represents mostly high culture is fading from my reality. For me the exercise is to re-organize binary systems of classification and underline hierarchy as an impediment to progress. High and low, up and down, inside and outside, are ways in which we use language to navigate the world. Not one viewpoint or another, but the in between space is what I enjoy.
Desert X installation view of Tavares Strachan, I Am 2017, photos by Brooke DiDonato (left) & David Blank (right), courtesy of the artists and Desert X
BOLANDE: I think most of us are more able and practiced at looking at pictures of nature than at nature itself. For many it’s almost be hard to know what to do with nature other than take a picture of it. I think in some ways my piece will be a kind of gateway experience for visitors to the desert — allowing them to make the transition from looking at a screen, looking at picture, looking at picture in relationship to the landscape and ultimately hopefully to being able to see the landscape itself. For those who travel this route everyday, it may trigger memories of the way the mountains looked on another day or time, or heighten consciousness of the continually changing condition and appearances of things.
SMITH: Within my installation, there are 3 entry points. First, there is the stepping onto the 300’ long boardwalk that extends into the desert where you are highly aware of walking above the desert floor. It is a moment to transition your senses from where you’ve been to where you are now—at this moment.
Second, there is the stepping off the boardwalk onto the desert floor. I wanted this moment to be a highly conscious shift. You hear the sand beneath your feet for the first time and you are aware of having entered the space of the desert.
Third, there is the passing through the threshold of the “Circle”—where your visual experience with the work shifts from reflections of the land on the exterior to reflections of the sky at the interior.
RIOT MATERIAL: We’re seeing, thematically, a good deal of mirrors at Desert X, both actual and conceptual, and within that we’re seeing numerous implicit links to the story of Narcissus, of how he failed to enter the higher spheres of self, lost as he was in his own reflection. Was your purpose in choosing mirrors, or reflection, or a notion of distorted perspective, to challenge our own tendencies toward self-adoration, or was it to open our perspective to the greater terrain of Being, not only within but amongst ourselves and in harmony with the land?
SMITH: It is very telling that when mirrors, or specifically reflection, is used in artwork, most people think of ego or Narcissus or selfies. I prefer the more abstract experience that looks quite intently beyond the physicality of the person to the space in which that person exists. While people may see themselves within the reflections of the installation, my hope is that they will look deeper, seeing themselves within the desert for the first time.
Additionally, by angling the 300 reflectors at 10 degrees and spacing them at just 21 1/2” apart, the overlap of reflection as well as the compression and expansion of perception will allow people to see the desert anew. Certainly, there is the understanding of mirage–of the altered understanding of what is in front of you and of a sense of magic–that you equally comprehend and cannot comprehend what it is that you are seeing. The Circle of Land and Sky, through reflection, displaces your typical understanding of direction–compressing the horizon to merge the west with the east or the north with the south. It lifts the land to the sky and pulls the sky down to the earth. All of these experiences occurring only at specific locations within the site or at specific times of the day, entirely unique to the individual.
KAINO: The mirrors that create the illusion in this particular work are invisible and are encoded into the piece. When viewing the work, the audience sees an illusion of a geographic disruption that extends hundreds of feet down, when actually they are looking at a trapped reflection. That was, the provocative and important factor in the development of the work. The effect is created from a combination of a first surface mirror, which I have explored in previous works as a metaphoric heterotropia, sitting below a one-way mirror of the type that I have also created works from in regards to secrecy and knowledge production. In this piece, the viewer’s gaze is extracted and cut off from its owner, plunging even deeper into the external rather than higher into the self.
STRACHAN: Its fun to talk about mirrors but nobody wants to look at them selves seriously. One of the most difficult things to do is self reflect and include one’s self into cultural criticism. We protest pipelines while using cars to get to the protest location. I believe the art for me is somewhere in that misunderstanding. The shiny pretty aesthetic/conceptual mirror is much easier to contend with, so let’s be distracted by that instead.
BOLANDE: My work certainly plays with perspective. This project and indeed much of my work has to do with perspective, point of view and orientation. In taking the pictures, it was a quite interesting process of orienting myself in relation to landforms, and also in relation to a momentary glimpse. (This is something that comes up when hiking in the desert, when orienting yourself in relation to landforms that may look more or less similar becomes critically important.)
The photographs will have a higher degree of clarity and focus than what is visible to the naked eye of the actual horizon. I think this may have a relation to desire that may be quite palpable. Wanting to see or know in advance of arriving somewhere. Through this process viewer will be made aware of the the image, its relationship to the landscape and ultimately to the landscape itself.
RIOT MATERIAL: Deserts are often identified with arid wastelands, with terrains seemingly barren and without life, yet deserts, the Mojave no less amongst them, are not only teeming with life but are rich in minerals, metals and precious rocks, subterranean fortunes that have lured men for centuries to excavate and extract, with environmental consequences predictably being one of terminal waste and contamination, a general poisoning of the earth and ourselves. Meanwhile, deserts all over the world reveal a pathway to the divine, a connection with the sublime. At which end of these two ideas might your work be pointing toward or taking a position — extraction or expansion?
KAINO: This work is a symbolic tunnel that operates in both ways. It is a work about an inversion, wherein extraction and loss are collaborators of connectedness and escape; forfeiture becomes freedom. At the same time, it is a glowing pathway that provokes a multi-layered line of questioning about one’s hopes and fears, presence and absence. Where does it connect to and who might we find on the other end but another version of ourselves looking down, or up, at ourselves.
STRACHAN: I remember when I first heard the word sublime and looked up its meaning. I remember thinking how distracting it was to be lofty in ones thinking when there is no food to eat. I think about that all the time. Sublime divinity in hunger is what the desert makes me think about. What happens to our creative sprit when we can only afford to focus on the survival?
SMITH: My Lucid Stead project of 2013 in Joshua Tree used mirrored surfaces in an effort to transform the desert into actual material within the artwork. The result was an awakening of the environment that you had just travelled through and that you were currently standing within. I hope that by experiencing 300 reflective “linear samplings” of the desert land and sky, there can be a heightened understanding of the desert itself. I hope there can be a direct connection to that sense of “universal beauty” that exists in this world where all of us, as human beings, consciously or unconsciously choose to stop and look—to take in the beauty that is before us before it shifts, transforms, and disappears. It is those moments where real memory is created—a connection to an experience that is worth remembering, worth sharing, and worth telling the world about.
Desert X runs from February 25 through April 30, 2017