Desert X exhibition reflects earth, sky, state of world

Curves and Zigzags from the Desert X land art exhibition in Coachella Valley, California. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Veronique DUPONT

Los Angeles (AFP) -- A house clad in mirrors pops out of the California desert. It blends into the landscape, reflecting a kaleidoscope of the urban grid and arid valley of Palm Springs -- to the delight of photographers and selfie-seekers.

This is Doug Aitken's "Mirage," one of the showstoppers of Desert X, an exhibition of 16 site-specific monumental works by international artists that spans southern California's Coachella Valley.

The works are mostly "land art," massive installations in nature. The exhibition includes a replica of assassinated president John F. Kennedy's nuclear shelter, a mirrored fence, a wall of optical effects, a traditional earthen shelter... and an antisocial robot.

Desert X runs through April -- with "Mirage" set to remain in place for six months. The show has attracted tens of thousands of people since its opening four weeks ago, including hipsters, art lovers and residents of the region not normally attracted to museums.

"We had 5,000 people per weekend," close to twice the number expected, Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield told AFP.

Heading west

The success of the exhibition highlights the growing creative clout of Los Angeles and Palm Springs, where new galleries and museums, prestigious fashion shows and trendy tourism destinations offer a counterweight to New York on the other side of the country.

"There's been a steady drift west, away from Manhattan," Wakefield said.

Economic factors are driving the shift, with many artists fleeing the exorbitant rents of New York. But the trend also has philosophical underpinnings in the historic campaign to settle the West.

"Mirage," which is shaped like an ordinary ranch-style suburban house, symbolizes the cult of real estate, a central tenet of the American Dream. It is also a nod to the "mid-century modern" architectural masterpieces of Palm Springs.

"I'm interested in seeing artwork as something that can be alive on its own and continuously in flux," Aitken, a top contemporary American artist, said in an email to AFP.

The location of "Mirage," which reflects the surrounding sky and landscape, was "very important."

"I wanted to have a perspective as looking from a desert hillside towards the suburbs and that vista extending past the suburbs and reclaimed by the raw desert continuing on undeveloped into the horizon," he said.

The organizers of Desert X give only the latitude and longitude coordinates of the works and not their addresses, forcing visitors to search for them and discover little-known places along the way, like the Whitewater Preserve where art-seekers can find "One I Call."

Sherin Guirguis's sculpture, an ode to migration, is built from bags of earth and is modeled after traditional homing pigeon towers in the desert villages of her native Egypt.

Getting lost

Several other works also focus on the theme of migration, a timely and important topic in this region close to the Mexican border where President Donald Trump has vowed to build a "big, beautiful wall" to curb illegal immigration.

Swiss artist Claudia Comte created a wall in the desert, "Curves and Zigzags," with undulating black lines that give the effect of an optional illusion. Californian Phillip K Smith planted a circular installation of 300 angled, vertical mirrored posts in the ground, called "The Circle of Land and Sky."

"It's a sort of a perimeter. I don't think he necessarily conceived it that way but it is part of a conversation on boundaries," said Wakefield.

"The idea of border has resonated a lot with the artists in a number of ways."

"Monument," by Texan artist Will Boone, reproduces the underground nuclear shelter of former US president Kennedy during the Cold War era. Visitors descend to find a painted, larger-than-life statue of the leader, assassinated in 1963.

The bunker "speaks to many things that have become particularly pressing since the election of the current president," said Wakefield, citing nuclear fears and "preppers" -- members of a subculture preparing for apocalypse.

Since the beginning of time, he noted, the desert has exerted its pull on those who want to withdraw from the world -- and in southern California, that includes stars from Hollywood's golden age who flocked to Palm Springs to lose themselves in excess far from the paparazzi.

Norma Jeane's "ShyBot," an autonomous robotic vehicle, was designed to roam the desert while avoiding human contact. It has taken its mission seriously: it has gone missing.


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