Architectural Digest: Desert X Presents a Stunning Visual Landscape

Installation view of Sterling Ruby, SPECTER, 2019. Photo: Neville Wakefield / Courtesy of Desert X

The show—covering Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley, and surrounding areas—features works by 19 contemporary artists

Architectural Digest
February 8, 2019
By Liddy Berman

“I like the idea that this ghostly monolith just appears in the desert. Like a spectral mirage, simultaneously there and not there,” Sterling Ruby explains of SPECTER, the work that greets visitors to 2019’s second edition of Desert X. Following up on the wildly successful 2017 inaugural show, Desert X returns to Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley, and surrounding areas from February 9 through April 22 with an array of commissioned works from 19 contemporary artists ranging from international art-world stars to promising emerging talents.

Visiting the show is no quiet afternoon at the museum. Instead, each viewer must curate and navigate his or her own journey through the show, for an art-viewing experience that is half spiritual walkabout and half fine-art treasure hunt. Desert X offers an interesting paradox—it is at once intensely Instagrammable and yet also highly experiential, with the artists inviting viewers to stand inside their artworks, to interact with them, to activate them with their presence, and to immerse themselves in a surreal world that blurs the lines that traditionally separate natural beauty from man-made interventions.

The natural jumping-off point for any visitor driving in from the West is Sterling Ruby’s SPECTER, a large boxlike structure coated in what Ruby describes as an “intense retina-burning” fluorescent orange paint that grabs the viewer’s eye from far down the highway. It shines like a beacon at first, then seems to wink in and out of existence as one approaches, flickering like the visual echo of a bright camera flash. Like many of the works in the exhibition, it can be seen as both utopian and dystopian, its ultimate interpretation a reflection of the beholder’s beliefs.

a desert with cement stairs
Installation view of Iván Argote, A Point of View, 2019. Photo: Lance Gerber / Courtesy of Desert X

Artist Ivan Argote invites the audience to continue this journey of self-examination in A Point of View. Four concrete platforms tower over the Salton Sea, inviting the viewer to literally change his or her perspective by ascending. The platform steps are emblazoned with Spanish and English words that remind the audience to ground themselves in the here and now, to consider and reflect on the history of this beautifully barren spot that teemed with life millennia ago as the Paleolithic Lake Cahuilla.

cutout figures on a muddy landscape in the evening
Installation View of Cecilia Bengolea, Mosquito Net, 2019. Photo: Lance Gerber / Courtesy of Desert X

Video and performance artist Cecilia Bengolea also expands on the theme of evolution in Mosquito Net, a sculptural imagination of a fantasy street-dance performance set at the edge of the Salton Sea. A menagerie of hybridized animals undulates around and between exaggerated human figures, all frozen in time like insects in amber. The composition could be a dystopian dream from a Hieronymus Bosch painting or a future vision of humans and animals coexisting in harmony in a utopian future, with both options left open for the viewer to consider.

Image may contain Road Tarmac Asphalt Outdoors Gravel Dirt Road Nature Airfield and Airport
Installation view of Eric N. Mack, Halter, 2019. Photo: Lance Gerber / Courtesy of Desert X

Eric N. Mack explores hybridization in a different context, using silks, tulles, and ropes to transform an abandoned gas station into living architecture. Desert winds breathe life into the work, the fabrics rippling around the viewer and cocooning him or her in an industrial space remade as a shelter for reflection and meditation.

a metal rainbow in the desert
Installation view of Pia Camil, Lover’s Rainbow, 2019. Photo: Liddy Berman

Artists Pia Camil, Gary Simmons, Nancy Baker Cahill, and Cara Romero all challenge viewers to transcend boundaries and build bridges across cultural, social, political, and environmental barriers. Camil’s Lover’s Rainbow, a re-creation of the traditional symbol of hope and good fortune composed of painted rebar, is the companion piece of an identical work located in Mexico. “The experience of seeing Lover’s Rainbow is completed by the act of going to visit the rainbow’s counterpart in Mexico…therefore inviting viewers to go across borders,” Camil says. “Although I am aware it won’t change [immigration policy], at least it will throw some light into those issues with a more positive and inclusive message,” she concludes.

Simmons’s Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark serves as a modifiable stage for performance, allowing performers to erase and reset the context for their work. “Music and Art having a way of reaching across cultural and political boundaries.… My hope is for Black Ark to possibly start a conversation that can reach across these boundaries,” Simmons says.

a billboard showing a young native american
Installation view of Cara Romero, Jackrabbit, Cottontail, & Spirits of the Desert, 2019. Photo: Lance Gerber / Courtesy Desert X

Emblazoned across a series of billboards on the Gene Autry Trail, Cara Romero’s photographic series Jackrabbit, Cottontail, & Spirits of the Desert depicts Chermehuevi Native youths as emissaries to their local sister-tribes. “All of the tribes from here share a world view that we—as human beings—are joined to the landscape; we are not separate from it. And we share the worldview that our ancestors are here with us—throughout time and place—and are watching and experiencing the changes in landscape and ecosystem,” Romero says.

Augmented reality is the chosen medium for Nancy Baker Cahill’s work Revolutions. Set in one of the windmill fields that dots the local landscape, the work is activated by use of the 4th Wall app, which transforms these energy generators into a two-minute-long constantly evolving vision of psychedelic explosions.

a sparkly tree in the sky at night
Installation view of Kathleen Ryan, Ghost Tree, 2019. Photo: Liddy Berman

Kathleen Ryan further elucidates this connection between nature and technology in Ghost Tree. She reimagines the iconic Desert Fan Palm, a tree that embodies the image of the California Dream on everything from postcards and neon signs to cheap souvenirs, as a man-made creation, girded with steel windowpanes and crowned with glittering silver plastic leaves upheld by a massive reconstruction of a midcentury-modern chandelier. Ghost Tree stands precariously close to the San Andreas Fault path, highlighting the tension between natural forces and artificial structures, and questioning the balance between nature and human industry.

Desert X is more than just an art exhibition. It’s a journey into our beliefs and our perception of the world. Desert X co-curator Matthew Schum perhaps captures the experience best: “I’ve been radicalized. Early on in the process, it was no problem to explain things, intentions, artwork. That’s changed. [I’ve gone] back to the dumb, stumbling mystic in the desert looking for an escape from civilization as a caption…hoping shared experience can do the speaking despite the discontinuity apparent everywhere.”