BARSTOW -- As far as art happenings in the desert go, this stop of Doug Aitken’s cross-country, roving art show was surprisingly, if beautifully, mellow.
Roughly 800 people streamed into Barstow’s Skyline Drive-In Theater for a "Station to Station" show that included performances by headliner Beck along with No Age, Lucky Dragons, Cold Cave and Cat Power. Also part of the show: brightly colored “art yurts” housing installations by Urs Fischer, Ernesto Neto and Kenneth Anger.
The happening initially felt a bit physically dwarfed by the vast, open dust bowl that was the Drive-In, a 50-year-old historic site along Old Highway 58. As visitors filtered in at sunset, circling the yurts or fueling up on snacks from the food trucks, L.A. band No Age played spacy, fluid music on a side stage.
The warm desert wind picked up, sending at least one tumbleweed knot bouncing across the clearing between movie screens.
Fischer’s circular yurt best reflected the mood early on. The all-white cocoon of sorts was filled with billows of lightly scented fog and a spinning disco ball above a pillowy white bed – all surrounded by mirrored walls. The effect was serene and ethereal.
All of that changed, however, when Beck took the stage with a choir led by Fred Martin (who Beck also worked with when he reimagined David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” this year). As the choir marched up to the stage, weaving its way through the crowd, the audience cheered and hollered with abandon.
Beck, in a wide-brimmed black hat, amped up the energy of the night, starting off with two songs from the album “Sea Change,” before switching to a new song he created for “Station to Station.” One of his managers said it was called “Wake Me.”
Then, there was the UFO sighting.
As Beck rocked out, whipping off his black jacket mid-song, New York artist Peter Coffin launched his multicolored UFO installation into the night sky. The UFO -- made of aluminum, with 3,000 individually programmable LED nodes -- had flown over Gdansk in Poland in 2008 but this was the first time the spacecraft has taken flight in the U.S.
As Beck’s song reached a crescendo, with the choir belting out “higher … higher …,” Coffin’s UFO roared its engine, spinning faster and faster, dipping lower and lower, its bright pink and blue and yellow lights whirling into a blur and illuminating the night sky.
It was frenzied and fantastic -- anything but mellow.
And then, almost suddenly, the song came to an end, the stage lights dimmed and the Drive-In’s fluorescent lights came up. The UFO whirred up and away until it was just a speck, barely visible in the dark sky.
The magic, however, wasn’t over quite yet. As wowed guests trickled out into the parking lot, a plump half moon hung low in the distance, as if resting on the silhouetted mountain range, so full and bright and perfectly shaped one had to wonder: Was it part of the happening? Did Aitken hang it himself?