Most visitors to “Mirage,” an installation by the artist Doug Aitken on a hillside overlooking the Coachella Valley, leave wondering about the traction their pictures of the supremely photogenic project are getting on social media — at least if their posture, bending intently over their phones as they trudge back to their cars, is any indication.
I left wondering about the boulders. OK, checking my phone — I’m not superhuman — but also wondering about the boulders.
“Mirage” is one of 16 artworks scattered around the Coachella Valley as part of the inaugural Desert X, a contemporary-art festival organized by curator Neville Wakefield. It takes the form of a single-story ranch house in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains that is wrapped inside and out in mirrored surfaces. From certain angles it disappears almost completely into the landscape it endlessly reflects.
The piece is located in a high-end residential subdivision that is among the last major undeveloped parcels of hillside land in the valley. Though most of the Desert X pieces will come down at the end of April, “Mirage” will remain open through the end of October.
It is the most architectural of the Desert X offerings, though pieces by Gabriel Kuri, Sherin Guirguis and Richard Prince come close. As ever, vernacular and generic architecture remain an irresistibly convenient vessel for contemporary artists.
Aitken describes “Mirage” as a study of the relationship between the architecture of the typical suburban ranch house (and its forebears, including residential designs by Frank Lloyd Wright and others) and the natural landscape that it both relies upon and threatens to destroy.
“I knew for the work to function I need a location on a hillside where there’s a view of urban sprawl,” he told me in a phone interview. “Where the sprawl ends and the desert begins. This is not the kind of project where you can compromise and do it wherever.”
(Aitken will be giving a talk on the project at noon Sunday at the Palm Springs branch of the Ace Hotel, with an introduction from Brooke Hodge, director of architecture and design at the Palm Springs Art Museum.)
When I visited “Mirage” last weekend, as the sun began to slip behind the mountains that rise up steeply behind it, the place was packed. And not just crowded with bodies — though in some rooms it was difficult to move, as if we were all shuffling through a Monet blockbuster at the National Gallery — but filled with the most aggressive kind of social-media strategizing you can imagine, with people arranging complicated trompe l’oeil effects involving one friend’s feet and another’s head.
There was a young woman in a pink quinceañera dress being guided from room to room by a professional photographer; there were grandparents snapping pictures of grandchildren and vice versa; there was a toddler crying because he didn’t want to leave; there were packs of teenagers hiking through the desert just below the house, their jeans stained with yellow pollen from the flowering bottlebrush plants, looking for the perfect angle for a group photo with “Mirage” and the mountain range as the backdrop.
The house, with its funhouse-mirror architecture, is especially well designed for selfies, making it an ideal installation for an age that conspires in so many ways to make each of us a Narcissus. But to me it was the details of the setting that were the most meaningful — and the most revealing of the project’s ambitions and its limits.
Which brings us back to the boulders.
“Mirage” is located inside the 110-acre Desert Palisades, a hillside enclave dedicated firmly to a neo-modernist aesthetic. According to the marketing materials, “Residents are encouraged to enlist the world's most prominent architects to explore new ideas in desert modernism while upholding the time-honored, midcentury principles that have defined Palm Springs from the beginning.”
Two houses have been built so far, along with a severely attractive gatehouse in Cor-Ten steel by Studio AR&D Architects, a Palm Springs firm. The rest of the building sites (which will soon go on the market at $400,000 and up) are empty. As a sign plunged into the dirt informed me, these include Lot #28 directly across the street from “Mirage,” covering 22,848 square feet at 2550 Winter Sun Drive.
The process of clearing sites and building roads through the subdivision, which edges up into the sublime landscape of Chino Canyon, meant removing and then figuring out to do with about 3,500 truckloads of boulders, many of them far heavier than a grown man and nearly as tall. Some neighbors and members of the Palm Springs City Council balked at early plans to pile up the boulders to create a rock berm on the Desert Palisades site or truck them across nearby Tram Way to another property owned by the developers. Ultimately, the boulders were trucked down the hill to a nearby quarry.
That debate recalls essays by John McPhee about efforts to tame the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains decades ago. It’s a reminder that however genuine the efforts by the planners of Desert Palisades to tread lightly on the land, the project has still required a major earth-moving operation and changed the character of these 110 acres in dramatic ways.
Once you see “Mirage” in person, it becomes clear that it’s as much an advertisement for the Desert Palisades development as a critique of it (or of the amount of work that is required to leave a piece of land like this looking as though it’s barely been touched). Nor is the piece nervy enough to confront the gap that lies between the pitched roof of a ranch house — the democratic profile of everyday aspiration — and the flat-roof neo-modernism that in this subdivision has emerged as the key architectural marker of sophisticated taste.
“Mirage” is eager to judge in a distant, broad sense: It’s a lens designed to frame literal and metaphorical views of desert sprawl. It is substantially less interested in making sense of the landscape right at its feet.