Desert X marks its spot for Coachella 2017 art exhibition

“I’m interested in the way that this place — with all its weird manifestations — stimulates artists,” says curator Neville Wakefield.
“I’m interested in the way that this place — with all its weird manifestations — stimulates artists,” says curator Neville Wakefield.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Lita Albuquerque would like to map the sky. She’d like to stitch together the stars and the sand, sending a blanket of fluid, brightly colored dancers across the open, dusty desert floor.

The environmental artist’s vision for a performance involving hundreds of people, along with a companion sculptural installation, may materialize next spring as part of Desert X, a new international biennial. It will run February to April 2017 in the Palm Springs area and will culminate while next year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is underway.

Desert X, short for Desert Exhibition of Art, will be a free, site-specific contemporary art exhibition steered by a nonprofit group that includes artist Ed Ruscha, collector Beth Rudin DeWoody and former Palm Springs Art Museum Director Steven A. Nash. Organizers are early in the conception process and won’t confirm artist names, but they say the list of participants likely will include Albuquerque, whose desert-inspired artworks date to the ‘70s.

Eight other artists, including L.A.-based Glenn Kaino and Doug Aitken and Palm Desert-based Phillip K. Smith, have been in “deep conversations” with organizers. Many of these artists are making site visits with exhibition curator Neville Wakefield to get inspiration and to plan possible works, which will be funded by the biennial.

The vision is to have internationally known artists respond to the locale — whether that be the topography, the history, the socioeconomic climate of the area or the mythology of the desert. Organizers hope the event will elevate the profile of contemporary art in the desert as well as offer a big, blank canvas to creators.



“I’m interested in the way that this place — with all its weird manifestations — stimulates artists,” says British-born New Yorker Wakefield. L.A. curator and former gallerist Elizabeta Betinski is serving as executive director.

Desert X will hold its first event on Thursday evening for benefactors and founding members. Those members, capped at 100 people, each has paid $3,000 for a year’s involvement in the biennial, including studio tours with artists and sneak peeks of the works. The party Thursday will be held at Coachella, which is a partner and a donor to Desert X.

Wakefield says Desert X hasn’t yet worked out many details, such as how the biennial will dovetail with Coachella logistically. But the event will be decidedly smaller than a typical biennial, he says, with “more than 10 and less than 20 artists.” The intimacy of the exhibition is meant to distinguish it from broader biennials.

That’s in purposeful contrast to the physical footprint of the exhibition, which will be sprawling. Desert X will unfurl across the Coachella Valley, with artists setting up large-scale, mostly outdoor works on sites in nine municipalities.

“We’d rather do fewer significant works than have a larger, scattershot effect,” Wakefield says. “If you’re asking someone to drive for 40 minutes to find a piece of work, you want to reward them for their effort.”

Desert X is the brainchild of Susan Davis, editorial director at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, the former Rancho Mirage estate of Walter Annenberg. Davis, a former New Yorker who’s lived in Palm Springs for six years, felt the Palm Springs Art Museum wasn’t getting the acclaim it deserved. After returning in 2014 from BIACI, the biennial in Cartagena, Colombia, Davis had a light-bulb moment.

“I realized that a similar project would be a way for people visiting the desert to explore its multilayers,” says Davis, now Desert X’s board president. “There’s been a lot of attention paid to the artists in the high desert and not as much in the Coachella Valley. I felt it would lend some heft to what was already going on here.”

The Palm Springs Art Museum and Sunnylands Center & Gardens are Desert X partners. When the biennial debuts, programming will be held at those locations, including lectures and films. If artists choose to use those locales as their art site, their works likely will be outdoors, Wakefield says, rather than in traditional gallery settings.

Wakefield is no stranger to staging art outside. In 2014, he curated the site-specific biennial called “Elevation 1049: Between Heaven and Hell,” in the mountains of Gstaad, Switzerland. He loves the desert, he says, and has made repeated visits to the Palm Springs area as well as to desert-situated artworks such as Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” near Overton, Nev.

“I have an interest in seeing how art behaves in unbounded spaces,” Wakefield says. “And seeing how art can draw new audiences as a result of being in those spaces.”

For Desert X, Wakefield zeroed in on artists who have relationships with the desert as well as those he thought might connect with it.

New Yorker Rachel Rose’s 2015 video work “Everything and More,” about astronauts and the cosmos, was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Wakefield felt she’d take a mystical approach to Desert X. Images of Smith’s LED-illuminated, mirrored shack in Joshua Tree, “Lucid Stead,” went viral in 2013, he’d likely create another colorful, Light and Space Movement-inspired work for Desert X. Aitken’s immersive video installation “Diamond Sea,” which was presented at the Whitney Biennial in 1997, explores southwestern Africa’s Namib Desert.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the identity of the desert,” Aitken says. “This landscape based on detail and survival. It’s about what’s under the sand. Often, when you think you see very little, there’s a lot around you. Those details are often hidden. So it pushes you to look a little deeper and experience things a little bit more.”

Added Ruscha by email: “To a city dweller, the desert might seem dry, inhospitable and scary. All features I find redeemable and intriguing.”

Other artists Wakefield says are likely participants include Egyptian-born, L.A.-based Sherin Guirguis; New York-based Jeffrey Gibson, whose work references his Choctaw and Cherokee heritage; and Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle.

Artist Gabriel Kuri, who lives in L.A., has made a site visit to the desert with Wakefield. Swiss-born, Berlin-based Claudia Comte and New York-based Hank Willis Thomas have site visits planned, Wakefield says.

The desert is a place of extremes, he says, noting the beauty of the area’s Midcentury Modern architecture co-existing with the Salton Sea, “an environmental disaster.” So Wakefield expects to see extremes reflected in the Desert X works. Artists may comment on regional issues such as poverty or water distribution. He also thinks decay may be a theme.

“There’s a great elasticity of space and time that takes place in the desert,” he says. “Some of the pieces may be subject to entropy, they may start to deteriorate or transform as the process goes on.”

Funding for Desert X is coming from board members, individual and corporate donors as well as fundraising events, Betinski says. The Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau is a partner along with Palm Springs Modernism Week, which will overlap with Desert X. Board members include filmmaker Mary Sweeney, Faena Art exhibition director Zoe Lukov and curator Yael Lipschutz.

Paul Clemente, the Coachella music festival’s art director, is a Desert X board member, something that Betinski says might spark collaboration between the two ventures. For years the music festival has commissioned large-scale art installations on its grounds; many of the works have become popular selfie spots for music fans. Piggybacking on that audience gives Desert X a built-in base of young art lovers, though what the collaboration will look like is up in the air.

“Neville and I are excited by the fact that there really is no blueprint and that opens up freedom to go with the flow and see what comes out of it,” Betinski says. “We really felt like the place itself and the artists need to tell us where and what it will be.”

Thursday’s party will be held inside a Smith art installation commissioned by Coachella for this year’s music festival. It’s a mirrored pavilion that will reflect the surrounding desert sunset. Wakefield and Betinski will be there along with artists including Kaino, Guirguis and Gibson.

Albuquerque will be in attendance. The desert’s wide-open emptiness, she says, provides inspiration.

“I think of it as a place of reverie, where there’s no interruption with the eyes,” Albuquerque says. “This vast landscape where one becomes aware of oneself and one’s relationship to the land in a very pure way. It’s so minimalistic. That’s why I go there to create.”


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