Desert X 2019: Artists will tackle environmental disaster, guns, immigration

Desert X 2019 has announced its artist lineup. The biennial opened with a splash in 2017 with installations that included Doug Aitken's "Mirage," a ranch house fully mirrored, inside and out.
(Konrad Fiedler / AFP / Getty Images)

Desert X is back. The biennial that scattered large-scale artworks — including a ranch house, fully mirrored on the inside and outside — across the vast desert of the Coachella Valley in 2017 on Monday announced its artist lineup for 2019.

When the second iteration of Desert X premieres Feb. 9, the 19 works in the free exhibition will include a giant pink aluminum structure by Danish collective Superflex that’s meant to evoke a drive-in movie theater and to call attention to rising sea levels. L.A. artist Sterling Ruby has created a fluorescent orange monolith, “Specter,” that’s 20 feet long and 8 feet tall. A solar-powered marine science lab, “Terminal Lake Exploration Platform,” by Chris Taylor and Steve Badgett will explore terminal lakes and the way the Salton Sea basin reflects the ecological — and political — conditions of our time.

“In some ways there’s greater thematic depth to this one,” said Desert X founding curator and artistic director Neville Wakefield. “I think the first one was very much about the place, in the sense that the works were in response to the specific landscape. Whereas this time the big undertone is this idea of environmental themes. Global warming, climate change, is very much on people’s minds.”


In addition to “Terminal Lake Exploration Platform” and the installation by Superflex members Rasmus Nielsen, Jakob Fenger and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, five other artworks explore environmental issues.

Irish artist John Gerrard’s “Western Flag” re-creates, as a digital simulation, the Texas site of the Lucas Gusher, which in 1901 was the world’s first major oil gusher. With his interactive installation “A Point of View,” Colombian-born, Paris-based artist Iván Argote will engrave English and Spanish messages into the steps of his concrete architectural sculptures as commentary about the landscape surrounding the Salton Sea. L.A.-based Nancy Baker Cahill’s installations “Revolutions” and “Margin of Error” employ augmented reality to explore the conditions of the desert and environmental disaster, among other things.

Paris-based Argentine performance and video artist Cecilia Bengolea’s “Mosquito Net” explores, through dance and sculpture, the hybridization of animals. Egypt-born, Berlin-based artist Iman Issa pairs a film prop and text to address oil refineries, mineral extractions and the exploitation of natural resources in her installation “Surrogates.”

This year’s exhibition will have a slightly larger geographic footprint than the inaugural Desert X, stretching from the Whitewater Preserve south to the edge of the Salton Sea and even into Mexico.

Mexico City-born multimedia performance artist Pia Camil will figuratively connect Baja California and the Coachella Valley with her “Lover’s Rainbow,” two rainbow sculptures spanning 40 feet each, made from painted rebar. The pieces center on immigration, urban development and the desert terrain.

Brazil-born Cinthia Marcelle’s “Wormhole” will position television monitors in storefronts in the Coachella Valley and in Tijuana as a way of juxtaposing the two locations and addressing the distance between them.

The artist Norma Jeane will re-release “ShyBot,” the autonomous vehicle featured in Desert X 2017, Wakefield said. “But this time ‘ShyBot’ won’t be roaming the valley but along the Mexican border, bringing back images,” he said. “I think the idea of the connection between America and Mexico is obviously on everyone’s minds at the moment.”

Jenny Holzer’s “Before I Became Afraid, 2019” explores gun violence. The artist will project text from survivors, family members and activists, as well as snippets of poetry, onto a nearby mountain face.

Coachella Valley native Armando Lerma, founder of the street art project Coachella Walls, will show his mural “Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds,” whose themes include migration.

In 2017, Desert X drew more than 200,000 visitors during nine weeks, according to organizers.

“It was a surprise hit, we didn’t know what to expect,” Wakefield said.

But success introduces new issues.

“In some ways, a lot of doors have been opened for us,” he said. “But now everyone is worried about parking and logistics, which we didn’t have before.”

The curatorial team — which this year includes Amanda Hunt, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s director of education and public programs, and Matthew Schum, an independent curator in Los Angeles — is racing to install the works. It’s a process Wakefield describes as being infused with “the terror and the pleasure of the unknown.”

“Unlike working at an institution,” he says, “you have to be nimble and improvisational when you’re working in the desert. Conditions change and sometimes they defeat you. We just had rain that held up construction for several days.

“But the pleasure is that you go on a journey of discovery, both from a curatorial perspective and the journey the audience takes. You don’t know what you’re going to encounter along the way.”

The full artist lineup for Desert X 2019:

Iván Argote

Nancy Baker Cahill

Cecilia Bengolea

Pia Camil

John Gerrard

Julian Hoeber

Jenny Holzer

Iman Issa

Mary Kelly

Armando Lerma

Eric N. Mack

Cinthia Marcelle

Postcommodity (Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist)

Cara Romero

Sterling Ruby

Kathleen Ryan

Gary Simmons

Superflex (Rasmus Nielsen, Jakob Fenger and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen)

Chris Taylor and Steve Badgett

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