Place, Space, or Backdrop: The Dilemma of Desert X, the “Coachella Biennial”

Doug Aitken, "Mirage" (inside view), 2017. Image courtesy of Desert Biennial
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Against this summer’s alignment of Documenta 14, the Venice Biennale, and Skulptur Projekte Münster, the first edition of the Desert X biennial seemed to proffer a compelling alternative model to the cosmopolitan mega-show. Its organizers proposed an eco-geological presentation rather than a city-centered, transnationally-focused one, aiming for a dialogue with the nature and culture of a massively-irrigated section of the Colorado desert in southern California, ringed on four sides by mountains. The vision of Desert X, as put forth by Desert Biennial, was to “bring the finest international artists to the Coachella Valley to create art, engage viewers, and focus attention on the valley’s environment – its natural wonders as well as socio-political-economic issues that make it vibrant, curious, and exciting.”

Depending on which press preview you read, the new biennial was either going to be a parasite on, or a solution to, the Coachella music festival – the most high-profile event in the area, known largely as a pilgrimage for a certain commercialized, bohemian, selfie-facing lifestyle. A Paper Magazine preview declared that the exhibition was going to “breathe new life into the Coachella Valley,” “bring substance back to the historical landmark,” and give the history and culture of the area their due. Yet Desert X was intentionally set to coincide with the music festival, as both the New York Times and Artforum noted in their headlines. Artnet news called Desert X the “artworld counterpart” to the more familiar Coachella festival and predicted that it would be met with a good deal of “eye-rolling.”

In the end, though, the successes and failures of the first Desert X biennial had little to do with its relationship to the music festival. Instead, the exhibition hinged on how curator Neville Wakefield treated the biome and community of this section of the Colorado desert. The show fell into several traps of its own making, owing to the fundamental way that Wakefield characterized his environment. The Coachella Valley was cast as a blank slate and a prop rather than a dynamic participant with its own rich cultural history, social complexities, and very real physical vulnerability.

This approach took root with the selection of Wakefield as curator. He was chosen, at least in part, because of his 2014 Elevation 1049 project in in the ski village of Gstaad, Switzerland, which brought site-specific artworks to the alpine “white landscape.” The 2017 Desert X exhibition catalogue quotes Wakefield: “There was a certain kind of blankness [in Gstaad] that became the backdrop. That’s also true of the desert.” The front page of the Desert X website doubles down on this terra nullius imagery, referring twice to the desert as a “canvas” in bold caps; one onto which artists “were invited to project their vision.” This is the consistent misconstruction of the show: representing the Coachella as a void to be filled or overwritten. At best, it’s a misreading of the history and culture of the area; at worst, it’s whitewashing.

Wakefield’s treatment effectively erases the cultural specificity that Desert Biennial proposed to highlight. For example: the valley has for thousands of years been home to the Native American tribe of Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who were displaced into impoverished reservations in the 19th century. Their major source of income now comes from the local casino. The show includes one work by a Native American (though not Agua Caliente) artist; Jeffery Gibson’s sculpture Alive! (2017) – a turbine blade with the painted messages “I am alive! You are alive! They are alive! We are living!” – comprises a broad gesture towards the erasure of those who were there before. This sole interaction with the Agua Caliente’s world addressed neither the cultural history nor the artistic production of the tribe itself; instead it collapsed the complex economic and political particularity of the space into an abstracted existential generality.

Similar blind spots effectively erased key elements of the Coachella Valley’s unique culture. Perhaps most glaring was the lack of sustained attention to queerness; numbers vary, but up to a third of the Palm Springs area identifies as LGBTQ. Because of the Desert AIDS Project, a large population of HIV/AIDS-infected people have also moved to the area for treatment. As a result, the Coachella Valley has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Not addressing this phenomenon is damning for an exhibition that explicitly seeks to foreground local social histories.

The exhibition was more successful at translating the crucial theme of immigration into abstracted, site-specific work. The Sonoran desert (the Coachella Valley’s Colorado desert comprises a relatively small section of the Sonoran) is commonly traversed by those attempting to enter the United States illegally from Mexico, and many die along the way from exposure and heat exhaustion. Several pieces evoked these journeys, often through the installation of tunnels and holes. Most notable among these were Will Boone’s claustrophobic underground Monument and Glenn Kaino’s Hollow Earth, in which the fantasy of digging through the earth turns into a moment of literal self-reflection above a mirror-lined abyss.

Philip K. Smith III, Circle of Land and Sky, 2017. Image courtesy of Desert Biennial.

Fittingly, mirrored surfaces formally dominated Desert X 2017. Each closeup photograph that visitors took of their own reflections echoed the exhibition’s failure to “focus attention on the valley’s environment.” The most popular site by far – the show’s blockbuster centerpiece – was Doug Aitken’s mirrored Mirage house. When I visited, the installation was packed with viewers taking selfies against its walls from close range, despite the house’s dramatic location overlooking a vast vista. Similarly, Philip K. Smith III’s The Circle of Land and Sky invoked the mountain ring that surrounds the Coachella valley with a circle of 300 mirrored sculptures. Yet on my visit, the piece seemed mainly to inspire selfies and portraits against individual sculptures, with scale and context utterly lost. The challenges that selfie-friendly immersive exhibitions pose for meaningful viewer engagement are certainly not unique to Desert X. But here, such works also flatten the complex ecosystem of the Coachella Valley into a piece of scenery, and encourage audiences to treat it like the Coachella music festival: a place to reflect and document the self.

Ironically, given its efforts to be photogenic, the exhibition’s most interesting elements were often its least-easily documented: the impossible-to-find Shybot (2017) (Norma Jeane’s desert-roaming wheeled robot programmed to run away when encountering humans), and the social experience of traveling in-between sites. Unfortunately, the works themselves seldom took up the themes of inequality, fraught ecology, and social and ecological vulnerability suggested by the exhibition’s run-down rural stretches of highway, golf courses abutting date farms, and extravagant conference centers.

The ultimate frustration of Desert X was that the clever arrangement of individual site-specific works failed to add up to a larger curatorial point of view. Instead it fell – disappointingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly – into the same script that marks many high-profile biennials like this summer’s trifecta in Europe: creating a fashionable, smooth abstraction of issues that skirt real criticality, while failing to connect with the needs, history, and strengths of local communities.

Gabriel Kuri, Donation Box, 2011. Installed at Desert X 2017. Image courtesy of Desert Biennial

The unhappiest impression of Desert X 2017 is the image of an aestheticized and otherwise barely acknowledged desert as an analog for festival culture in an age of austerity and vulnerability. Of the missed opportunities, foremost is the precarity of the Coachella valley’s biome: the desert in-itself. The Colorado desert, which is massively irrigated in the Coachella Valley to support its golf courses, swimming pools, and agricultural production, is more vulnerable than ever. The only explicitly environmentalist work in Desert X 2017 was Gabriel Kuri’s Donation Box (2011), an installation full of sand and extinguished cigarette butts in an empty stripmall, into which visitors were invited to donate loose change: a vision of the desert as a sort of transfer station for detritus and value.

It’s hopeful to imagine Desert X 2019 pushing beyond this striking-but-superficial motif and addressing the Coachella Valley’s urgent peril: the effect of human culture on the life of the desert. Gathering itself against this reality with greater integrity and urgency, future iterations of the show could be brought conversation with other young biennials, like this Spring’s first Antarctic Biennale, that fold contemporary aesthetics into the environmental issues attending a particular biome. At the very least, the next Desert X must push harder against the reification of Coachella valley as a place to show up, take a selfie, and depart.

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