Desert X

by Sid Feddema

The CA-111 to palm Springs is a bleached, cracked stretch of highway bordered by scrub brush and the San Jacinto mountains. Like everything in the Coachella Valley – that collection of modernism and sunsets that stretches from the Salton Sea to where the 111 branches from the 10 into the ashen haze – form follows function.

These swathes of desert have long held the imaginations of artists longing to head West. It was here that Ed Ruscha discovered his Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) coming out to California on Route 66 in the late ‘50s. Twentysix, a small book featuring all the photos of fill-up stations that he was left with after taking out all the interesting ones, was the first in a series of 16 limited-run publications including Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965), and Royal Road Test, the latter taking as its subject a Royal Model X typewriter, hurled out the window of a speeding Buick into the California desert.

“Like the Symbolists, Surrealists, and Dadaists before him, Ruscha found that language is fluid, that even the material form of the word – the letters that make it up – is par of an unending game of generating meaning, none of which is final,” wrote Neville Wakefield in his essay “Material Fictions and Highway Codes” in 1998. Wakefield at the time was a promising young curator of the European tradition, and Ruscha the epitome of the unrelenting boundary-pushing of Californian artists of that time.

This year, Wakefield returned to the desert, this time to push some of his own boundaries as the curator of the exhibition Desert X.

The first of its kind, Desert X was organized by Susan L. Davis, the current Editorial Director for The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands (a favorite of President Obama) – who conceived of the exhibition after visiting the Cartagena Biennial and witnessing how the art integrated with the architecture and culture of the city. Like his 2014 exhibition in Gstaad, Elevation 1049, for Desert X Wakefield secured an impressively diverse roster of 16 internationally respected contemporary artists who all created site-specific works which respond to the environment and culture of the Coachella Valley. Yes, the Doug Aitkens and Richard Princes of the art world are present, but also Lita Albuquerque – the California-based light and space artist – and Norma Jeane – the elusive Italian artist who lists his birthdate as the night Marilyn Monroe died. 

Driving south on the Gene Autry Trail, Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Jennifer Bolande’s “Visible Distance” comes into view. Taking the San Jacinto mountain range as literal inspiration, a billboard momentarily merges with the craggy peaks of the horizon, resulting in several “cinematic” moments of euphoria. Deriving from the Burma-Shave tradition in advertising – where billboards are placed sequentially to deliver their message in episodes to those in motion – Bolande’s billboards celebrate that which they obscure.

Writing about Bolande in 1989 for Artforum, Paula Marincola said, “She is a connoisseur of unlikely but evocative details, of subliminally perceived, fragmentary images and events” This is as true of 2017’s “Visible Distance” as it is of her 1987-88 work “Milk Crown,” a porcelain version of Harold Edgerton’s 1956 photo of what happens when a drop of milk meets its gravitational destiny. Like “Distance,” “Milk Crown” mines a rich vein of cultural history, in this case, the advent of high-speed photography. Both works, as well, are differentiated by their static nature. Whereas the Edgerton photo is a work in the past progressive (we understand it in the context of what came before it and what will happen after) “Milk Crown” will never alter. In this context we understand that while the San Jacinto Mountains will eventually erode, and the Lamar Advertising Company will certainly change the billboards, the image itself will never change.

Hooking a right from Gene Autry and heading West towards the mountains, the shadeless tract housing gives way to ‘50s and ‘60s modernism as you climb higher into the foothills. At the end of a leafy drive lies the entrance to the neo-modernist structures of the hillside Desert Palisades community. Passing the guard station and crawling up the gravel drive, Doug Aitken’s mirrored ranch-style home “Mirage” comes into view. The hillside vantage and the mirrored surfaces contribute to the feeling that the house is floating, and indeed, this piece shares a lightness with past works of Aitken’s. His dreamy “Underwater Pavilions” off the coast of Catalina Island come to mind – three-dimensional pentagon-sided structures that occupy three different depths of the coastal shelf. As with his “Pavilions,” “Mirage” takes up the mantle of our troubled relationship with the natural world. From the description of the project: “this classic one-story suburban house becomes a framing device, a perpetual echo chamber endlessly bouncing between the dream of nature as pure uninhabited state and the pursuit of its conquest.” Speaking to Flaunt about “Pavilions” Aitken said, “It’s just interesting that you have this crossroads where you can have a dialogue between a very feral wilderness, like a wild ocean and the viewer, or the human.” And in a year when the budget for the National Park Service – the American symbol of conservation – stands to lose $1.5 billion, “Mirage” has now taken that dialogue to the ideological front line of the battle between preservation and our human needs of expansion.

Although not explicitly stated, “Mirage” might function as a double-entendre. The oasis-like feel of the lush cities in the Coachella Valley are anything but permanent. Indeed, Los Angeles itself is sitting on “reclaimed” desert, and like the Anasazi, who thrived for 600 years in the Southwest and had the most advanced pre-Columbian architecture in North America, we too might be wiped out by a drought not much worse than the one that we just shirked.

Heartbreak in the desert isn’t an uncommon theme. Countless movies have ended with a montage of the spurned hero driving into the sun as it dips below a flat horizon. Heartbreak in the art world, however, takes a more varied approach. Although Desert X is set to last through the end of April, a prominent exhibit – Richard Prince’s “Third Place” – has been prematurely closed due to vandals, and Norma Jeane’s charming “ShyBot” – a roving robot programed to avoid humans – has stopped reporting its location. As it is with these things, it’s not the artists who come out heartbroken – they have already done their part – but we the audience who suffer. And like the numerous threats to the environment and civil rights that will be the legacy of this year, we must first come to terms with the fact that we co-exist with other humans who do not share our values.

“If the linguistic potential of the gas station belongs to the pop dream of the road elevated to the level of static advertisement,” Neville Wakefield writes in “Material Fictions,” “Royal Road Test suggests the dispersal of such potential – its literal meaning curbed by the velocity of travel. And while the symbolic resonance of such an action might have suggested itself as part of some latterday Luddite protestation – the destruction of the writing machine with its subtly implied sovereignty over the written word – the carefully assembled documentary evidence simply redistributes the facts of language across the pictorial rather than narrative, field.”

Or to put it another way, here’s Louis L’Amour: “You can’t fight the desert... you have to ride with it.”

Written by Amy Slocum