Desert X artists dig beneath the sandy surface
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Desert X artists dig beneath the sandy surface
Neville Wakefield, left, and César García-Alvarez, co-curators of the Desert X biennial, in Eduardo Sarabia's installation, The Passenger, a triangular maze that is constructed of petates: floor or sleeping mats that are traditionally woven out of dried strips of palm leaves, in Palm Springs, Calif., March 9, 2021. Jim Mangan/The New York Times.

Jori Finkel

PALM SPRINGS, CA (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The odds were fully stacked against the Desert X biennial taking place this year. Bigger and better-organized destination exhibitions have punted on their plans since the pandemic struck, and even in the best of years, Desert X, which commissions site-specific public art in and around Palm Springs, has a hard time raising money to realize its projects. Its decision two years ago to accept funding from the Saudi Arabian government for a spinoff event caused prominent board members to resign and artists to speak out in protest.

And the guest curator chosen for the 2021 edition, César García-Alvarez, fell ill with COVID-19 last year, just as he began working with artists to develop their projects. “I was very sick from mid-March through the end of May, and I still am; I’m a COVID long-hauler,” he said.

“It was hard organizing a show like this during a pandemic, I think we’re all very honest about that,” he added. “But it was important we continue to do this and continue supporting artists.”

Neville Wakefield, who is Desert X’s artistic director and co-curator of its third edition, agreed. “We never considered canceling it,” he said of the show, which opens Friday. “Just the opposite. The fact that we’re outdoors and free to the public made our purpose more urgent in some respects. While museums in LA have been closed for a year, we felt a responsibility to do what our walled institutions couldn’t and nourish the need for culture.”

The biennial is smaller than usual, featuring the work of 13 artists compared with as many as 19 in years past, with a more compact footprint. “We weren’t sure if hotels would be open, so we organized a show that someone from LA or San Diego could drive in to see in a day,” said García-Alvarez. (They are installing hand-sanitizing stations at some artworks and “health ambassadors” at others to distribute masks and ensure social distancing.)

The show features work by several international artists, including Alicja Kwade from Berlin, Serge Attukwei Clottey from Accra, Ghana; Oscar Murillo from La Paila, Colombia; Eduardo Sarabia from Guadalajara, Mexico; and Vivian Suter from Panajachel, Guatemala. Most have shown at the Mistake Room, the nonprofit exhibition space García-Alvarez founded. His original idea was to help Desert X artists work with community organizations in Palm Springs and other Coachella Valley towns, but COVID-19 safety protocols largely scrambled those plans as well.

Still, most artworks are rooted in some sense of place. “The desert is not an empty void,” he said. “So you will see the artists here responding not just to the physical landscape but to environmental and social issues, whether it’s Felipe Baeza’s mural on the history of undocumented migrants and queer communities of color in the desert or Serge Attukwei Clottey’s installation dealing with issues of water access or Xaviera Simmons’ billboards looking at the way the desert perpetuates notions of whiteness.”

Works by Baeza, Murillo and Christopher Myers are for different reasons scheduled to go public after the show’s official opening, while plans for an ephemeral “smoke sculpture” by Judy Chicago are uncertain. (Since the Living Desert has pulled out as her venue, she has been looking for a new location and on Friday said, “We couldn’t find one.”)

Of the artworks already installed, here are five well worth the drive.

Nicholas Galanin’s ‘Never Forget’
Nodding to the history of terrorism against Native Americans more than 9/11, Galanin’s “Never Forget” turns the standard acknowledgment of Indigenous land rights into a monumental admission of wrongdoing. Near the Palm Springs Visitor Center and Aerial Tramway, long considered the gateway to the city, Galanin’s message looms large: a 44-foot-tall sign that says “Indian Land” in white lettering styled like the Hollywood sign, which spelled Hollywoodland when it was first erected in 1923. “The original Hollywoodland sign was an advertisement for a real estate development for white-only land purchases,” said Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax artist who lives in Sitka, Alaska. “This work is essentially the opposite: a call to landowners and others to invite them to join the landback movement.” He has identified a plot of land near the sign that is for sale and started a GoFundMe campaign to try to purchase it and return it to the Cahuilla peoples.

Kim Stringfellow’s ‘Jackrabbit Homestead'
The only Desert X artist who lives in the region, Stringfellow dug deep for her project into the history of California homesteading and the legacy of the 1938 Small Tract Act, which allowed people to acquire up to 5 acres in the desert very cheaply by adding a small structure. Stringfellow has photographed the remains of these “jackrabbit homesteads” before and this time recreated, or more re-imagined, one that belonged to Catherine Venn, a Los Angeles transplant who settled in the desert in the 1940s and wrote about her adventures living among her cactus and coyote neighbors. The minuscule cabin has no plumbing but a few comforts: a small bed, a kitchenette and a table with a Smith-Corona typewriter, holding an unfinished poem about the desert’s “thunderous silence” that made me wonder if the artist herself had written it. (She didn’t; it’s by Venn.) An audio track of Stringfellow reading from Venn’s diary adds to the confusion of artist with subject in interesting ways. There is a time travel suggestion as well, though the direction is not entirely clear. Is the artist delivering the homestead to us or us to the homestead?

Serge Attukwei Clottey’s ‘The Wishing Well’
This pair of yellow-orange cubes recalls from a distance a fan favorite from the last Desert X: Sterling Ruby’s bright orange rectangular prism set against the desert terrain. But that was a slick geometric form appearing incongruously and improbably in the craggy landscape (not unlike the unidentified monolith found last year in Utah that inspired a thousand conspiracy theories), while Clottey’s humble choice of material speaks to the droughts and water supply issues that threaten Southern California as well as his native Ghana. He cuts plastic pieces from so-called Kufuor gallons, colorful containers used in Ghana for storing water, and stitches them together with wire. He has previously used this material to fabricate everything from flags to a yellow brick road. Here the boxy forms, planted in grass outside a Palm Springs community center, evoke water tanks, and the plastic blanket below them spreads out like much-needed water.

Eduardo Sarabia’s ‘The Passenger’
Anyone traveling in Mexico for any length of time is sure to come across petates: the floor mats or sleeping mats traditionally woven out of dried strips of palm leaves. In this installation, 350 handmade mats — elevated from their usual use — form the walls of an open-roof, triangular, walk-through, mazelike structure. Sarabia’s trajectory begins with his birth in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrant parents and, as an adult, his choice to move to Mexico. In the same spirit, his maze makes you double back to reach the center of the triangle — a meditative clearing where you can reflect on your own journey or just enjoy the views, mountains in all directions.

Vivian Suter’s ‘Tamanrasset’
A Swiss-Argentine artist who lives in Guatemala on a former coffee plantation, Suter was not able to fly out for a site visit. Instead she worked from photographs of local buildings, landscapes, sunsets and more, drawing on their color palette to make a new suite of abstract paintings. Now hanging behind the glass facade of a midcentury building in downtown Palm Springs, the paintings feature lemon, lime and cherry colors and shapes like bubble clusters that have a vaguely midcentury-modern look. But the works never feel fussy or design-y thanks to Suter’s process — painting on raw, unstretched canvas outside her home and allowing the outdoors into her work in the form of dirt stains or crumpled leaves stuck on the surface. Her dog’s muddy pawprints also make a friendly appearance.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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