Headed to Coachella? Be sure to check out Desert X
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Art is everywhere: Desert X

Headed to Coachella? Be sure to check out Desert X

Words— Ben Kriz

Photography— Celia Spenard-Ko

If you happen to be headed to the California Desert for some music, be sure to stop for a little art along the way. The second edition of Desert X is still going in and around California’s Coachella Valley with site-specific work by 18 artists scattered around an area of about 55 miles. Many of the pieces reflect on the environment and our connection to water, often standing like mirages in the harsh landscape.


Here are five must-see installations and one that has, sadly, disappeared.


Sterling Ruby Specter


As you cruise down the 110 Highway towards the Coachella Valley from Los Angeles, the sprawling towns of Greater Los Angeles give way to rugged mountains, hundreds of wind turbines, and pockmarked desert. Then suddenly...off in the distance. It’s there. A bright orange monolith to the side of the road.


That would be Sterling Ruby’s Specter. A beacon for Desert X. An almost alien figure.


The 20’ x 8’ x 8’ rectangle has been painted in an orange that makes it hard to photograph without it looking photoshopped. Like the natural landscape was cropped out with an orange layer underneath. It has a strange erratic presence.


To get to it you must cross railroad tracks to a field of dirt that could be out of a film. Like that scene where kids on bikes discover the alien space ship alone in the middle of a quarantined military test field. That kind of a field. We visited on an extreme weather day, fighting our way through wind and sand to see the piece. The weather actually elevates the experience—a jarring optical illusion in the desert as you rub the sand out of your eyes.




John Gerrard Western Flag


After Specter, as you enter Palm Springs, you’ll see Irish artist John Gerrard’s Western Flag which uses computer programming and 3D graphics to construct a real-time computer-generated image that depicts the first major oil gusher found in Texas—The Lucas Gusher at Spindletop (which blew oil over 150 feet in the air at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day over nine days before it was brought under control).


In Gerrard’s digital projection, a flagpole coughs out black smoke representational of carbon monoxide, usually invisible to the human eye. In his statement, Gerrard notes that this piece sits at the “gateway to the Coachella Valley…[acting] as a stark reminder not just of the willful exploitation and depletion of resources...but of the energy taken to return the deserted land to its current state of artificial habitation. The invisible gas responsible for climate change is here made visible. Flying the flag of our own self-destruction we are asked to consider our role in the warming of the planet and simultaneous identification of once fertile lands.”





Coachella was originally named Conchilla by Spanish settlers ("little shell”) because of the large amount of fossilized marine life. The entire valley was underwater 6 million years ago. Danish collective Superflex has taken this ancient history and combined it with a modern piece that's both an installation and a film. Projected on the screen surrounded with a pink aluminum foam "coral" piece that wouldn't look out of place in your home fish tank, is a film about the threat of global warming and rising water levels. "Dive-In merges the recognition that global warming will drastically reshape the habitat of our planet with another more recent extinction: the outdoor movie theatre," the project description said.





Pia Camil Lover’s Rainbow


Unbeknownst to most viewers, Lover's Rainbow, consists of, not just the one, but two sculptural arches. One in the Coachella Valley and one in Baja, Mexico. The rainbows are constructed by painted steel rebar. And while rainbows bring to mind rain and growth (with the rebar also reminiscent of growth or...construction) and the double rainbow's locations perhaps commenting on the current immigration battles and the hope of connecting the two locations. A nice idea, but most people who came through were happy to take absurd selfies with it.



Kathleen Ryan Ghost Palm


Standing in the low desert next to the path to the San Andreas Fault, Ghost Palm, is a careful reconstruction of a large desert fan palm standing 20 feet tall and constructed with manmade materials: a steel trunk with windowpanes, a mid-century modern chandelier as the skirt of the tree, and large plastic fronds that sway in the breeze (and like actual palm leaves sometimes fall to the ground). It's a stark contrast in the desert's natural splendour. Fragility and power all in one. 



Eric N. Mack Halter


We were lucky enough to see Eric Mack's Halter only a week or so before it mysteriously disappeared. Beautiful and poignant, the artist used a defunct gas station on the shores of the Salton Sea to create a living architecture. With fabric donated by Missoni, Mack draped this intricate material around the structure and used rope to create folds and shapes that evoked the desert wanderer while the viewer is allowed to move through and around it. 


But days later, it was gone. Overnight. The piece was to always exist temporarily, it's sad to hear that it was vandalized and taken from the public far too soon.


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