Los Angeles Times: Desert X aims to be the Coachella of the art world

Los Angeles Times: Desert X aims to be the Coachella of the art world

Deborah Vankin for the Los Angeles Times - 23 Febuary 2017

This could be the moon. Or Mars, at dusk. Dozens of craters crowd this desert plot, four acres of scrub brush in Rancho Mirage rimmed by reddish-brown mountains. The holes form half-moon slivers, squares and elongated triangles, each several feet deep and lined with neon tubing. As the sun sinks, the craters glow brighter and brighter, bathing visitors in a golden haze.

New York-based artist Tavares Strachan, who grew up in the Bahamas and says he studied at the Yuri Gagarin cosmonaut training center near Moscow, steps between the cable cords and power generators as a drone zooms above, its engine roaring. It’s capturing aerial pictures of the immersive land and light installation, projected on a video monitor in the back of a nearby truck.

The drone sees a very different picture. From above, the more than 400 craters spell out a simple but suggestive phrase: “I Am!” Tavares says, jubilant, hovering over the monitor during this inaugural test run. “I’m impressed by how space-like it feels. You experience it so differently on the ground as from above,” he says. “That’s the point.” He gestures at the vast open space, now framed by silhouetted palms on the horizon. “This project —it could only happen in the desert.” The installation is one of 16 site-specific works in the inaugural Desert X, short for Desert Exhibition of Art, which opens to the public Saturday. The free contemporary art show, steered by a nonprofit group that includes artist Ed Ruscha, collector Beth Rudin DeWoody and former Palm Springs Art Museum director Steven A. Nash, spans about 45 miles of the Coachella Valley, from

Whitewater Preserve east to Indio. It strategically bridges Modernism Week, which ends this weekend, and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the country music Stagecoach festival in April. The indoor and outdoor pieces — sculptural, electronic, architectural or performance — are staged on public and private lands. Artists have responded to various aspects of the desert: history, mythology, topography, socioeconomic climate. “I’m interested in site-specificity and how this place gives rise to the work,” says Neville Wakefield, the British-born, New York-based curator of the exhibition, who led The Times on an early preview as the artworks were being installed. “The show is a sort of refraction of the desert experience through different eyes.”

Visitors to the exhibition will typically start at the Ace Hotel, where they can get a map for a self-guided tour. (Bus tours of select sites will be offered on weekends.) 

Two pieces are on view in the Palm Springs Art Museum: a Jeffrey Gibson sculpture made from a wind turbine blade and, during opening weekend, the “nomadic event” titled “Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market.” They’re a short drive from Doug Aitken’s elaborate structure, “Mirage,” and Gabriel Kuri’s earth-filled storefront, “Donation Box,” both in Palm Springs.

“But most of the art is intentionally not clustered together,” Wakefield says. “The idea is to get lost.”

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An aerial shot of Tavares Strachan's "I Am" on view at Desert X in the Coachella Valley. (David Blank / Tavares Strachan and Desert X)