Along a desert road in Rancho Mirage, California, Tavares Strachan, the 37-year-old multidisciplinary artist, has installed some 290 craters of neon light, which from above spell the words "I am." It is a fittingly provocative and unabashed work for the artist, who's spent the better part of his career exploring the tension between what we see on the surface versus what lies below; our relationship to place; and our perceptions of self. Consider one of his most famous works: 2006's The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want, in which he excavated a four-ton block of ice from the Alaskan Arctic, then shipped it to his childhood elementary school in the Bahamas, where it lived in a cooler (and has since traveled to further locales). That was a meditation on displacement—something Strachan has carried with him ever since leaving home for the States—but its ambitious conceit points to a flair for spectacle.
I Am is part of Desert X, a new exhibition of 16 site-specific works spread across the Coachella Valley,which opened this past weekend and runs through the end of April. Some of the works in Desert X interact with the landscape by attempting to disappear into it: Doug Aitken covered a house in mirrors, reflecting back the ground and sky; Will Boone submerged a bunker deep underground. In the secluded Whitewater Preserve, Sherin Guirguis built a structure out of soil and clay, which will slowly erode and return to the earth. Strachan's, on the other hand, springs forth from the land and announces itself. It is so big—100,000 square feet long, or the length of two football fields—and bright, people in airplanes can see it, the words seeming to explode outwards like a firework. From the ground, the piece takes on a different but no less otherworldly quality, with the pools of light arranged like stepping-stones. It's here that the piece's softer side is revealed.
A few weeks ago, ahead of the exhibition’s opening, Interview reached Strachan by phone to discuss the installation process and his hopes for I Am.
MATT MULLEN: In a lot of ways Desert X seems fitting for you: much of your work deals with climate, exploration, desolation, and isolation—which are all things I think of when I think of the desert. Did you feel the same way? Or did you have to grapple with this new environment?
TAVARES STRACHAN: I think there’s an interesting line drawn towards extreme environments, and the way I define extreme is through a sense of otherness. Or foreignness. If you take a flower to Mars, for example, the hostility of Mars probably won’t allow the flower to live without oxygen. The process of being an artist, for someone who wasn’t born in an arts-centric environment—I came from the Bahamas, where there’s not a historic tradition of art-making, at least from the Western prospective—in a way is kind of an alien concept. So my approach to making, it borrows from that idea and allows me to take on the idea of the foreign or the strange or the alien.