Every year, the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival moves further away from its roots. Air-conditioned glamping tents, parties sponsored by corporations and even SoulCycle classes have seen Coachella’s original, counter-culture crowd shunning the event. In their place are growing numbers of flower crown-wearing Instagram influencers, filtering their festival experience into moments good enough to post.
The inaugural Desert X (Desert Exhibition of Art) could be just the thing to encourage the new crowd to connect with Coachella’s artistic past, and convince former fans to return. Produced by a not-for-profit organisation, Desert X is a curation of 16 site-specific installations by local and international artists scattered across 70 kilometres of the valley. Each work has been created to amplify its surroundings.
“A lot of public art isn’t site-specific, it’s more of a cut-and-paste of a work into a place,” Desert X’s artistic director Nevillle Wakefield told Grazia.
“What I’m more interested in, and what I hope we’ve done [with Desert X] is using the landscape as a generative force, and going back to an idea that started in the 1970s where artists stepped away from institutions and took their art into the outside world, and in doing so encouraged new audiences.”
Indeed, Desert X is a genius way for the art world to reach the social media generation: lure them in with Instagram bait, then hit them with compelling works that encourage reflection and debate. “Mirage” by Doug Aitken is a mirrored, ranch-style house that reflects the constantly changing desert landscape around it. Jennifer Bolande’s “Visible Distance/Second Sight” is a series of billboards along a highway that each display a photograph of the distant landscape it blocks the view of, rendering the billboard invisible. As Wakefield explained, each piece has been created as a response to its environment, rather than merely being dropped in.
Another element of Desert X that appeals to a millennial audience is the flexible, commitment-free way it can be experienced. The exhibition is free and not ticketed, allowing for the viewing of as many or few as desired. It’s self-narrated – just choose which pieces you want to see, plug the locations into Google Maps and go.
“It’s been designed to allow people to find their own passage through it,” Wakefield says. “It’s a cliché but the journey is the destination in a way with Desert X. As well as enjoying the installations, it’s also about taking yourself out of your comfort zone and into a new environment, to places you wouldn’t otherwise see.”
Phillip K Smith’s “The Circle Of Land And Sky” requires pulling over onto the side of the road at a desolate space in the desert you’d barely glance at otherwise. But after a few minutes walking across the sand amongst the cactuses, you come to the sculpture, a series of 300 geometric reflectors placed in a circle in the sand and angled at 10 degrees. The site changes minute-to-minute as cloud formations move across the sky and the light changes. At Glenn Kaino’s “Hollow Earth”, after walking into a small, unassuming shed also just off a highway, you’re presented with an optical illusion of what looks like a brightly lit tunnel descending down into the earth. Standing above it and peering in, you instinctively pull back for fear of falling down, even though logic indicates the artist probably didn’t excavate the earth much at all.
Desert X’s installations are free to visit and open to the public from sunrise to sunset until April 30 (“Mirage” will remain open until October). Driving is the best way to visit the sites, although there are bus tours on weekends. For a map of the works and more information, visit desertx.org. Watch a video about the exhibition below.