Dry Goods

Andrew Berardini on Desert X 2021

Eduardo Sarabia, The Passenger, 2021. All photos: Lance Gerber.

ON OUR LONG DRIVE through the desert of the Coachella Valley chasing the artworks and installations of Desert X 2021, my fifteen-year-old daughter and I drove past the El Dorado Estates. Scrubby bushes in the pale-brown soil stretched back into the vast and vacant desert behind a cinderblock wall advertising the never-realized development named after the elusive, imaginary city of gold. In the hundred miles we spent crisscrossing the desert, we passed through the shimmering black cells of solar farms and clusters of rusty corrugated shacks, past plastic-surgery centers and boarded-up resorts boasting hot springs and air-conditioned rooms near faded tract houses ablaze with Trump signs. All this just a short jaunt from chic shopping districts flying rainbow pride flags and selling mid-century furniture in upscale boutiques, their glass walls reflecting back hard blue sky and distant snowcapped mountains visible from everywhere in the valley.

On countless corners stood faded signs—many in folksy-friendly lettering (a hand-painted cousin to Comic Sans) while others employed more generically corporate graphics. All were selling large swathes of desert for developers and dreamers.

Vivian Suter, Tamanrasset, 2021.

Cocurated by artistic director Neville Wakefield and Cesar Garcia-Alvarez, the current edition of Desert X promises on its website to be an exhibition that “explores the desert as both a place and idea, acknowledging the realities of people who reside here and the political, social, and cultural contexts that shape our stories.” The Desert X app, with its chartreuse “x” on a pitch-black map background, guided us to the exhibition’s thirteen commissioned artworks and installations (not all of which were installed when we visited) scattered across the Coachella Valley, an exurban settlement best known for resort towns like Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage and its epic, eponymous musical festival. Punctuated by walled retirement communities alongside a few posh neighborhoods and vacationer enclaves, it’s mostly populated by those of more modest means—the inexpensive ranch houses and mobile homes an invitation to those with fixed incomes, the working poor, and just about anyone who has been forced to live, or simply wishes to live, near the edges.

With a few exceptions, the Desert X Biennial was pretty disappointing. A certain amount of generosity is warranted because it was pulled together during a global pandemic, but when asked by friends if they should make the trek, my simple answer was not to bother; its few moments of grace, sadly, don’t reward the effort.

Ghada Amer, Women’s Qualities, 2021.

Vivian Suter’s usually exquisitely weathered paintings on loose canvas hung behind the glass skin of a modernist building (a former liquor store, I was told) in the posh Palm Springs downtown strip, hardly visible behind the reflective glass. It felt like another shop display. At the beautiful Sunnylands Center and Gardens, a palace built by the Annenberg family as both a snowbird retreat and a spot for international summits, a vast artificial turf underlay a circle of metal planters spelling out different words. According to the app, Egyptian-born artist Ghada Amer asked “men and women in the Coachella Valley to share words that describe the qualities with which they identify and to which they have been ascribed.” The words Amer collected for her “Women’s Qualities” series read as follows: LOVING NURTURING RESILIENT STRONG CARING DETERMINED BEAUTIFUL. Perhaps I am calloused, but the saccharine thinness of the “community engagement,” the vague, clichéd language, and the disappointing installation of Amer’s garden left me a bit cold in the desert sun. I turned to my companion for her unblemished opinion: “It’s like something you’d find at a yoga shop in Santa Monica for boogie moms—sort of #girlboss.”

We both really wanted to like the work by Polish German artist Alicja Kwade, ParaPivot (semipiternal clouds), 2021, a cluster of huge black metal rectangles piercing chunky blocks of white marble installed on top of a tall hill overlooking the valley. After huffing through the ten-minute walk up the steep hill, and reading about the sculpture’s purported resemblance to pieces of glacier transferred to the desert as an indictment of global warming, and seeing the numerous signs on the pathway and next to the sculpture advertising the land we were on as a site for real-estate development, neither of us was feeling it. However, the seven-acre hill would make an excellent spot for an oligarch’s compound (here’s the number, if you’re in the market: 760-641-3675).

Alicja Kwade, ParaPivot (sempiternal clouds), 2021.

Unfortunately, Guadalajara-based Eduardo Sarabia’s The Passenger, 2021, an arrow-shaped maze with walls woven out of traditional basket materials, didn’t made much of an impression, either. We trudged through the sand and into the modest labyrinth, where after a couple of minutes we encountered an empty center with only a few staired, plywood platforms in the corners. We both wished there had been a cool, bubbling fountain in there as we struggled, parched, through the hot sun back to the car.

Water is a serious issue for the denizens of the desert, and Serge Attukwei Clottey’s dual cubes, laced together with used jerricans from his native Ghana and erected on the manicured grass of a nondescript community park, captured a strong and thirsty story. In many parts of Ghana, freshwater for daily use is found only in those jerricans, usually carried home from a water source at great difficulty. As I looked at the yellow fragments of the water cans pooled around Clottey’s cubes of the same material, yielding to grass that disappeared into the desert sand mere steps from this sculpture, the idea, material, and placement of the artwork took on an elegant conceptual unity, connecting these vastly different places and their shared need for this foundation of all life.

Serge Attukwei Clottey, The Wishing Well, 2021.

Historically, so much of California, and of the American West at large, has been an elaborate real-estate scheme, and indigenous Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin’s towering sign on the edge of the land of the Agua Caliente Band of Mission Indians made for a sharp and straightforward commentary on this fact. Modeled on the old HOLLYWOODLAND sign built in 1923 as a real-estate advertisement on the hills above Los Angeles (the LAND was removed in 1949, and the rest was maintained as the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign), Galanin’s white letters, which spell INDIAN LAND, are truly striking in the terrain. To perhaps state the obvious: The sign stands before what is quite literally “Indian land,” on edge of the Agua Caliente’s territory—and of course all of it, the Coachella Valley and beyond, belonged to Indigenous peoples before European conquest.

Nicholas Galanin, Never Forget, 2021.

Eleven miles away, Zahrah Alghamdi’s What Lies Behind the Wall, 2021, hulks over the landscape, a soaring rampart composed, according to the press materials, of “cements, soils, and dyes specific to each region,” meaning both the artist’s native Saudi Arabia and the Coachella Valley. There’s something powerful about the physicality of this structure, all by itself in the middle of the wild desert with bright-white foam peeking through its terrene skin.

This is Alghamdi’s second showing at Desert X; her first was in Saudi Arabia, the result of a controversial deal that the biennial made with the Gulf state to hold a similar event there in early 2020 in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and amid the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. As a result, Desert X lost a financial backer and three board members, including the artist Ed Ruscha: “I see Saudi Arabia as being in desperate need of cultural legitimacy,” Ruscha told the Los Angeles Times, “and this is a way to move the spotlight away from their other problems.”

Zahrah Alghamdi, What Lies Behind the Walls, 2021.

Given the event’s compromised reputation, a smashing success could have done something to heal the damage. But—perhaps worse than a bold but failed experiment—the biennial was simply and resoundingly OK: a soft proposition lacking a meaningful poetic between the included works, none of them enough to hold the whole thing up.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to experience Desert X without a car (or in a wheelchair, for that matter); the stretch of installations were all possible to see in a day, but it took hours of driving, often in conditions that were a bit demanding even for the able-bodied. Pulling away and homeward, I asked my daughter what she thought of our day at Desert X. 

“It was nice to drive through the desert,” she told me.

“And what about the art?” I asked.

“Meh,” she replied, looking through the window at the hundreds of windmills as we curved onto the freeway and into the sunset.

Andrew Berardini is a writer in Los Angeles. His book about color is coming out from Not a Cult Media in 2022.