Doug Aitken, MIRAGE, Desert X 2017, installation view.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
Desert X has announced that the third edition of its exhibition will open March 12 – May 16 in the Coachella Valley, Southern California. Curated by Artistic Director Neville Wakefield and Co-curator César García-Alvarez, it will explore the desert as both a place and idea, acknowledging the realities of people who reside there and the political, social and cultural contexts that shape their stories. Desert X is produced by The Desert Biennial and is free and open to the public.
Its guiding purposes and principles include presenting public exhibitions of art that respond meaningfully to the conditions of desert locations, the environment and indigenous communities; promoting cultural exchange and education programmes that foster dialogue and understanding among cultures and communities about shared artistic, historical, and societal issues; and providing an accessible platform for artists from around the world to address ecological, cultural, spiritual and other existential themes.
Wakefield is a modern curator interested in exploring the ways in which art behaves outside of institutional contexts. García-Alvarez, from 2012-2013, served as the US Commissioner for the 13th International Cairo Biennial in Egypt.
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Participating artists are: Zahrah Alghamdi (born 1977, Al Bahah, Saudi Arabia, based in Jeddah) Ghada Amer (born 1963, Cairo, Egypt, based in New York) Felipe Baeza (born 1987, Guanajuato, Mexico, based in New York) Judy Chicago (born 1939, Chicago, US, based in Belen, New Mexico) Serge Attukwei Clottey (born 1985, Accra, Ghana, based in Accra) Nicholas Galanin (born 1979, Sitka, Alaska, US, based in Sitka) Alicja Kwade (born 1979, Katowice, Poland, based in Berlin) Oscar Murillo (born 1986, Valle del Cauca, Colombia, based in various locations) Christopher Myers (born 1974, New York, US, based in New York) Eduardo Sarabia (born 1976, Los Angeles, US, based in Guadalajara, Mexico) Xaviera Simmons (born 1974, New York, US based in New York) Kim Stringfellow (born 1963, San Mateo, CA, US, based in Joshua Tree) Vivian Suter (born 1949, Buenos Aires, Argentina, based in Panajachel, Guatemala).
The projects explore many of the issues we face in these difficult times: the history of land rights, ownership and stewardship, the desert as border marked by narratives of migration, social justice and racial demarcations of the West, the gendered landscape and the role of women and children and the creation of new dialogues between regional and global desert experience. “As much as the desert is a state of place, it is also a state of mind. Its borders are not singular but multiple, and it is defined as much by social geography as physical boundary,” says Wakefield. “For Desert X 2021, we took our cues from the way deserts are formed, from the natural processes that weather their surfaces and expand their geographies,” said García-Alvarez. “We refute the dichotomy of local versus global, and instead champion the nuances that connect both.”
In What Lies Behind the Walls, Alghamdi creates a monumental sculptural wall, which, like a geological extrusion, reveals the different stratas of time as they have been captured both in millenia of geological transformation and the last few centuries of rapid development. So it connects the desert landscape of the Coachella to the transformations of other deserts across the globe. Women’s Qualities by Amer is a social project that polled diverse communities within the Coachella Valley, whose representations take the form of word gardens that are dependent on nature, care and other activities traditionally associated with femininity. In The Wishing Well, Clottey speaks to the challenges various communities face when accessing potable water. Structures made from Kufuor gallons, used in rural regions of Ghana to move water from sources to homes, echo a standing well — a place to journey to in search of what should be a more accessible, natural resource. In The Art of Taming Horses, Myers tells of African-Americans who travelled South to escape bondage and of Mexican-Americans who journeyed north for a better life.
Through a fictional story of a pair of cowboy friends, one African-American and one Mexican, he sheds light on the kinds of lives these communities could have had here one day. In The Passenger, a large-scale maze structure made from woven palm tree fiber walls, Sarabia examines the desert as a border through the trope of the journey — a motif that connects peoples across geographies and cultures. Inspired by pictures of the region that have helped construct its visual imaginary, Suter’s Tamanrasset is an installation of paintings and light inside an iconic modernist building.
The work translates the desert terrain, as image, into abstracted forms and colours — drawing attention to the desert as a condition with emotional and psychological dimensions. “More so than ever, Desert X 2021 is an exhibition for our times”, said Desert X Founder and President Susan Davis. “The curators have brought together an extraordinary group of international artists who have made compelling works that celebrate the Coachella Valley and its histories while provoking us to explore our commonalities and celebrate our differences.” The first Desert X took place in 2017 and included 16 artists. The second edition, in 2019, featured 18 artists whose works again stretched across the Coachella Valley. In 2020, the organisation engaged in its first exhibition outside the United States and helped realise a project in the AlUla desert of Saudi Arabia, bringing together artists from across that region as well as those from Europe and the USA.
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