Awesome public outdoor art at Desert X in Coachella Valley

by Apr 13, 2021California

Wishing Well Umbrellas Desert X Palm Springs

Every two years, Desert X coordinates an outdoor art exhibit like none other. Huge, thought-provoking art statements dot the desert and cities around Greater Palm Springs in Coachella Valley, complementing all the other outdoor art in the area.

Art and culture intersect in the desert on a daily basis in Greater Palm Springs with its art museums, art deco “modernism” love affair, world famous art festivals, public outdoor art at every turn, and, yes, Desert X. Every two years, Desert X  arrives in the Coachella Valley and installs its larger-than-life outdoor art exhibits in the desert expanse surrounding Palm Springs. Huge sculptures are embedded in a desert landscape, thought-provoking art sits beside grocery stores, and statements on world affairs nestle onto hilltops or on public lawns.

Art is in the eye of the beholder, and some may wonder why letters propped up in an empty field or billboards lining a busy expressway are “art,” but whatever pieces Desert X curators bring to the show will make you stop and think. You may like it, you may not like it, but the pieces at Desert X in California’s desert will push you to reconsider any preconceived notions of art.

In 2021, when we visited, the outdoor art show scattered exhibits far and wide across Coachella Valley “to create and present international contemporary art that engage(s) with desert environments … by acclaimed artists from around the world,” according to the not-for-profit’s mission statement. Since its launch in 2017, the biennial has presented public art outside of traditional galleries, as well as provided “a global platform for artists … and their perspectives.”

But Desert X’s outdoor art installations go far beyond what you may think of as art, partly due to their scale, their placement, their views on the environment, and some political and cultural statements.

Indian Land Outdoor Art Desert X

Seek out Desert X outdoor art in Greater Palm Springs

Touring the art installations takes some time since the art is scattered far and wide across Coachella Valley in the Southern California desert: Art installations in 2021 were found from beyond Desert Hot Springs in the north to Palm Desert in the south — approximately 30 miles or so as the crow flies. This makes touring Desert X a bit of a treasure hunt. Installations are marked with the Desert X logo and signage, and guides and guards on site ensure you park properly and do no harm or damage to the environment or private property.

In 2021, due to COVID-19, several exhibits required timed entry reservations Thursdays-Sundays to space out weekend crowds — and we expect this could continue so check in advance of attendance. Guards also reminded visitors in 2021 to wear masks while on site, no exceptions. One exhibit even required a very steep half-mile climb up a switchback road to the top of a hill, another was a short trek up a rocky dirt path. This isn’t an outdoor art tour in Palm Springs for the those not inclined to put in a bit of sweat equity to visit, by any means. And be prepared for wind and blowing sand! We happened to hit a hilltop exhibit on a very windy afternoon, forcing us to struggle to stay vertical at times.

Selfie Fail Desert X ParaPivot

Our attempt at a hilltop selfie failed miserably, with hair and hats blown asunder on a windy Palm Springs evening.

HITT Tip: Not all exhibits are open sunrise to sunset. Some in fact close earlier if they are on the grounds of another business. Others open or shut at an odd time not always clarified on the website or app. A few can however be viewed 24/7. Best bet is to check in the Desert X Hub information center in Palm Springs to be very certain you don’t drive 20 miles in vain, as we did one day. And remember, every year is different.

Although a biennial event, it’s never too late to start planning since in short order it has become very popular. We visited Desert X 2021 mid-week and found we had the installations pretty much to ourselves, making the visit much more enjoyable. When talking to others, however, we found that crowds on weekends were immense, sometimes frustrating visitors who abandoned an effort to see an installation since they couldn’t reach it or see it well enough to experience it. If you can, go mid-week any year.

Even if you venture on your own outdoor art tour in Greater Palm Springs during non-Desert X years, you may find Desert X pieces that have become permanent such as two from 2017 and one from 2019.

HITT Tip: Please park as instructed, stay on access routes and property as instructed, and don’t litter. Also, download the Desert X app for information when out touring. Take note, however, that the rather artsy black map on the website and app cannot be navigated, and since there are no street names or cities on the map in the app — and the street names on the website are quite pale — it can be hard to make out, especially for non-locals. Best bet is to sort out in advance the addresses of the ones you want to see and mark them on your own map that can be navigated. The Greater Palm Springs visitors bureau has a page for the 2021 exhibit that is much easier to navigate and will likely have similar offerings for future years.

Touring Desert X 2021 outdoor art sculptures and statements

Each year, a few are much more accessible and central than others, as these were at Desert X 2021.

Wishing Well Desert X Jevpic Windmills

Docent Jevpic, himself an artist with the newly installed Faultline outdoor art in downtown Palm Springs, put his heart and soul into explaining The Wishing Well outdoor art installation.

Although our visit was (mostly) mid-week, we arrived on a Sunday afternoon and managed to get to one of 2021’s most accessible exhibits called The Wishing Well by Serge Attukwei Clottey.

Jevpic Desert X Wishing Well

On the weekend, despite a larger crowd, we were enthralled with the docent, artist Jevpic, who enraptured the crowd with his passionate, heartfelt stories. The large yellow cubes are draped with sheets of woven pieces of discarded yellow plastic water jugs, known as “Kufuor gallons” which were used to transport water in Ghana during a water crisis. These plastic jugs now litter the landscape in Ghana.

Since another installation was nearby and immediately behind the Greater Palm Springs visitor center, we dropped past Nicholas Galanin’s Never Forget piece. The 45-foot letters of Never Forget that spell out “Indian Land” reference the well-known Hollywood sign that initially spelled out HOLLYWOODLAND and was erected to promote a whites-only development.

Indian Land Desert X Sophie Flopsie

Two of our many traveling companions, Flopsie, the rabbit and Sophie, the panda bear, also enjoyed our Desert X 2021 tour, spending some time considering the meaning, above, of Never Forget.

TNF Gucci Hub Desert X Outdoor Art

One “installation” on the map is The North Face Gucci Pit Stop. Oddly, however, it is not listed as art, there is no signage explaining what it is, and people are wandering around the large “base camp” dome tent-like structure snapping photos, as we did. I’m still scratching my head over this one since “pit stop” implied it would be a place to pick up literature or water.

Art Installations for Desert X up a hill or along a dirt trail

What Lies Behind The Wall Desert X Moonlit Night Over Palm Sprin

What Lies Behind the Walls by Zahrah Alghamdi is just what you think: a high monolithic wall. The wall is made of compressed, stacked and packed layers of cement, soils and dyes that beg to be touched — but don’t! There is a red-lettered sign that admonishes against touching.

The Wall Desert X Palm Springs Light Paint

Note: We had special permission to photograph the Desert X 2021 Wall installation at night after its official sunset closure. Please abide by all rules and closures.

Desert X Parapivot Outdoor Art Palm Springs

Also north of Palm Springs but farther east is an impressive sculpture called “ParaPivot” high on a hill that demands quite a huff and a puff up a steep switchback driveway, but offers expansive views. ParaPivot, by Alicje Kawde, is a tall series of interlocking frames supporting large blocks of white marble, a true contrast to the desert landscape.

ParaPivot Desert X Therese Iknoian Shadows

This is a sculpture that is far enough out of town so just prior to its official closing, especially mid-week, there just weren’t many people, allowing us to circle and photograph.

Heading south from Palm Springs for more Desert X outdoor art

The Passenger Sarabia Desert X Outdoor Art

A few art installations are south, quite a bit south. Heading down toward Palm Desert we took time to stop into The Passenger by Eduardo Sarabia, along well-traveled roads but set back on a sandy plot of desert.

The Passenger Desert X Starburst

It is a triangular maze of sorts inspired by desert journeys, with walls woven of palm fibers. No, it’s not the kind of maze you get lost in, just follow the triangle to the center. There, you can step up on some platforms to see above and beyond this outdoor art installation.

Tiny House Desert X Exterior

On our Desert X 2021 tour, the last stop we were able to make was most definitely not least: Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead, a tiny home settled down next to the Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce and surrounded by strip malls, stores, restaurants and fast food establishments. It traces the “Small Tract Act” that explores public policy that made the desert accessible to a new generation of landowners.

Desert X Tiny House Jackrabbit Homestead

There is a running narration by author Catherine Venn Peterson who has chronicled her own homesteading experience. The audio is fascinating, easy to listen to, and educational regarding class and capitalism, and peeking inside the little windows of the 112-square-foot cabin offers insights into a compact lifestyle.

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