Awesome public outdoor art at Desert X 2021 in Coachella Valley
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.
Running from March 12 to May 16 in 2021, the outdoor art show scatters 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.
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: in 2021, art installations 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. 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.
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 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.
Touring Desert X outdoor art sculptures and artistic statements
Each year, a few are much more accessible and central than others, as these were in 2021.
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.
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.
Two of our many traveling companions, Flopsie, the rabbit and Sophie, the panda bear, also enjoyed our Desert X tour, spending some time considering the meaning, above, of Never Forget.
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 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.
Note: We had special permission to photograph the Wall installation at night after its official sunset closure. Please abide by all rules and closures.
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.
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 along Palm Springs roads for more 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.
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.
On our 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.
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-squre-foot cabin offers insights into a compact lifestyle.
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