WONDER VALLEY, CA — Due to poor decision making, my car has just nosedived into sand, and it’s stuck there. I have forty minutes until AAA arrives, so I decide to follow a trail of small wooden markers, tips sprayed with fluorescent orange, to find Dineo Seshee Bopape’s artwork in the High Desert Test Sites biennial, The Searchers.
After a few minutes of stomping through sand and scanning the brush for rattlesnakes, I arrive at two brick structures that have begun to sink into the dust that blows across the Mojave Desert at night. Bopape’s contribution, “lerato le le golo (… la go holka bo kantle)” (all works 2022), is built from adobe bricks handmade by the local Joshua Tree community. They’re stacked unevenly, without any mortar to bind them. Some are perfectly smooth and others are hastily molded. On top of the bricks are smaller, flower-shaped clay forms that remind me of the stones my Jewish family leaves on gravesites — offerings to past generations, humans and wildlife, who once roamed the Mojave.
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The desert is a fantastical place, where expansive, desolate land inspires wild dreams of self-governing civilizations, journeys of self-discovery, or the romance of isolation. In the barren terrain, it’s easy to overlook the Indigenous peoples who have lived here for centuries. Many settlers choose to ignore the marks those cultures have made upon the region, instead approaching the desert as a challenge. And indeed, it’s a difficult place to live, not just because of the limited water supply, but because many of the plants are hostile, the animals are scrawny, the temperatures swing from extreme heat to extreme cold, and the high winds are treacherous.
Even with centuries of human development, modern infrastructure struggles to provide utilities to the region. Power lines are felled during blustery nights. Rats chew through wires. Water hauler trucks get stolen. But people continue to relocate to the desert because they’ve been priced out of big cities and they want to own at least a full acre of land. Even I emptied my savings to purchase a couple of acres in Joshua Tree because I realized I couldn’t afford to buy property in Los Angeles.
I am one of the searchers the HDTS biennial is calling out, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Nine site-specific works, sprawling across the Joshua Tree region from Pioneertown in the west to Wonder Valley in the east, consider the ways in which people have relocated to the desert, destroying what came before them, and cultivating new life.
In Gerald Clarke’s “Earth Memory,” hundreds of flags populate the Sunfair Lake drybed. On each flag is an image of a fish, representing the species that swam on this now sandy terrain millennia ago. They whip in the wind against a backdrop of mountains and the roaring of dirt bikes. Clarke’s work represents the natural casualties of geological change, the world before human intervention.
Alice Channer’s “Rockpool,” by contrast, highlights the ecological harm colonialism has brought to delicate environments. Her 60-foot-long sculpture takes the form of the 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which leaked 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and contaminated 1,300 miles of shoreline. Instead of filling the piece with black substance, Channer instead colors it with bright white salt, a direct reference to the terrain in which it is embedded. “Rockpool” is nestled near Wonder Valley’s salt mines, where the mineral is then sent to fracking sites, tying the dry desert to the waters of the gulf shores.
Other works in The Searchers focus on dwellings and the journeys taken to reach them. Kate Lee Short’s “Respite” appears as a simple wooden hut off a frontage road that runs parallel to Amboy Road — I drove past it twice, mistaking it for abandoned architecture before realizing it was an artwork. But “Respite” offers a pleasant surprise: Hidden steps lead a few feet down into a carved-out pit, where shade protects you from harsh heat. Four openings on each side allow the wind to rush through, creating humming sounds as the air flows in and out.
Whereas Short’s “Respite” is an oasis for the weary, suggesting they can survive in this wilderness, Rachel Whiteread’s “Shack I” and “Shack II” are omens. Her concrete buildings, placed on private property in Pioneertown, have a grid-like, brutalist facade, making them appear like the modernist, experimental Airbnbs that have overrun Joshua Tree. In actuality, the structures are casts of abandoned homesteads found in the region. They represent the failures of settlers who thought they could tame the desert, and perhaps foreshadow the future of this community.
Though the biennial turns the Mojave into a picturesque backdrop for art, it struggles to actually represent the people who live there. Only two of the nine artists are from the region. Maybe the selection of the curator — Londoner Iwona Blazwick, OBE, of Whitechapel Gallery — and the artists is by itself the most direct reference to the influx of people moving to the Mojave, recreating the fraught dynamic of mixing outsiders with locals through cultural exchange.
However, Bopape’s collaborative brick structures, as well as videos by Dana Sherwood (“Other Desert Landscapes”) and Erkan Özgen (“Hearse”), which are only viewable on weekends, do demonstrate an effort to highlight the community. Sherwood’s film shows the connection between humans and horses in a surreal ceremony filmed at Joey’s Home Animal Rescue in Yucca Valley, while Özgen turns the marines from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center from warriors into musicians.
But most of the other works feel strangely distant from the community, which feels antithetical to the vision a small collective of artists had when they founded HDTS in 2002. As Tim, my roadside savior, plucked me from the sand, he complained about the artwork, and I wondered how much input Joshua Tree residents had in the creative process. Perhaps that is just the tension between old and new, settlers and searchers, that will always be present in idealistic landscapes.
High Desert Test Sites continues throughout the Morongo Basin through May 22. The 2022 edition of the biennial was organized Iwona Blazwick (OBE, Director of Whitechapel Gallery).