In the short film Kudhi Bari, the architect Marina Tabassum works alongside residents of Bangladesh’s small desert sand islands, or “chars,” to build tiny houses. The structures, designed to withstand the elements, look like tree houses with metal roofs. Tabassum envisioned them for these communities, where residents have been made landless and houseless by Bangladesh’s coastal monsoons. The houses are mobile, so that they can be moved when monsoons next hit.
Though the film depicts a world far from California’s Mojave Desert, the landscapes look surprisingly similar at times: the sunset glowing orange over an expanse of sand, the low brush growing along a desert floor.
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Of the 12 artists included in this year’s iteration of the Desert X biennial, Tabassum is the only one who will not have an artwork on the ground, though she will travel out later this spring to give workshops. “Rather than present this object here that wouldn’t do anything for anyone, we wanted to present her imagination and kind of spark people’s imaginations,” explained Diana Campbell, who curated Desert X 2023 alongside artistic director Neville Wakefield, at a press conference earlier this month. “How can we use our imaginations and the materials that are around us to build in the face of a housing crisis?”
This question resonates internationally, but feels especially urgent in the Coachella Valley, the stretch of Mojave Desert that has been home to the Desert X biennial since it launched in 2017. Extreme income disparities characterize the valley. In 2019, the average income in Mecca, the unincorporated city along the Salton Sea (a saline body of water an hour north of Mexico’s border), was $23,725, while the average income in Indian Wells, a city adjacent to Palm Springs, was $138, 653. Between 2019 and 2022, rents across the valley rose between 45 percent and 55 percent, and on February 1, a month before Desert X opened, the Palm Springs Police Department launched “Operation Relentless Sun” to cut down on visible houselessness in the city.
When it debuted, Desert X, which hosts its opening events at the iconic, midcentury Ace Hotel Palm Springs, did not consistently demonstrate nuanced awareness of its complicated surroundings. In advance of the 2017 launch, early verbiage conjured notions of the West as frontier—Wakefield initially referred to the desert as a place where “anything” could happen and founder Susan Davis framed the setting as mysterious and alluring. Over the past six years, the biennial has faced a steep learning curve.
In the intervening years, there have been concerns about the environmental impact of pieces, an artwork near the Salton Sea that went missing, and even the start of a controversial Saudi Arabian edition, which spurred three board members—including artist Ed Ruscha—to resign and participants to voice concerns. The Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight was among the many to bitterly decry the biennial for ignoring human rights abuses and the illegality of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia.
So far, no controversies have afflicted the current Desert X, which takes a quieter, more sensitive approach all around. It also covers a smaller area than past versions, staying close to the adjacent cities of Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Desert Hot Springs. Desert X executive director Jenny Gil explained that global economic realities affected the biennial, causing delays of materials and leading to the smaller geographical footprint.
“As we were organizing this, the price of gas went up so much and even as a team, we can’t be driving hundreds of miles back and forth. It really reorganized how we think of an exhibition, the extent of it,” Gil told the Desert Sun. This year, no artworks are installed as far afield as the Salton Sea.
Still, the sea informed artists’ thinking. L.A.-based Lauren Bon filled the swimming pool of a shuttered Palm Springs motel with salt water transported from the sea via water truck, while Himali Singh Soin, who is based in Delhi and London, took a less literal approach. Soin saw parallels between the Rann of Kutch, the salt deserts of India, and the sea. Both are imperiled landscapes and borderlands––the Rann of Kutch is along Pakistan’s border––where severe climate conditions impact under-resourced communities.
Namak Nazar, the sculpture Soin ended up building with her collaborator David Soin Tappeser (together, they work under the name Hylozoic/Desires), rises over Worsely Road in Desert Hot Springs. Namak means salt in Hindi while Nazar means gaze, and a wide circle of salt surrounds the wooden telephone pole at the sculpture’s core. Salt coats the base of the pole, and the artists installed hand-painted metal speakers high, just out of reach. Though they had initially imagined something more monumental, the “simple, kind-of-janky utility pole,” as Soin put it, seemed right.
“It felt almost more authentic to us than to make a big, spectacular sculpture,” she said, recalling how her visits to artist Noah Purifoy’s desert sculptures inspired her, as did the defunct, abandoned transmitters she kept seeing along desert roadsides.
The wind on opening weekend meant that the speakers shook as they emitted a composition of sound and poetry, an aural meditation on salt’s vast properties and the history of a colonized landscape where people still fight for survival. “We are the longing that crosses the eternal desert to be with our beloved,” says the voice emanating from the sculpture. “We carry a shell, from when this scorched land was sea, to guide the way.”
Elsewhere in Desert Hot Springs, off a long sandy trail, artist Tschabalala Self installed her bronze sculpture Pioneer, a depiction of a female torso with legs extended and two elegant disembodied hands, balanced on the back of a bowing horse with kind eyes. Self imagined the sculpture as a celebration of the Indigenous and Black foremothers whose bodies bore the brunt of American expansion and who passed their resilience down through generations.
On billboards along North Gene Autry Trail, a road between Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, and Interstate 10, Desert X installed photographs by teacher and artist Tyre Nichols, who died in January, three days after police violently assaulted him after a traffic stop in Memphis. Nichols’s photographs are subtle landscapes showing expanses of brush and bridges over water; these images appear at home in their surroundings. Lawyer Ben Crump, a spokesperson for the Nichols family, sees the inclusion of the photographs in Desert X as an opportunity to raise awareness of California Senate Bill 50, which would prohibit police officers from stopping drivers for low-level traffic infractions.
In a statement read during the biennial’s press conference, Crump called SB 50 “a much-needed step to ending the violence Black people face when confronted by police at traffic stops.”
On the other side of Palm Springs, in the small, wealthy suburb of Rancho Mirage––often called the “President’s Playground,” given the many heads of state who vacationed there––artist Paloma Contreras Lomas installed a visceral sculpture on the manicured lawns of the Sunnylands Estate. Sunnylands, which once belonged to the wealthy couple Walter and Lenore Annenberg, was a favorite retreat for Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Davis, the Desert X founder, previously worked there, and an artwork has been placed in the yard behind the estate’s visitor center during each iteration of the biennial.
When Contreras Lomas stopped by possible sites for her sculpture last year, Sunnylands was the last one she visited. It struck the Mexico City–based artist as appropriate for her multidimensional work, which combines textiles, sculpture and video, especially since she wanted to explore how the Mexican landscape gets romanticized, erasing a long history of violence in the process.
“It seems natural, but it’s also superficial,” she said of Sunnylands. “Dystopian as well.”
Unlike past Desert X installations at the estate, which tended to echo the minimal, polished landscaping, Contreras Lomas’s maximalist aesthetic butts up against the surroundings, “contrasting the hygienic cleanness with this other subject matter,” she explained.
An old gray Chevy sedan provides the sculpture, titled Amar A Dios En Tierra De Indios, Es Oficio Maternal, with its infrastructure. Long gray arms with black claws sprawl out from the open trunk; two looming black phallic soft sculptures occupy the front seats, towering up through the open roof; the crocheted and sewn figures assembled on the hood include a glittering fabric cactus wearing white gloves and wielding a pistol.
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Visitors must climb into the back seat and sit on the blue upholstery to watch Contreras Lomas’s video, La Luz No Es Para Todos, which combines archival footage of politicians, revolutionaries and vigils with new footage of extravagantly costumed figures navigating urban terrain. The voice of narrator––a fictional character based on the real journalist Diego Enrique Osorno––has been deepened and disguised. He reflects on the way the landscape has been cleaned up by the “nostalgic machine of giants like Netflix and HBO,” who make glamorous shows about cartels and set up headquarters in the third world, encouraged by governments who are complicit in this silencing, and selling off, of the landscape. “Sometimes this landscape is corrupt and hides the bodies,” says the narrator, “but always in the background he is crying.”