Installation / Public Space

Coachella Valley’s Desert X: Participation and Vandalism


It might not be correct to include Desert X in this blog about participatory art. Not many pieces comfortably fit into the immersive category or offer opportunities for participation with the artwork. But among the line-up there are a handful of stand out installations that offer changing views that can never be seen the same twice.

Added to that, in recent days this exhibition has raised a question around the effects of theft and vandalism on land art. What happens when a piece of artwork that you were never meant to see gets stolen? Or the impact on the exhibition when an installation of ruin is vandalised?

Have audiences come to expect hands-on participation so much that when presented with objects of beauty within reach many of us feel the urge to keep a piece for our own experience?

Desert X was nicely described by The Guardian as “a scavenger hunt for the ever-elusive unique experience”. Albeit, the artwork is easily found on maps, it does, however, fulfil a current trend to offer visitors their own curation of the art pieces by transforming the Coachella Valley landscape into an outdoor gallery.

The exhibition has a number of stand out pieces that use the changing skyline to offer viewers unique visual experiences.

Doug Aitkin

The leading image of the exhibition, Mirage sits on the desert hillside of the San Jacinto mountain range in the form of a mirror-clad suburban-styled house reflecting the landscape back as a visual echo-chamber. The piece presents a continually changing encounter in which subject and object, inside and outside are in constant flux.

Subject and object, inside and outside are in constant flux.

Visitors can wonder freely up to the exterior of the house before venturing inside to further mirror-clad surroundings, presenting a life-size kaleidoscopic environment.

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of the artist, and Lance Gerber and Dakota Higgins


Norma Jeane

In an ironic twist to ShyBot‘s inclusion in the festival, the artwork that visitors will never find has in recent days gone missing.

“We are pretty sad, but we knew she would disappear eventually,”

ShyBot1ShyBot is an autonomous robotic vehicle programmed to roam the desert while avoiding all human contact. Like many things of the desert it is both everywhere and nowhere, a form of artificial intelligence programmed not to serve but to avoid.

The Italian artist behind ShyBot, who goes by the alias Norma Jeane, told the NYT the disappearance did not come as a total shock. “We are pretty sad, but we knew she would disappear eventually,” the artist said. “The goal wasn’t to get ShyBot back but to provide her with all possible chances to get lost.”

It’s an engaging twist to the story for a piece of art designed to get lost, but perhaps not so soon. The story now turns to community involvement in helping find the robot with a $1000 reward being offered by the artist. Participation anyone?

Jennifer Bolande

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of the artist and Lance Gerber

Visible Distance/Second Sight is a cinematic experience animated by driving along Gene Autry Trail where viewers will encounter a series of billboards featuring photographs of the very mountains towards which they are heading.  Each photograph is unique to its position along this route and at a certain point as one approaches each billboard, perfect alignment with the horizon will occur thus reconnecting the space that the rectangle of the billboard has interrupted.

For correct participation, the artists request that visitors not stop at the site. “It is meant to be experienced from a moving car.”

Richard Prince

Located in a run-down and little saddle-sore house in Desert Hot Springs, the piece Third Place 2017 allowed visitors to walk around and enter the house, thereby immersing themselves in a three-dimensional portrait of the artist. The house was chaotically plastered with ‘Family Tweets’ and Instragram pictures, and the odd rendering of the artists himself. Perhaps the brutal environment of emptiness and abandonment, or even the raunchiness of the images, attracted some visitors to remove pieces of the installations for their own personal experience.

Third Place was closed shortly after opening.

Phillip K Smith III

The last piece to mention is a personal favourite for it’s constantly changing view that can never be seen the same way twice.

A unique experience for anyone who visits, The Circle of Land and Sky defines a reflective space within the desert, composed entirely of the environment’s two most prominent physical characteristics – land and sky. Formed by 300 geometric reflectors angled at 10 degrees, the artwork directly engages with the Sonoran surrounding and the endless heavens.  As the light shifts and the viewer moves through the installation, land and sky are separated, merged, and displaced, subverting one’s assumed relationship with the desert horizon.

Exhibition runs leading up to the Coachella Music festival and until 30 April 2017.

Mirage will remain on view after the exhibition closes through 31 October 2017.

For the full program visit Desert X.