Drawing off the landscape and mythos of the desert, an ambitious new biennial in the Coachella Valley seeks to conjure the unexpected. Marieke Treilhard sits down with artistic director Neville Wakefield for a preview glimpse.


The desert has long figured as a quasi-mythological landscape in our collective cultural consciousness. A backdrop for both redemption and expulsion stories, it appears as a biblical trope, a paranormal host, a canvas for Hunter S. Thompson-esque peyote-fueled nightmares, an apocalyptic nuclear testing ground, and a mythic wasteland from which origin stories are drawn. Its very mention tends to invoke ideas of unspecific space ruled by anarchic and entropic forces, unhinged by a poetic lawlessness. What better place to engage questions of site-specificity in contemporary art? An exhibition with Biennial ambitions that takes contemporary art outside of prescriptive institutional bounds, “Desert X” will activate Southern California’s Coachella Valley region from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea with contemporary, site-specific, artworks.

On view from February 25 to April 30, 2017, Desert X inhabits a sprawling geographical footprint that will include works by at least 17 internationally renowned contemporary artists. As individual vignettes, the installations are scattered throughout the Coachella Valley, some within spaces and others outside and beyond them, each an independent experience unto itself while collectively read as a spatial narrative with endless sequential possibilities. The exhibition will include site-specific installations, environmental interventions, and an extensive ancillary education program supported by Riverside County cities, its cultural institutions, and local communities. Artistic director Neville Wakefield, known for his irreverent penchant for curating alternative spaces, has based Desert X on a generative curatorial model intended to create experiential art encounters in a variety of unlikely contexts. A dynamic and kinesthetic viewing experience, rather than a didactic one, the intrepid journey into the desert is as defining an exhibition component as the artworks themselves.

Previous artworks by artists who will be participating in 2017 Desert X
“Spine of the Earth,” 1980, Lita Albuquerque
Powder pigment, wood, stone, 800′ diameter, Photo: courtesy the artist and Desert X

I sat down with Neville Wakefield to discuss his year-long pilgrimage into California’s desert in preparation for Desert X. Gracious and understated, Wakefield’s demeanor is disarming. He arrives at our interview stylishly disheveled in black T-shirt and jeans, genuinely apologetic for the negligible tardiness he has already pre-empted me for by phone. Immediately friendly, Wakefield articulates complex ideas with an ease that belies their difficulty. A writer, curator, and cultural commentator, Wakefield has acted as Senior Curatorial Advisor for MoMA PS1 and was a curator of Frieze Projects. He is also creative director at Playboy and helmed its transition into its controversial “post-nude” era.

Wakefield was originally approached by Desert X Founder and Board President, Susan Davis, in 2015 following his completion of a similar site-specific project in Gstaad, Switzerland, titled “Elevation 1049”—not unlike Desert X in its intervention into an extreme landscape. Wakefield offers, “I was already interested in the desert, particularly as a counterpoint to the mountain. Apart from the way it has magnetized people historically, the thing that fascinates me about it is how people go there to seek freedom but find themselves in chains, or rather chain-link fences, stucco walls, mid-century modern homes: self-imposed architectures… I think that what we’re trying to do [with Desert X] is create something that is self-narrating or self-narrated, so that no two experiences are ever the same. In this configuration, there are no directives in terms of which path to take or which sequence you view the works in, which ones you omit and which ones you choose to see. It really becomes about that and puts an onus on the viewer as a creative participant, and that, to me, is really interesting.”

Desert X, as an exhibition, is defined by living, variable spaces. It disavows what Wakefield calls the “assumptive passivity” of the institutionally circumscribed for an expanded experiential field. When asked about his curatorial take on this type of site-specificity, Wakefield says, “It has to be organic; otherwise you’re involved in a different kind of curating where you’re trying to illustrate a thesis. I’m not interested in that… part of the idea of remoteness is to slow down, to shed some of the baggage of preconception you normally bring along with you.” He is also interested in revisiting a narrative from the ’60s and ’70s, one that was about creating work that is fundamentally anti-institutional and ephemeral in its lifespan: Land Art. “The last few decades haven’t really favored it in my opinion… and I think it hasn’t fully been played out.” Part of that interest for Wakefield resides in its more democratic social and cultural reach. “I think that this type of art opens up to all kinds of different experiences, and particularly different kinds of audience. You don’t necessarily have to know where you’re going. The journey is in part the destination, and the destination is a refraction of the journey. Desert X is essentially conceived as a road trip, hopefully with some breakdowns and flat tires along the way.”

Previous artworks by artists who will be participating in 2017 Desert X
“You Belong Here,” 2014, Tavares Strachan, Blocked Out Neon, 100′ on 150′ Barge
Traveling Installation on the Mississippi River presented as part the 2014 Prospect New Orleans biennial
Photo: courtesy the artist and Desert X

The exhibition will feature commissioned artworks by a diverse roster of internationally known artists, among them Doug Aitken, Lita Albuquerque, Matthew Barney, Jennifer Bolande, Will Boone, Jeffrey Gibson, Sherin Guirguis, Gabriel Kuri, Cinthia Marcelle, Hank Willis Thomas, Phillip K. Smith III, Glenn Kaino, Richard Prince, Julião Sarmento, and Tavares Strachan. When asked to discuss the criteria for selection, Wakefield is candid. “What we didn’t do is identify artists and sites and then match them up. The reason we didn’t do this is that I really am interested in generative works that come out of dialogue with the place, and if you constrain the terms of the dialogue, you’re going to get a different sort of conversation.” The result will be diverse and surprising—particularly as the nature of the project will remain somewhat speculative until fully implemented in February—but Wakefield sees this trapping as part of the project’s dynamism and excitement, “Sometimes it looks really tangible and sometimes it looks likes there’s nothing there at all. But the uncertainty can be a positive thing. I think it’s something that in a way, although it’s a curatorial and administrative nightmare, artists respond to.”

Among the projects is a sculptural piece by Matthew Barney, part of a new series in which Barney is experimenting with metal casting techniques. Wakefield describes the sculpture as an “explosive looking meteorite with this incredible energy pushed to the edge. It has this simultaneously alien, ancient, but modern aspect to it.” Richard Prince will be using a house to create a site-specific installation in the desert, a successor to his two House projects. Julião Sarmento will stage a performance about the awkwardness of intimacy in a seedy motel, and Hank Willis Thomas will create a signpost that points in every direction but leads nowhere. Sherin Guirguis’ site-specific piece is about migration paths and the environmental ruination of the Salton Sea.

Glenn Kaino’s installation is about delineating boundaries and the spatio-temporal logic of the desert. Wakefield comments, “Glenn’s piece is a good example of two versions of time, biological and geological, coming together and both having a different tempo.” Tavares Strachan is creating a sculptural drawing out of neon. Notes Wakefield, “it also speaks to this kind of opposition in time, between the existential and biological, the spiritual and geological.” Will Boone is staging an underground bomb shelter with cast bronze sculptures of JFK. Gabriel Kuri’s piece is an immersive drawing that will partially disappear and move depending on your vantage point, and an elusive solar-powered robotic piece by Italian artist Luca Forcolini is designed to remain forever out of sight, programmed to retreat from seeking human presence.

Susan Davis, the current editorial director at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, founded Desert X in 2015, following two impactful biennial experiences of her own the year before at Prospect.3, in New Orleans and The International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Cartagena De Indias, in Cartagena, Columbia. Susan says of the moment she decided Desert X was possible, “Cartagena was dramatic. It took me through the city and also outside of its walls and to other places I wouldn’t have gone. I literally got off the plane in Palm Springs after the Biennial and said: ‘this could happen here.’” Davis says of her move from New York City to the desert, “I discovered very quickly that the area was so rich in terms of its history. From its Native American communities to its entertainers, to its cowboys and miners, and of course the architectural history. But then there was also the whole socio-economic aspect, the fact that you have the richest Americans with houses here and the second poorest school district in the country; it’s a place of social, historical and political complexity.”

The Desert X projects will engage some of these socio-political issues and legacies, some directly and some more obliquely. As part of an education program that will include docent-led tours to project sites and collaborations with the school districts, Desert X will be the subject of a symposium at the Palm Springs Museum of Art on March 7, 2017. “Desert Constellations: Art and Mythologies” will feature as its keynote speaker, Land Art expert William L. Fox, director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. Other cultural program partners include the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, DIGICOM, Sunnylands Center & Gardens and Palm Springs Modernism Week. The cultural community of the surrounding areas has rallied to bring the exhibition to life. Susan Davis offers, “It’s a large enough project that everyone could be involved and connected. It’s not just a weekend; it’s nine weeks. We have activations all over, in different cities at different times. It’s not exclusive, it’s free, and there are many ways to get excited about it and involved.”

Ranging in tone from the apocalyptic and dystopian to the redemptive and optimistic, there is no single reigning affective vision homogenizing the art projects or the holistic experience. When I ask Wakefield what Desert X will feel like, reeling off a laundry list of adjectival platitudes to choose from, he answers matter-of-factly, “I hope it’s all of those things. I think it can all be found in different pieces and encounters; it will be different and conditional for everybody.” When asked what it will “be” when it is done, Wakefield pauses. “I think we need to embrace that unknown,” he says. “I hope that it won’t be ‘known’ even when it’s fully out there.”