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View from the USA: X marks the spot

At the Desert X art festival in Palm Springs, the arid landscape and the installations it frames merge to challenge the viewer’s world view

Published 3 Jun 2019, 17:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:27 GMT
Aaron Millar.
Aaron Millar.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Desert X is the coolest contemporary art event in America. Set across 50sq miles of the Greater Palm Springs area, two hours west of Los Angeles, the biennial outdoor festival offers art nerds an experience akin to geocaching. With the aid of a map and an app, you set off across the stark red desert of the Coachella Valley on a kind of giant scavenger hunt to find enormous sculptures scattered like eccentric treasures blown in on the breeze. 

Best of all, it happens in one of my favourite places. Palm Springs is like LA without the traffic and ego — palm trees and modernist mansions everywhere, surrounded by sunburnt, jagged peaks stained ochre and orange. What could be better, I thought, than combining the world’s greatest artists with one of the country’s most beautiful spots?

There was just one problem: I don’t ‘get’ contemporary art — you know, the pretentious kind: sculptures of prehistoric goats made out of old ironing boards and such. I want to like it. I’ve paid my admission fee, I’ve tilted my head, I’ve squinted my eyes. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s only art by the thinnest of margins. I came to Palm Springs to be convinced otherwise.

It didn’t start well. First, there was Mosquito Net, a collection of avant-garde statues wading in the water of the Salton Sea, 50 miles south west of the city: a shark with a bunny on its back; a chameleon with a pair of nylon tights; an octopus coming out of a woman’s rear end like some kind of hideous, eight-legged fart. In the brochure: ‘a bestiary of the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane collaged into a landscape of both hope and despair’. But in reality, an octo-butt. 

Then there was Halter, an abandoned, graffiti-ridden petrol station with, well, with nothing. Apparently, some rope had been hung somewhere to ‘reframe the building’s relationship to itself’, but I couldn’t find it. I wandered around, poked my head through broken windows and tried my very best to see how the artist was using ‘material as gesture’, how what appeared to be a real-life homeless squat could be ‘evocative of an unfastened garment, an open tent, an umbrella’, but saw only a meth den and nonsense. It turns out if you disappear far enough up your own backside you end up at an abandoned filling station on the outskirts of Palm Springs.

Gradually, however, I started to get it. Yes, Specter, was, on one level, just an oversized, fluorescent-orange block resembling a giant LEGO piece lost somewhere on the eastern edge of the valley. But it was also undeniably striking, as if Photoshopped into the desert itself, something out of place, and yet surprisingly fitting too. Looking like a weird children’s playground piece, Lover’s Rainbow was just a painted rebar arch. But looked at from just the right angle, with the snow-capped hills and setting sun behind, it became startlingly, strangely beautiful. 

But my favourite was Western Flag: a 30ft-tall square block in the middle of nowhere — something alien and bizarre, like one of the monoliths from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. On one side was a giant digital reimagining of the ‘Lucas Gusher’ of 1901 (the first major oil discovery of the Texas oil boom), dark liquid spewing like a fluttering flag from a pipe stuck in the ground. Behind the installation, stretching as far as the eye can see, is a field of bright white wind turbines, spinning like ballerinas.

With Desert X, the landscape is both the frame and the canvas. Art and nature merge together to create something new and symbiotic — at its best, something greater and profound. 

I still don’t ‘get’ all contemporary art. You won’t find me hanging any octo-butts on my walls any time soon, but I think I understand it better. All art needs to do in order to justify itself is challenge us to see the world differently. It doesn’t matter what the object of art is, because the real canvas is in our imagination. Or as my prehistoric goat ironing board friends might say: we are both the viewer and the work. So, squint hard — the world may be more beautiful than you think. visitgreaterpalmsprings.com

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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