Desert X 2019: Biennial Opens in California’s Coachella Valley

Sara Foster

Superflex,  Dive-In,  2019, Coachella Valley, California

Superflex, Dive-In, 2019, Coachella Valley, California

The second edition of the Desert X Biennial kicked off last weekend in the Coachella Valley of California. Spanning roughly 60 miles of desert just east of Los Angeles, the mostly outdoor exhibition has expanded both geographically and curatorially from its premier in 2017, which included 16 artists within a 45-mile range. This year 18 artists have contributed, tasked with creating works in dialogue with the famous valley. Artistic director Neville Wakefield and curators Matthew Schum and Amanda Hunt, this year, have turned the focus of the exhibition toward the history of the desert, and the diversity of the landscape has prompted a range of responses from the participating artists. Themes of climate change, migration, and indigenous legacies are emphasised and ideas of decline and disappearance underlie several pieces that offer meditations on who or what existed on these lands previously. 

Danish collective Superflex’s striking bubble-gum pink monument Dive-In appeals to the valley’s history as an ancient ocean bed, becoming an organism of the space in its vibrant colour and coral texture. Implied is that the valley will soon be submerged underwater once again due to rising sea levels, and fish will swim where the viewer now stands. Cara Romero’s Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits takes a shorter journey back in time to provide a reflection on the nations that came before her. A series of billboards depict young boys dressed in traditional Chemeheuvi tribe garb, time travelers wandering through the modern landscape that now occupies their ancestral lands. 

Cara Romero,  Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits,  2019, Coachella Valley, California

Cara Romero, Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits, 2019, Coachella Valley, California

Modern infrastructure is at the heart of Eric N. Mack’s Halter, which transforms the Californian icon of the gas station into a billowing canopy of multicoloured fabric donated by the Italian fashion house Missoni. Working similarly within the juxtaposition of old and new is Ivan Argote’s A Point of View, a series of five staircases overlooking the Salton Sea, simultaneously an ode to ancient Mexican temples as well as the brutalist architecture of twentieth-century Los Angeles. Lines of poetry in both English and Spanish are engraved on each staircase, offering questions to do with ownership and territory, before reaching the top, a platform to contemplate one’s relationship to both landscape and community. 

Ivan Argote,  A Point of View,  2019, Coachella Valley, California

Ivan Argote, A Point of View, 2019, Coachella Valley, California

Jenny Holzer’s BEFORE I BECAME AFRAID was meant to display at the exhibition but has been put on hold due to concerns for local sheep following a recent outbreak of pneumonia. The piece was to consist of a projection of texts from those whose lives have been impacted by gun violence, though the Wildlands Conservancy, who oversees the Whitewater Preserve where the work was intended to be situated, considered it in the animals’ best interest to limit contact with people. As of now it is unclear if Holzer’s work will be adapted or modified in some way to be shown. 

As each artist has faced the unique challenge of creating a work adaptable to the extreme climate and unpredictable nature of its desert setting, visitors of Desert X will surely be tested in a similar fashion, revealing the profound toll the space can have on land, structure, and person alike. The exhibition will be on show until April 21.



Cascone, Sarah. "In the Vast Beauty of the Coachella Valley, Desert X Artists Emphasize the Perils of Climate Change", Artnet. February 12, 2019. Accessed February 12, 2019.

Sutton, Benjamin. "Jenny Holzer's Desert X installation was put on hold for the sake of bighorn sheep", Artsy. February 8, 2019. Accessed February 12, 2019.

Zara, Janelle. "Beware the Elements: Desert X Turns California's Coachella Valley Into Open Exhibition Space", Artnews. February 12, 2019. Accessed February 12, 2019.