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Art Meets Landscape at Desert X

El Segundo resident and Art & Culture Advisory Committee member Michael Kreski recently visited and documented the Coachella Valley’s astonishing 2021 Desert X exhibition, a biennial installation of public art set against a dramatic desert landscape.

Photos and Narrative by Michael Kreski

Editor’s note: Desert X is a biennial, international contemporary art exhibition that activates desert locations through site-specific installations by acclaimed international artists. Its guiding purposes and principles, as explained on its website, are to present public exhibitions of art that respond meaningfully to the conditions of desert locations, the environment, and indigenous communities; promote cultural exchange and education programs that foster dialogue and understanding among cultures and communities about shared artistic, historical, and societal issues; and provide an accessible platform for artists from around the world to address ecological, cultural, spiritual, and other existential themes.

Here, Michael Kreski shares his impressions of and reflections on this year’s Desert X experience:

“Parapivot (Sempiternal Clouds)” by Alicja Kwade photographed by Michael Kreski

Twelve extraordinary installations by artists from eight countries comprised this year’s edition of Desert X, the third in a series of biennial art happenings taking place throughout the Coachella Valley in April and May.

While large works installed in urban areas fit the familiar model of “art in public places,” the farther-flung Desert X pieces situated miles from city centers embody the special spirit of the exhibition: encounters not just with art but with the vast landscape itself. Experiencing these works requires a kind of pilgrimage.

It took a 30-minute drive from Palm Springs to reach Sky Valley and “Parapivot (Sempiternal Clouds)” by Alicja Kwade, a Polish artist working in Berlin. Parking beside the road, we hiked a steep, winding driveway, fighting stiff winds to the summit and the artwork: an elegant array of black steel frames carrying dazzling white boulders like mineralized clouds. All Kwade’s works incorporate space and science; here, those elements were the mountain horizon and brilliant sky.

Zahrah Alghamdi’s “What Lies Behind The Walls" photographed by Michael Kreski

Twenty minutes’ more driving to Desert Hot Springs and a half-mile desert walk brought us to Zahrah Alghamdi’s “What Lies Behind The Walls.” First appearing near and small, it was farther off than expected—and much larger. A monolith set improbably in the middle of nowhere, its size astounded. Built of stacked fabric bags stuffed with regional soils, it was spongy yet formidable. (A sign admonished “Do Not Touch”; but touching it was irresistible.) The Saudi Arabian artist’s installation evoked traditional building forms and a geological cross-section of time.

Eduardo Sarabia’s “The Passenger” photographed by Michael Kreski

Closer to Palm Desert, Eduardo Sarabia’s “The Passenger” sprawled across a sandy lot a mere hundred yards from Frank Sinatra Drive. LA-born Sarabia works in Guadalajara; his installation expressed movements between cultures and homelands via a giant, triangular maze of palm fiber rugs on stout timber frames, swaying like tawny bed covers on clotheslines. Walking its passages was a journey of quiet mystery, as if through an abandoned ceremonial site with a central court where some ancient rite might occur—or a concert, maybe.

Experiencing all of Desert X, perhaps revisiting works at different hours in different light, could take days. Its two-month run gave it special-occasion excitement, but it has now vanished like a desert mirage. Nevertheless, this ambitious project has growing international visibility and heavy-duty sponsorship. Just keep watching the desert for the next edition.

An environmental designer and planner, Michael Kreski is a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design and serves on El Segundo’s Art & Culture Advisory Committee.

This story appears in the July 2021 issue of The El Segundo Scene.

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