Coachella’s Monumental Artwork Sets Festival Apart

Artists who create massive sculptures and installations receive equal billing to the event’s most famous musicians

Out on the vast polo fields of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, artist Patrick O’Mahony stood beneath a colorful, circular tower called Spectra. All around him, music fans posed for snapshots in the desert sunshine like tourists and fashion models, taking in the seven-story Technicolor structure made of steed and acrylic panels. Inside, a seemingly endless line of visitors headed up and down a spiral walkway overlooking the landscape.

O’Mahony’s British firm, Newsubstance, built the art piece in 2018, and it was originally planned to come down after the 2020 Coachella. But with Covid-19 delays, and growing affection for the tower, Spectra remains standing, where fans arriving for the second weekend of the annual festival in Indio can find Spectra and a variety of other outsized art objects, continuing a tradition begun with Coachella’s 1999 debut.

“I don’t think there’s any other festival in the world that would commission something like this or a lot of the pieces that you see here,” said O’Mahony. “The platform it gives people like ourselves is second to none, which is why we wanted to do it so much. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Not far from Spectra, three huge statues called The Messengers stood about 75-feet tall, towering like colorful robots in a visual mixture of sci-fi and Eastern folklore created by Sri Lankan artist Kumkum Fernando. Another nearby piece was Molecular Cloud, by the Paris-based artist Vincent Leroy, creating a bouquet of colorful, kinetic globes and light that moved and changed colors throughout the day and night.

Coachella has become a leading venue for large-scale art, and that commitment has only grown with time. Participating artists this year are listed across the bottom of the official event poster, like any other performer on the bill headlined this weekend by Bad Bunny, Blackpink and Blink-182.

In Coachella’s earliest years, the massive artwork was largely borrowed from the annual Burning Man gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Then the festival began commissioning original works. For a time, there was an open call to artists to submit ideas, one year attracting more than 200 proposals. Now the art staff reaches out to artists directly, searching for creators best suited for the wide-open landscape.

“We have this incredible venue like no one else in the country has, usually with zero possibility of rain – maybe it gets a little windy once in a while,” said Paul Clemente, Coachella’s main art curator since 2007. “Out of that has grown this very specific aesthetic that the producers have fine-tuned over the years.” The art comes into being with the help of the festival’s staff of art fabricators, led by Clemente, who worked for 18 years in Hollywood special effects, building miniatures and mechanical rigging on crews for such films as Titanic and The Matrix. His team of local craftsmen have been building the pieces since last summer.

The larger art program includes the Do LaB stage, led by the creators of the Lightning in a Bottle fest, which since 2004 has curated its own corner of Coachella with live music, DJs and art in a space that encourages intense audience participation. There’s also the female-led Coachella Art Studios on-site, and Robert Bose’s quarter-mile long chain of balloons that light up in the night sky.

While the various pieces of Spectra were built in the U.K., most of the festival’s large-scale art is fabricated in a huge, 20,000 square-foot tent near the Coachella grounds. Prior to his commission for this year’s festival, Fernando had never built a sculpture taller than two meters. But Clemente was intrigued by the work he first glimpsed on his cell phone, and reached out, eventually commissioning the three statues. He saw Fernando’s work as easily scalable to a size fit for Coachella’s wide-open spaces.

“Paul basically said, ‘Just do whatever you want,’ and I’m just not used to that,” recalled Fernando. “And I kept asking him, ‘So can I do this? Can I do that?’ He said, ‘Bro, just go for it.’”

The middle statue, Flying Ilo, is named for Fernando’s 7-year-old son, who lives in Germany. Since father and son live in different countries and see one another about every three months, the artist created a jetpack for the giant robot, metaphorically enabling Ilo to fly anywhere he likes. “I thought it would be cool to create an artwork that represents love or something that is away from you,” explained the artist, who was making his first trip to the U.S. for the project.

Standing in the afternoon sunshine in a multi-colored dress was L.A.-based artist Maggie West, looking up at Eden, her vibrant photo-based sculpture of flowers. The Coachella commission is her largest-ever three-dimensional work.

After being approached by Clemente and the Coachella art staff, West was invited to last year’s festival to get a feel for the venue and see where she and her work might fit in. What she came up with was Eden, a gathering of plant-life that rises up from the lawn in vibrant shades of orange, yellow, blue and purple during the day. At night, the sculpture glows from light projections based on the natural world, such as from fireflies and bolts of lightning.

She started by creating a 3D model of Eden on her computer, then it was put together as 20 structures of steel, wood and the images of flowers printed on vinyl by the Coachella art fabrication team. “We’ve been working on this pretty much nonstop since July,” she says.

“The Coachella program is amazing because it’s one of the only programs I know where they give you a very large budget to build something completely free of any kind of commercial branding,” said West. “It’s really important to make art available to audiences that might not necessarily go into a consumer gallery. That’s a beautiful thing and I’m happy to be a part of that.”

Nearby was Güvenç Özel and his 60-foot-tall Holoflux, a curvy geometric pretzel of a sculpture, with colors that subtly shifted with the changes in sunlight during the day, and then came alive after sundown with colors, projections, and graphics. The Turkish-born architect and media artist, bearded and clad in blood-orange sneakers, first attended Coachella in 2005, while working for Frank Gehry.

“Coachella is really the epicenter of popular culture in the world,” said Özel, now a lecturer in the architecture and urban design department at UCLA. “It takes the pulse of the youth and what the youth is interested in. It is a fantastic platform for somebody like myself who already operates in a pretty experimental realm, that integrates technology, aesthetics and spatial understanding to really test out ideas.”

Coachella’s approach to large-scale art has begun to influence other festivals, O’Mahony said. “I don’t think anyone’s even close to the same level of ambition as what they have here, but we are starting to see a shift in terms of how these pieces can galvanize an identity for a festival outside of the music.”

One of the most iconic art pieces in the festival’s two decades was 2014’s Escape Velocity, a gigantic white-suited astronaut created by the Poetic Kinetics group that seemingly floated just above the grass and was easily the event’s most photographed subject that year. There was a kind of sequel in 2019 with another spaceman called Overview Effect, this time stained with debris from the cosmos, but there are otherwise few repeats in the art program.

While another festival might reuse a popular visual attraction indefinitely, Coachella makes a point in bringing new ideas and voices to the polo fields. “We have to keep it fresh and keep raising the bar,” said Clemente. “My goal is to hopefully make everything 5-10 percent

better than it was the year before, so that when people come back again, they can say, ‘Oh no, I thought last year was the best Coachella, but actually this year is the best Coachella.’”

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