Updated: Desert X Announces the Artists Bringing Outdoor Installations to the Coachella Valley

Judy Chicago is out, but Felipe Baeza and Christopher Myers will be among the participating artists

UPDATE: MARCH 16, 2021 – Judy Chicago will no longer be participating in the 2021 Desert X. The lauded artist had planned to stage an outdoor ephemeral installation piece entitled “Living Smoke: A Tribute to the Living Desert,” involving the release of colorful substances into the air. That release, one local critic claims, could be hazardous to wildlife.

The “smoke sculptures” were approved by the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, which was to host the piece, and Chicago says she is confident that the nontoxic pigments she intended to use would not cause harm.

Ann Japenga, a Palm Springs-based freelance writer and former Los Angeles Times staffer, was unconvinced.

“Huge volumes of colored smoke obviously have a frightening and unpredictable effect on wild and captive creatures,” Japenga told Hyperallergic, stating that it could particularly startle bighorn sheep that live nearby. “Desert X is good at convincing organizations to overlook environmental harm in exchange for magazine covers.”

Following pressure, the Living Desert Zoo decided it no longer wanted to be the location of Chicago’s work.

“The reason he gave is that they didn’t want to be part of a controversy regarding their environmental preservation,” Desert X executive director Jenny Gil Schmitz told The New York Times. “The Living Desert specialists had assured us that the project would not damage the desert or any native or captive wildlife, so their backing out is incredibly disappointing and perplexing.”

Some efforts were made to move the piece to the Desert Willow Golf Resort, the Los Angeles Times reports, but the complex logistics of a site-specific work of this nature could not be adjusted in time.

To accompany the four “smoke sculptures” Chicago had worked with local media and an educational non-profit to create supplemental materials and provide live-streaming of the event along with enrichment materials for 500 art teachers in Riverside County.

“Judy declines to comment on any of Ann Japenga’s unsubstantiated and baseless claims,” Ron Longe, Chicago’s publicist, told Hyperallergic. “With Judy’s decades of involvement in environmental justice and animal rights, she would never create anything that posed a risk to the planet or any living creature.”

In 2019, concerns about bighorn sheep led to the cancellation of a Jenny Holzer installation intended for that year’s Desert X. Holzer’s piece would have projected poetry and the words of gun violence survivors onto a stream bank in the San Bernardino Mountains.

At that time, Japenga described Desert X as “a nightmare” and told the Sun-Sentinel that when visitors come out to see the art show, “It’s like invaders. They run roughshod over the landscape in the name of art.”

UPDATE: MARCH 9, 2021 – Desert X has released the list of artists participating in the 2021 event. Installations will be crafted by Zahrah Alghamdi, Ghada Amer, Felipe Baeza, Judy Chicago, Serge Attukwei Clottey, Nicholas Galanin, Alicja Kwade, Oscar Murillo, Christopher Myers, Eduardo Sarabia, Xaviera Simmons, Kim Stringfellow, and Vivian Suter. More details about each artist’s contribution and a map to finding them will be released on March 12.

Myers’s six-sculpture installation was originally to be funded with public money allocated by the Palm Springs City Council, but the arrangement fell apart over concerns about a controversial exhibition staged by Desert X in Saudi Arabia, as well as other terms of the deal.

Another snag impacted Attukwei Clottey’s work, “Afrogallonism.” The piece is inspired by water shortages in the artists’ native Ghana, and was to be installed in and partially funded by the City of Coachella. The city pulled out of the project, saying they feared it could be misinterpreted amid current problems with arsenic contamination in local groundwater in the eastern Coachella Valley. That piece will now be installed outside of the city.

FEBRUARY 12, 2021 – Local museums remain closed due to the pandemic, but art-lovers will soon be able to experience something special–and pandemic-safe. Desert X is returning to the Coachella Valley, bringing new, large-scale, outdoor art installations to explore.

Desert X pops up only once every other year, drawing the curious out to drive through a series of free, open-air pieces installed in the desert landscape. The 2021 edition will run March 12 to May 16.

Curated by artistic director Neville Wakefield and co-curator César García-Alvarez, the list of this year’s participating artists has not yet been revealed. Previous iterations have included works by Doug Aitken, Jenny Holzer, Iván Argote, Pia Camil, and other important names in contemporary art.

A statement from organizers says that “Desert X will include newly commissioned works that collectively pose urgent questions about our pasts while imagining the possibilities of a shared future.”

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