interview + photography  JORGE PEREZCHICA

Desert X (Desert Exhibition of Art) is a recurring, international, contemporary art exhibition that will focus attention on and create conversation about environmental, social, and cultural conditions of the 21st century as reflected in the Coachella Valley. Curated by Artistic Director Neville Wakefield, Desert X will take audiences outside the institutional bounds of galleries and white walls — as the desert landscape will become the canvas. Among the internationally recognized artists who will be part of the exhibition are: Doug Aitken, Lita Albuquerque,  Jennifer Bolande, Will Boone, Claudia Comte, Jeffrey Gibson, Sherin Guirguis, Norma Jeane, Armando Lerma, Glenn Kaino, Gabriel Kuri, Richard Prince, Rob Pruitt, Julião Sarmento, Phillip K Smith III and  Tavares Strachan.

The inaugural Desert X will run from February 25 through April 30, 2017. Here are a few insights from Artistic Director Neville Wakefield.

What is Desert X?
Neville Wakefield: Like the desert, Desert X is many things to many people, but specifically, it’s an exhibition of site-specific contemporary art that ranges across the Coachella Valley, from Whitewater in the North to Indio in the south.

How did Desert X go from concept to reality?
Wakefield: The project was initially founded by Susan Davis and then developed and formed by a group of founders and collectors who had interests in the area. A year and a half ago, I was brought into the mix as Artistic Director and faced the challenge of creating a radically different kind of exhibition and way of showing art in an environment comprised of equal parts beauty and hostility. Along with the environmental challenges, there are also the issues of working with art that intentionally tends not to conform to the traditional rules. Most of the work is experimental, and the context plays a significant role in that experience, so it’s a very different endeavor from say placing a sculpture in a public setting. The process involved inviting a wide range of artists to come to the desert to both familiarize themselves with it and to seek inspiration. Conversations would then evolve.

How will art and social issues mix together?
Wakefield: I think all art has a social component and, whether by intention or circumstance, is about raising awareness – it’s about enlarging the conversation and expanding the point of view. In some instances, such as Armando Lerma’s Coachella Walls project, the writing – or in this instance the painting – is literally on the walls of a place that has historically suffered from social and economic neglect. Other projects refer more or less directly to the history of deserts in other parts of the world. Here I’m thinking of projects like Sherin Guirguis’ One I Call, which obliquely refers to the web of narratives surrounding the desert communities of her native Egypt, or Glenn Kaino’s Hollow Earth which invokes the secret underground tunnels that connect Egypt and the Gaza strip. The exciting thing about this kind of show is that it is about the landscape in the very broadest sense.

Why do you feel the desert continues to inspire and attract creative minds from around the world?
Wakefield: From biblical times and before the desert has been a place that people have gone to in order to reflect upon themselves in the absence of social and material distraction, to renew their relationship with nature and themselves. Whether literal or psychotropic, this version of being cast into the wilderness has always appealed to creative intelligence.

How might the artwork be interpreted if someone were from another culture
Wakefield: The beauty of this kind of art is that it is rooted in experience. You might go to see the Phil Smith installation, the Claudia Comte wall, or Richard Prince’s Third Place and you might see it in completely different conditions which alter the encounter with the work. But the basis of the experience is relatable to fundamental experiences of light, perception, geometry, or habitation that are common to all and in that sense trans-cultural. I think it’s important that even if the cultural nuances are not fully understood, that it’s still possible to enjoy the work.

What do you see as the main differences between art in public spaces vs art in galleries, museums, white walls etc.
Wakefield: The benefits of working outside of institutional bounds are that you have the opportunity to re-stage the encounter with the artwork. The moment you step through a gallery or museum door you bring to the experience a huge baggage of history and expectation. The beauty of a show like Desert X is that it can be much more democratic in its intent. There are no doors to pass through and no price of admission – actual or metaphorical.

What conversations do you want Desert X to create?
Wakefield: I’d like it to raise questions about how we create and consume art away from the marketplace and to encourage us to reflect upon the desert as a place where art can flourish unimpeded by the constraints of the so-called art world.