Passing a large particleboard box on legs, people reached their hands into its fur-lined slot and laughed. Perhaps it evoked a childhood memory of a stuffed animal — or maybe it was nothing more than the joy of satisfying curiosity.
“There is no shock or punch line; the piece is simply a moment to reflect,” says Patrick Melroy, who created the installation at the Joshua Tree Music Festival with Nikki Leone. “The environment of the music festival is loud, and it seems everything in the desert is sharp; so Nikki wanted to give attendees something completely soft and luxurious.”
Leone and Melroy were among art students participating in the latest iteration of Dick Hebdige’s Mapping the Desert, Deserting the Map. Last March, the professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, led students from seven UC campuses in a weekend exhibition of art installations in the desert surrounding Wonder Valley. Hebdige, who owns a house in Joshua Tree, views the desert as “a jarring cluster of contradictory metaphors, myths, and images” and thus “an opportunity to review and revise fundamental principles, practices, and modes of operation.”
His program is designed to put students to work individually and collaboratively in real-world settings “in such a way that they are required to learn about and respond creatively to local conditions, contexts, and communities,” Hebdige says.
“The fact that I have an abiding personal connection to the Mohave Desert is what motivated me to dedicate part of my research and teaching to Desert Studies,” he explains. “I am interested in taking the desert to the coast and vice versa.”
In addition to teaching, Hebdige is writing a catalog essay for Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, an exhibition opening Jan. 21, 2012, at Palm Springs Art Museum.