Photographs by Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who was beaten by five police officers and died three days later in Memphis, Tennessee, in January, appear on billboards in Palm Springs as part of Desert X, the biennial exhibition of site-specific art, which runs through May 7 across the Coachella Valley.
Nichols was an amateur photographer who liked to shoot the landscape and bring viewers into what he was seeing — especially sunsets at Shelby Farms Park, one of the largest urban green spaces in the country, located just outside Memphis. In Palm Springs, commuters on Gene Autry Trail between Interstate 10 and Vista Chino can see a selection of Nichols’ images on the same group of billboards where several other artists — Jennifer Bolande, Cara Romero, and Xaviera Simmons — who have mounted their photographs in previous iterations of the exhibition.
Since 2017, Desert X has seen acclaimed artists — Doug Aitken, Richard Prince, Sterling Ruby, and others — create massive, eye-popping installations across the Coachella Valley. The fourth local edition (Desert X also produces shows in Alula, Saudi Arabia) features a new slate of artists taking on topics such as climate change, social justice, and freedom. For their part, Nichols’ photographs remind viewers of the profound fear, trauma, and exhaustion that Black and brown people experience every day.
While Nichols’ photographs will likely garner media attention, the exhibition includes 11 other projects that suggest “new ways to build healing cultures that embrace and protect (bio)diversity and open opportunities for joy and hope anchored in justice,” says co-curator Diana Campbell.
She and artistic director Neville Wakefield selected artists from around the world to visit the Coachella Valley, immerse themselves in its histories and current issues, and respond with thoughtful, larger-than-life works of art. “These works of art,” Campbell says, “bring to light the forces that we exert on the world: how we design our environments, how we live, and how the messages we put out in the world reinforce systems that might or might not be beneficial for us.”
The exhibition presents a visual spectacle and is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from near and far during its two-month run, which includes a robust lineup of public programs, which are listed and continually updated at desertx.org and on the Desert X app.
And it’s all free to the public.
"The Passenger" by Eduardo Sarabia, part of Desert X 2021.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LANCE GERBER
Here’s our suggested route to see the exhibition:
Pick up a Desert X program, glean driving and viewing tips, and more at the Desert X Hub, located at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club at 701 E. Palm Canyon Drive in South Palm Springs.
From the Ace, head south to Palm Desert to see Rana Begum’s “No. 1225 Chainlink,” located at 74184 Portola Road, and Torkwase Dyson’s “Liquid A Place,” located in Homme Adams Park at 72500 Thrush Road.
Begum, an Anglo-Bangladeshi artist, transforms the ubiquitous chain link fence into an ethereal sculpture that layers across the desert floor. Her “maze” of concentric circles upends the material’s purpose (containment) to create a space of unexpected freedom.
“Liquid A Place,” part Dyson’s an ongoing series based on the premise that “we are the water in the room,” is a monumental sculpture and poetic meditation connecting the memory of water in the body and the memory of the water in the desert.
The next stop is Sunnylands Center & Gardens (37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage), where Paloma Contreras Lomas parks her work, “Amar a Dios en Tierra de Indios, Es Oficio maternal” — an old car with the tangled limbs of two mysterious characters sprawling onto the site’s manicured grounds. The strange figures accompany you on a fictional tour of a familiar world.
From here, head up to Desert Hot Springs, via Gene Autry Trail, where you can see the Nichols photographs on billboards. Then, on Pierson Boulevard between Foxdale Drive and Miracle Hill Road, Mario García Torres’ “Searching for the Sky (While Maintaining Equilibrium)” reflects on macho cowboy culture’s attempts to control nature, using mechanical bulls as a metaphor. He replaces the bull component with a flat surface to stimulate our reconsideration of the “wild West” and our relationship to landscape.
Next, Tschabalala Self’s “Pioneer,” located at San Gorgonio Street and Bubbling Wells Road, honors the foremothers of contemporary America. The equine sculpture represents the lost, expelled, and forgotten Indigenous, Native, and African women whose bodies and labor allowed for American expansion and growth and also stands as a beacon of resilience for their descendants.
Also in Desert Hot Springs, located on Worsley Road between Pierson and Mission Lakes boulevards, is “Namak Nazar” by Hylozoic/Desires, an artist collaborative consisting of Himali Singh Soin and David Soin Tappeser, who use metaphors from the natural environment to construct imaginary cosmologies. In the desert, they found this metaphor in salt and have created a wooden pillar with loudspeakers that spew an imaginary conspiracy theory about Namak Nazar, “a particle of salt that spells the doom of climate change and offers redemption by looking inward.”
As you head back south to Palm Springs, go west on Interstate 10 and exit Haugen-Lehmann Way toward Railroad Avenue to see Matt Johnson’s massive “Sleeping Figure.” Appropriately situated near the railroad tracks that shuttle roughly one-third of the U.S. gross national product from the coastal ports through the San Gorgonio Pass and into the Southwest, the sculpture is a monumentally scaled reclining figure composed of shipping containers — a commentary on the fragility of our stressed supply chain economy.
Farther south, at the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center (480 W. Tramview Road), Cahuilla artist Gerald Clarke’s “Immersion” unfolds in the form of a monumental maze-like board game that invites us to advance through by learning local Native history and culture.
Open on select evenings (visit desertx.org for information), “The Smallest Sea with the Largest Heart” by Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio is a steel sculpture of an actual-size blue whale heart submerged in a pool of Salton Sea water. The sculpture metabolizes and creates energy and clean water that it deposits back into the atmosphere, signaling the potential for future life and visually transforming itself in the process.
Download the Desert X app or visit desertx.org to experience the last two projects: Khudi Bari (Bangladeshi for “tiny house”), a film by architect Marina Tabassum addressing wet and dry cultures and the role of design in enabling life in extreme climate conditions, and “Chimera,” a performative collaboration with Héctor Zamora and local street vendors.
- READ NEXT: Meet all the Desert X artists of 2023.