October 1, 2023


masterpiece of human

Sean J Patrick Carney on the farewell edition of the High Desert Test Sites biennial


View of Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Lerato le le golo (...la go hloka bo kantle), 2022, Ironage Road, Wonder Valley. All photos unless otherwise noted: Sarah Lyon.

“THE SEARCHERS” marked the final iteration of Significant Desert Test Sites’ solar-scorched biennial in Southern California’s arid Morongo Basin. Since 2002, the nonprofit has labored with about 4 hundred and fifty artists on a dozen biennials, 20-5 solo assignments, and countless activities. Primarily, programming occurs about the speedily growing cities of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Ponder Valley. HDTS 2015, although, absconded to Eco-friendly River, Utah, and the version I participated in, HDTS 2013, stretched 7 hundred miles, with sixty initiatives from Joshua Tree to Albuquerque. Visitor curator Iwona Blazwick, ex-director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery and (in an eyebrow-elevating profession shift) the newly appointed chair of a massive public art initiative developed by the Saudi Arabian federal government, organized “The Searchers” all over Robert Smithson’s idea of “regenerative ruin”: Blazwick picked nine artists, 5 from outdoors of the United States, who, across sixty baking miles, riffed on entropic procedures, styles of ruin, and imbricate timelines, the two human and nonhuman.

Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Lerato le le golo (…la go hloka bo kantle), 2022, constructed from the terrain and melting back again into it, represents for me an apotheosis of HDTS. On the outskirts of Wonder Valley, various wavy, mortarless brick structures appeared paused, mid-undulation, in the optical warmth distortion. Bopape, who is South African, enlisted locals to hand-form bricks with earth culled from the mattress of Sunfair Dry Lake, positioned a single hour west. At Sunfair, multidisciplinary artist Gerald Clarke, who life and is effective in the vicinity of Anza, California, on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation in which he is an enrolled member, mounted Earth Memory, 2022, an uncanny kinetic rumination on geologic time. Hypnotic winds rippled hundreds of vibrant fish, painted onto white pennants by local schoolchildren, about the desiccated phantom of the historical lake. 

View of Gerald Clarke’s Earth Memory, 2022, Sunfair Dry Lakebed, Joshua Tree.

30 miles east, parched breezes also animated Ponder Valley–based artist Kate Lee Short’s Respite, 2022. The partially sunken, octagonal wooden structure showcased 4 semicircular arch entryways. Descending stairs, sheltered from oppressive ultraviolet rays, you are enveloped by silence. Then, as wind picks up, Respite turns into an understated chantry. Steel tubes embedded outside—woodwind embouchure analogs—transmit breathy, layered buzzing.

Approaching on foot, Respite resembles the forsaken “jackrabbit homesteader” cabins peppered through the desert, remnants of the 1938 Compact Tract Act, which made available five acres of free of charge federal land—stolen from the Serrano, Cahuilla, and Chemehuevi, among the others—to these with suggests to “improve” plots by setting up dwellings. After Planet War II, components rationing ceased and homesteading boomed. Boosters boosted desert life, and well known westerns romanticized pioneers conquering rugged landscapes. Of training course, “The Searchers” shares a title with John Ford’s 1956 frontier epic, wherein John Wayne’s antihero hunts Comanches who kidnapped his niece from a West Texas homestead. Above Zoom in April, Blazwick, who has been visiting California’s superior desert for many years, explained the exhibition was not referencing Ford’s movie, but “the legacy of the pioneers who went [to the Morongo Basin] in the 1940s.” Coincidentally, cinematic and literary depictions of the Southwest impressed individuals (mainly white) postwar settlers to search out adventure—and property.

View of Kate Lee Short’s Respite, Wonder Valley.

A great deal of ex-urbanites could not slash it, and deserted shack. In scenic Pipes Canyon, British blue-chipper Rachel Whiteread cast two of these ditched dwellings in shades of gentrification-gray. Titled Shack I, 2014, and Shack II, 2016, the concrete negatives are architectural dirges for desert populations in perpetual flux. Getting by no means found a Whiteread in-particular person prior to, I was skeptical of what seemed to me like formal schtick. Take into account me transformed. Nonetheless they felt dissonant inside of HDTS’s scrappier canon. Positive, they’re site-specific—permanently so—but they had been commissioned years back by a collector on non-public land.

Exterior famed dive The Palms Cafe, Jack Pierson’s The Close of the Entire world, 2012, risked related incongruity—the Instagram-all set Hollywood indicator satire debuted at an eponymous 2013 solo exhibition at Regen Initiatives in Los Angeles. Pierson although has significant history with the location, as a part-time resident and participant in several early HDTS programs, offering The Conclusion’s long lasting set up a eulogistic bodyweight. Bearing mention: Pierson’s desert redux recalled, aesthetically, Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin’s significantly-discussed By no means Fail to remember, 2021, which go through “INDIAN LAND,” from past year’s geographically adjacent Desert X Biennial. The resemblance was purely coincidental—planned for 2020, “The Searchers” was delayed by Covid—but, as with HDTS 2022’s title, coincidences can be meaningful. Sure populations have already survived an apocalypse.

Across Amboy Highway sat a different operate loud sufficient for the flashier Desert X. German artist Paloma Varga Weisz’s monumental Overseas Entire body, 2022, a towering woman impaled by a phallic department, seemed far more scale than substance. Plant-turning into will make for provocative unusual fiction, but Varga Weisz’s hybrid was an anodyne examine.

Superior Desert Take a look at Websites coalesced in 2002 as a collaboration between artists Andrea Zittel and Lisa Anne Auerbach, gallerist Shaun Caley Regen, curator John Connelly, and collector Andy Stillpass. Zittel, who had relocated to Joshua Tree from New York in 2000, drafted an approachable mission statement—later printed in a 2004 Artforum essay—outlining 8 tenets for producing “a ‘center’ outside the house of any preexisting centers” and discovering “common ground between modern day artwork and localized artwork troubles.” As is customary with manifestos, some features seem parochial two a long time later: overlooking, for illustration, results of imaginative-class colonization, or socioeconomic realities that make “stucco housing tracts and significant box retail centers” realistic for numerous. Continue to, Zittel’s ambitious textual content continues to be instructive for modern day artist-run organizations.

Tenet four is evergreen: To initiate an organism in its possess right—one that is more substantial and richer than the eyesight of any single artist, architect, designer, or curator.

HDTS has involved, in addition to its cofounders, myriad skills. Notably, curator and researcher Aurora Tang, of the Middle for Land Use Interpretation, was handling director of HDTS from 2011 to 2015 and integral in securing the org’s nonprofit standing. Nonetheless, HDTS has been synonymous with Zittel, who invited artists, writers, and musicians to her storied Joshua Tree reside-do the job compound, A-Z West, and who’d solid associations with regional artists, bar owners, contractors, pilots, sign-makers, horse trainers, and veterans. So it was major information previous year when Zittel uncovered she was stepping down as director, entrusting the grand desert experiment to artists Vanesa Zendejas and Elena Yu, equally of whom have worked for decades in between A-Z West and HDTS. In truth, it was announced that the two entities would be merging, these kinds of that the former’s studio, tour, and lodging income would make the latter’s packages sustainable. Right now, Zendejas and Yu are reinterpreting Zittel’s mission for a landscape going through dizzying environmental, cultural, and economic transform.

Owing to those modifications, “The Searchers” confronted a paradoxical assignment: HDTS asks viewers to wander into the Mojave, to get dusty, sunburned, even lost—in brief, to have an Authentic Encounter. At the exact same time, desert experiences (imagine fashion shoots at Joshua Tree Countrywide Park, 1000’s leasing Airbnbs throughout Coachella, poolside selfies at the Ace Hotel Palm Springs) have grow to be a multimillion-greenback business, driving runaway regional gentrification. (HDTS’s—and by extension Zittel’s—role in that gentrification isn’t as analyzing as Donald Judd’s in Marfa, but it is not inconsequential, both.) During the two many years that Covid delayed “The Searchers,” wealth inequality ballooned hundreds relocated to the Morongo Basin droughts and fires grew legion and lengthy-overdue reckonings rocked complacent institutions. Biennials purport to provide zeitgeisty cultural snapshots, but in an period of compounding, breakneck crises, it is come to be increasingly clear that their episodic, jet-established product precludes actionable engagements with stated crises.

Participants in Sarah Lyon’s Basic Auto Care Workshop learning how to check tire pressure at The Firehouse Outpost, March 2022, Joshua Tree. Photo: Elena Yu.

Nearby companies, having said that, can go after group-responsive programming. To this stop, Zendejas and Yu have secured a physical space: the 1,200 square-foot Firehouse Outpost at Copper Mountain Mesa Neighborhood Centre. They’ve currently held local live shows, smaller sized art functions, and an auto treatment clinic with artist and mechanic Sarah Lyon—something of very important utility in the much-flung desert. The Firehouse will also host HDTS’s locally curated, multimedia Desert Research Library. Among the latest acquisition subjects: queer desert romance, Chemehuevi mythology, mining, mental health, and earth architecture. Outside the Firehouse, they’ve installed a display for open-air motion picture nights. On Saturdays, the extended-functioning HDTS HQ at Yucca Valley’s Sky Village Swap Satisfy will continue on connecting regional and checking out artists with superior desert citizens by way of routines like quilting, herb clinics, and performances. Zendejas and Yu are also designing an immersive, yearlong HDTS residency application in the course of parts of which, thanks to the merger with A-Z West, invited artists and curators can stay on-internet site. This product supports deep, open-ended interactions with the landscape, its men and women, and extant HDTS systems. In lieu of massive-scale biennials, each year need to yield, Zendejas explained to me above e-mail, one particular personal nearby exhibition or party.

Glenn Murray & Co. popup at the HDTS HQ at the Sky Village Swap Meet, HDTS 2017, Yucca Valley.

Immediately after two yrs of delays, and amid major group transitions, “The Searchers” played a proficient swan music for the HDTS biennial, flirting with spectacle but gritty ample to continue to be unique from its rely on-funder youthful cousin, Desert X. (In addition to three iterations in the Coachella Valley, Desert X has transpired two times in AlUla, Saudi Arabia, the very same desert region the place Blazwick is now tasked with developing a new “Valley of the Arts” with an inaugural lineup of monumental earthworks by Manal Al Dowayan, Michael Heizer, James Turrell, Agnes Denes, and Ahmed Mater). In retiring the biennial, Zendejas and Yu take a unique tack—slowing High Desert Take a look at Web-sites down, redrawing Zittel’s nimble schematic, and embarking on their have research for responses to a elaborate issue: What do their desert neighbors want from a cultural institution?

Sean J Patrick Carney is a author in Berkeley, California.


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