Desert X: Land Art at the Edge of the City
by Shana Nys Dambrot
March 17, 2017
At one point in the bright, mantric hour-long performance ritual which christened Lita Albuquerque’s current sculptural installation hEARTH at the Sunnylands Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage, a throaty clarion chant rang out across the great lawn, staccato: Got to, got to, got to, got to listen to the silence. Why did you come here? Why do you listen? What does it say to you? In many ways, these are the foundational questions and the essential directive of the entire Desert X affair.
Albuquerque’s piece is about listening. The one-time movement and sound performance in the past, what remains is a semi-permanent single female form in the artist’s signature luminous blue lies on a bed of white sand, her ear pressed to the ground as if to hear the sounds of the earth itself. Installed in a quiet copse on the perimeter of the estate’s public gardens, the sculpture is accompanied by an intermittent audio element; we hear what she hears. Like all the works in Desert X, the context of its site and the impact of lengths of time spent in its presence are arguably more central to the work’s meaning than even its visual and material qualities. In this case, it is a dynamic of power, access, and the active blurring of public and private spaces on the planet — what Albuquerque described as enacting “Earth power at a site of geopolitical power.” And like many more of the 16 works than the Land Art moniker suggests, hEARTH exists not in the remote landscape, but in the quasi-urban heart of a small desert city.
In fact, about half of Desert X happens “in town” or on its adjacent fringes, as opposed to the mythical and rather apocryphal “open” or “empty” desert per se. Gabriel Kuri’s witty and nasty installation Donation Box, for example, fills an empty strip-mall storefront with a cascade of sand dunes peppered with cigarette butts. It’s a wry comment on carelessness and pollution and a brilliant pun on the egoism of Land Art itself, which actually benefits both visually and conceptually from its forced last-minute relocation to a quasi-abandoned indoor commercial space when its planned outdoor site nearby was overtaken by mating deer of some kind and the artist was evicted. NB: that kind of unpredictable assertion of nature’s will into the best laid human plans is an authentic constant of desert living, with which anyone who has spent any real time out there is quite familiar.