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Desert X Returns To The Palm Springs Area -- With Political Statements

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Nicholas Galanin's "Never Forget" (John Horn/LAist)
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It's not just wildflowers that bloom in California this time of year -- it's also when massive art installations blossom across the Coachella Valley.

Every two years, a group of international artists creates a variety of site-specific works for Desert X in and around Palm Springs, many set against the massive wind farms that pepper the landscape.

Visually and tangibly responding to a deeply unpopular Desert X decision to partner with the repressive Saudi Arabian theocracy for an exhibit there, many of this year's artists are making bold statements about women's rights, diversity, immigration, land use, indigenous communities and various political and historical issues tied to the valley.

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While some critics have described Nicholas Galanin's "Never Forget" as a giant Instagram backdrop (which it indisputably is), his massive reimagining of the Hollywood sign -- in Galanin's 45-foot tall text, it reads "Indian Land" -- sets the political tone for this year's Desert X.

The work is hard to miss. It sits behind the iconic Palm Springs Visitors Center and at the base of the steep road leading to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, on the route most people enter the city. And its message is equally apparent: the ground underneath so many Palm Springs area golf courses, resorts and shopping malls once belonged to local tribes.

Not far from "Never Forget" is Serge Attukwei Clottey's "The Wishing Well." Two tall cubes are constructed from small pieces cut from hundreds of industrial yellow plastic containers used to carry water in Ghana.

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Serge Attukwei Clottey's "The Wishing Well" (John Horn/LAist)

With the arid Coachella Valley framing the work, and lushly landscaped estates just a short distance away, it's a silent totem about natural resources and those without access to them.

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The roads and highways cutting through the valley are lined with countless billboards, but if you didn't know that some of that outdoor advertising was part of Desert X, you could easily swerve off the road in surprise over the messages.

Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia" along Gene Autry Trail is a series of billboards filled with what looks like standard advertising typography and images, but the words themselves are radically different. "California Once Tried to Ban Black People" reads one billboard, while another says, "You Are Entering the Reparations Framework."

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Xaviera Simmons' "Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia." (Courtesy of Desert X)

One installation that is as beautiful as it is provocative is Ghada Amer's "Women's Qualities," set inside the spectacular grounds of the Sunnylands Center & Gardens. Set in a huge circle on a perfectly manicured lawn, Amer's work is constructed from an array of large steel planters, grouped to spell out a series of adjectives associated with femininity.

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Ghada Amer's "Women's Qualities." (John Horn/LAist)
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The text was suggested by desert residents, including the words "resilient," "loving" and "nurturing," and each is filled by plantings that might complement or challenge our understanding of the word: strong, for example, is filled with white daisies.

Finally, there's Kim Stringfellow's work, "Jackrabbit Homestead." It's a 112-square-foot cabin that sits on a small plot of dirt, and it was inspired by Catherine Venn Peterson, who wrote about her homesteading experience for Desert Magazine in 1950.

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Kim Stringfellow's "Jackrabbit Homestead." (Courtesy of Linda Burrow)

Peterson moved her cabin from Pasadena to Palm Desert, and inside Stringfellow's recreation of it, there's a tiny single room with a few pieces of furniture, including a writing table with a typewriter, and as you approach it, you hear a recording of Peterson's memoir. Even surrounded by mini-malls and restaurants, her words take you back a generation.

While guided tours of the 13 separate installations are no longer offered because of the pandemic, docents are on site Saturday mornings. Admission is free, but two exhibits require timed admission tickets.

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