Outdoor Exhibit Returns to Joshua Tree, California’s Desert Art Boom

In the popular imagination, the desert is a wasteland, conducive to post-apocalyptic stories such as the madmax movies. Some artists living and working in the Southern California desert would dispute this notion and instead believe that a creative narrative can be drawn from its open spaces, its history, and even its inhospitable surroundings. High Desert Test Sites (HDTS), a project that inspired a generation of visitors and emulators seeking art and revelation in the desert, has just launched its latest iteration, Researchers (until May 22), with nine art installations dotting the high desert region around Joshua Tree, California.

Celebrating its return to live programming and its 20th anniversary, the exhibition kicked off with a weekend of tours led by HDTS director Vanesa Zendejas and guest curator Iwona Blazwick. The latter is director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London and has brought in six artists from the East Coast and abroad, to add to the three regional artists in the mix. Although the event retains a certain do-it-yourself aesthetic, the presentation and works are neater and better mapped than before.

Gerald Clarke, memory of the earth2022 Courtesy of the artist and High Desert Test Sites, photo by Sarah Lyon

“Context is everything,” says artist Andrea Zittel, one of the event’s main founders, as she drives her sport utility vehicle down a dusty road. “I like to marry all works of art with the right situations.” Zendejas echoes this sentiment. “We really try to situate the work in a way that the tangential experiences along the way are part of the whole,” she says. “And that’s kind of the magic of the desert.”

Zittel moved to Joshua Tree 22 years ago, buying five acres that eventually became a work complex called AZ West. Her eco-friendly, low-key lifestyle became her art, celebrated in a landmark exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007, which featured handmade clothing and self-contained living modules.

Jack Pierson, The end of the world2022 Courtesy of the artist and High Desert Test Sites, photo by Sarah Lyon

HDTS began shortly after Zittel’s move to the desert, working with Lisa Anne Auerbach, Shaun Caley Regen, Andy Stillpass and John Connelly. They chose the name, High Desert Test Sites, in reference to nuclear test sites in neighboring Nevada. “I liked this name because it is mysterious and compelling but slightly sinister at the same time,” Zittel wrote in a art forum article in 2005. Some of the grim associations show up in the current edition, such as the all caps signage that reads “The End of the World”, looming and surrounded by desert brush in Twentynine Palms. Jack Pierson’s work is made of composite panels painted silver. It’s reminiscent of the glamorous Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, three hours away, but packs a heavy dose of dark humor. The freestanding letters are behind the Palms Restaurant, a popular roadhouse that was blocked on opening weekend.

Across the road is Paloma Varga Weisz Foreign body (2022), a sculpture of a gigantic woman with a placid face and a giant log piercing her torso. The character sits atop a small food stand selling vegetarian hot dogs, a nod to American roadside food stops with programmatic features. “For me, it’s a very simple sign of nature passing through a human being,” Weisz explains, avoiding giving a definitive interpretation of the work. “It is important that it is absolutely unclear what is going on.”

Still by Dana Sherwood, Other dessert landscapes2022 Courtesy of the artist

The two videos of Researchers, presented individually in two venues, use local resources, as participating artists are encouraged to do. Erkan Özgen worked with retired Marines to make Hare (2022), a short film in which veterans slap each other, ready guns and throw bullets at a propulsive pace. It’s a reminder that a major Marine Corps training base sits just above the mountain range, occasional bangs lighting up the sky. Dana Sherwood worked with a local animal shelter to provide horses for her play Other dessert landscapes (2022), in which the animals indulge in tables set with what look like lavish desserts – horse-friendly food suspended in gelatin. Shot in infrared, it is strange and dreamlike.

The memories of the earth are summoned in several works, including hut i and Hut II (2014) by Rachel Whiteread, perhaps the most internationally known artist. These gray huts are located down a dirt road on private land and consist of two large-scale cement casts of the family homes that still dot the area. Cement was poured from the inside and then the walls removed, so only impressions of the buildings upside down remain. This is the first time the landowner, who commissioned the work several years ago, has allowed the public to visit.

Alice Chaner, rock pool2022 Courtesy of the artist and High Desert Test Sides, photo by Sarah Lyon

Also referring to the place is Gerald Clarke’s memory of the earth (2022), with its hundreds of pennants flying on poles at Sunfair Dry Lake, each imprinted with the image of a fish. Clarke, a member of the Cahuilla Indians, once lived in the area. Off Ironage Road in Wonder Valley, Alice Channer designed rock pool (2022), a 60-foot-long red container at ground level in the shape of an oil spill. It is filled with rock salt from a nearby salt mine. The other works in this edition of HDTS are by Kate Lee Short Respite (2022), a building designed with pipes around the roofline to capture wind noise, and Dineo Seshee Bopape Lerato the golo (2022), made up of approximately 5,000 bricks handcrafted by local volunteers.

Blazwick has been visiting the area for two decades and was introduced to Zittel by a mutual friend. “I realized what she was building here was this utopian situation,” says the curator, “where she doesn’t differentiate between applied arts and fine arts, that it was all just a vision . Four years ago she was invited to curate the next HDTS, but the exhibition has been delayed so far by Covid-19.

Paloma Varga Weisz, Foreign body2022 Courtesy of the artist and High Desert Test Sites, photo by Sarah Lyon

Over the years, Zendejas says HDTS has attracted more and more visitors, although it’s impossible to track the numbers since visitors explore the exhibits on their own. Two clear signs of success are the overflowing motels and Airbnb-like accommodations on opening weekends and the other arts events that have sprung up nearby. These include the Joshua Treeniallaunched in 2015, and the better-funded and promoted Desert X, whose third edition in the Coachella Valley took place last year and which partnered with the Saudi government on Desert X AlUla, whose second edition was recently completed.

Recently, Zittel took a step back from AZ West, handing over the management of HDTS and this resort to a team. She moved into a modest house in Joshua Tree with, she says smiling, “a 300 square foot studio that doubled as a garage.” After years of running a workshop producing handcrafted textiles and ceramics, she is once again turning to her own work, although she has not yet understood what form this will take.

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