For this week’s research, I mainly researched performance arts in the desert. There are very few relevant projects if one only defines performance as something related to dance, acting, and other expressions. So I broadened the definition of “performance art” as art projects that evolve over time and can be experienced live.

Shybot by Norma Jeane

ShyBot was conceived and presented at the inaugural Desert X biennial art festival held in the Coachella Valley in Palm Springs, CA, in February of 2017. It consisted of an autonomous, self-driving, human-avoiding rover, solar powered, computer vision enabled and GPS tracker. 
Taking inspiration from the Mars Rover, Norma Jeane considered a version of the Rover that did more than cruise around, recording and analyzing the landscape. What if, instead of an information-gathering emotionally-neutral mission, the Rover had an emotional mission? What if the robot chose to wander the desert because it wanted to be left alone, and the desert was a place where it felt most safe? What if the robot was…shy?

Desert Improvisation Experiments by Aaron Sherwood

This is a series of improvisation experiments done by Aaron Sherwood and Kiori Kawai. They were in the UAE desert for 5 days to improvise in respective artistic mediums. The improvisation includes projection on dunes, live coding sounds and visuals, and dancing in the dunes and projections.

“We brought a deep cycle boat battery and an inverter to run power for the projector and sound equipment. All sounds are generated in real-time with my bansuri flute going through the live coding sound environment Tidalcycles. On the 2nd day we scouted some areas we could potentially project down onto a dune from above. This seemed like a good strategy to get a more even projection. We also prepared more for all the sand by doing some plastic wrapping”  — Aaron Sherwood 

Judy Chicago’s Firework

Over a career spanning more than 50 years, Judy Chicago has created art in a variety of media including fireworks, plastics, china-paint, and needlework while engaging the political issues of the day. Her early Atmosphere works consisted of colored smoke that momentarily transformed the landscapes they inhabited. Created in response to a land art movement that consisted largely of male artists’ bulldozers, Chicago’s works resisted scarification in favor of ephemeral moments of softening and feminization of the landscape. For Desert X, she presents a new smoke piece, using completely non-toxic materials, alongside images of previous works. Living Smoke celebrates the desert landscape and the indelible work of an artist for whom the personal, political, and environmental have always intertwined.

Western Flag by John Gerrard

Western Flag depicts the site of the ‘Lucas Gusher’ – the world’s first major oil find – in Spindletop, Texas in 1901, now barren and exhausted. The site is recreated as a digital simulation the center of which is marked by a flagpole spewing and endless stream of black smoke. The computer generated Spindletop runs in exact parallel with the real site in Texas throughout the year: the sun rising at the appropriate times and the days getting longer and shorter according to the seasons. The simulation is non-durational (having no beginning or end) and is run live by software that is calculating each frame of the animation in real-time as it is needed. 

Situated at the very gateway to the Coachella Valley and the city of Palm Springs Western Flag acts a stark reminder not just of the willful exploitation and depletion of resources that millions of years ago covered this former sea floor with an abundance of life, but of the energy taken to return the deserted land to its current state of artificial habitation. The invisible gas responsible for climate change is here made visible. Flying the flag of our own self-destruction we are asked to consider our role in the warming of the planet and simultaneous desertification of once fertile lands.

Dictums: Manqia II by Wael Shawky

The mountainous landscape in AlUla forms a backdrop for Shawky’s video work that is derived from Dictums: Manqia I – the film is inverted, rendered in negative and re-oriented in portrait mode. The artist produced the film in negative to further highlight themes of memory, history, and nomadism. Shawky’s mud house is also inverted with a Bedouin-style tent on top of its roof rather than the ground. Together, the house, tent, and film projection create a distinctive and surreal landscape.

Ghost Palm by Kathleen Ryan 

Ghost Palm is an echo of a natural form — a meticulous reconstruction of the largest palm species native to California, the Washingtonia filifera (desert fan palm). Nestled in a plot of low desert, between the foreboding San Andreas Fault path and a line of tamarisk trees, Ghost Palm is a manifestation of the artist’s fascination with the tenuous balance between fragility and sheer power. Standing taller than 20 feet, Ryan’s version of this iconic palm is constructed with manmade materials: steel, plastics and glass. Windowpanes in the style of a Victorian-era greenhouse make up the tree trunk; an iconic midcentury modern chandelier becomes the skirt of the tree; its leaves, a facsimile of Mother Nature’s perfect creation, are recreated in the form of glittering plastics. 

Drawing directly from nature’s design, the piece is self-reflexively manufactured, contextualized by the environmental features of the low desert landscape. While it is a substantially scaled man-made structure, it is essentially transparent, almost invisible. It becomes visible only when it catches reflections of the sun like a faceted crystal. Ghost Palm mimics what already exists in proximity to it, repositioning itself in nature in an homage. It makes visible our bodily connection to these sites, to the churning of the earth beneath us, and the natural forces we humbly exist within and among.

Mirage by Doug Aitken

Built above Palm Springs, Doug Aitken’s ‘Mirage’ house at Desert X is modelled on a traditional Californian suburban ranch-style home. The structure is clad in mirrors, like a kaleidoscope on a huge scale, reflecting and distorting the landscape it is set in. MIRAGE distills the recognizable and repetitious suburban home into the essence of its lines, reflecting and disappearing into the vast western landscape. 

MIRAGE is reconfigured as an architectural idea: the seemingly generic suburban home now devoid of a narrative, its inhabitants, their possessions. This minimal structure now functions entirely in response to the landscape around it. The doors, windows, and openings have been removed to create a fluid relationship with the surrounding environment. 

Categories: Art Outdoors


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