The city of Palm Springs has declined to sponsor this year’s edition of Desert X, the art biennial that stages ambitious, free, open-air art installations across California’s Coachella Valley,
In a December meeting, the Palm Springs City Council authorized $30,000 in public art funds for , an installation of six sculptures by artist Christopher Myers—but said it would work directly with the artist, rather than the biennial, due to concerns about last year’s Desert X AlUla in Saudi Arabia, a country known for its human rights violations.
“I would like to see Desert X… reform their ways and stop partnering with human rights abusers,” Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege told the .
The 2020, Desert X’s exhibition was backed in part by the Saudi government, which is believed to have ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi in 2018. Three biennial board members, including artist Ed Ruscha, resigned in protest, but organizers pushed forward anyway, hoping to create a cross-cultural dialogue with artists from the Middle East.
“We believe deeply that art has the potential to challenge the divides that segregate our world and that engagement, no matter how difficult or controversial, will always be a better strategy than an isolationist approach rooted in selective moral grounds,” wrote founder and president Susan Davis, executive director Jenny Gil, artistic director Neville Wakefield, and curator César García-Alvarez in an opinion piece in the .
“When we choose to boycott, divest, or sanction a country or region, we inevitably legitimize all other calls for that kind of approach elsewhere,” they continued.
Desert X’s supporters in Palm Springs have been vocal about what the free art exhibition has done for the community during its first two outings, and dismissive of the city’s council criticisms.
“The same council that is attacking Desert X installed a male chauvinist Marilyn Monroe movie-prop ‘sculpture’ which diminishes women and sends a message to all the young girls that visit the museum that they are just reduced to sexual objects,” Gisela Colon, an artist who showed at Desert X AlUla, told Artnet News in an email. “Seems very hypocritical to me.”
Myers’s artwork, set to be on view for five years—long after the nine-week biennial runs its course—tells the fictional story of “two ranchers—one Mexican and one African-American—whose personal adversities and love for raising horses lead them to creating a welcoming commune in the place that would eventually become Palm Springs,” according to the artist’s statement.
It will feature six five-foot-tall steel horse sculptures, each perched beneath a flowing textile flag, placed along the Tahquitz Canyon.
Another work planned for this year’s biennial has run into a roadblock from local officials. Last month, the city of Coachella refused to grant permission or funding for a piece by artist Serge Attukwei Clottey. He planned to make one of his “Afrogallonism” sculptures, inspired by water shortages in his native Ghana and made from the plastic jugs repurposed to carry water there, but council members felt the piece was exploiting the area’s own problems with tainted groundwater for tourism. It will now be staged at another location.
The exhibition was originally slated to open on February 6, but has been indefinitely delayed until lockdown restrictions are lifted.