Culture Notebook

An Art-Fueled Road Trip in the Southern California Desert

Grab a car and a buddy, then check out 40 miles of mysterious, awesome outdoor art installations

An Art-Fueled Road Trip in the Southern California Desert
A visitor looks at Phillip K. Smith III's installation, "The Circle of Land and Sky." (Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist, Royale Projects, and Desert X)

We heard about a house made of mirrors reflecting the surrounding desert landscape, and then we heard about billboards showing images of the mountains they blocked and blending in like camouflage. Mysterious. Imagine our surprise when we learned they were part of an even bigger series of art projects spanning more than 40 miles throughout the Southern California desert.

This is the inaugural work of Desert X, a contemporary art exhibition in the Palm Springs area featuring work that will appear on a recurring basis. The first iteration released 17 artists at preselected sites—most of them outdoors. The result: a road trip of free art that pays homage to the desert’s natural beauty. The projects debuted on February 25, and most will be on display through April 30, so if you find yourself in the area by the end of the month, seek out all the exhibits. (Here’s a map to help you find your way.) In the meantime, here are some of the most impressive sites.


“Mirage,” Doug Aitken

  • (Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist and Desert X)
  • (Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist and Desert X)
  • (Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist and Desert X)

Aitken covered a ranch-style house with mirrors inside and out, so that it both reflects and disappears into the desert landscape. He calls it a “visual echo chamber and life-size kaleidoscope.” We call it the most beautifully confusing piece of architecture we’ve ever seen. The house will remain on view through October 31.


“Visible Distance/Second Sight,” Jennifer Bolande

second-sight-jennifer-bolande.jpg
(Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist and Desert X)

It’s almost impossible to ignore the line of Lamar billboards showing striking mountain photos that Bolande set up along the Gene Autry Trail. But as you drive by, you’ll also notice that—for one moment—each image lines up with the landscape behind it, “reconnecting the space that the rectangle of the billboard has interrupted.” Ed Abbey would be proud.


“Shybot,” Norma Jeane

shybot-norma-jeane.jpg
(Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist and Desert X)

Shybot, a real working rover, represents the idea of desert as a mysterious, unexplored place. But it’s also endearing: Shybot is programmed to avoid all human contact and rolls away from any motion it detects.


“One I Call,” Sherin Guirguis

one-i-call-sherin-guirguis.jpg
(Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist and Desert X)

This clay hut structure is based on traditional Egyptian towers made for homing pigeons. It represents migration—a concept that Guirguis, a Los Angeles–based artist who was born in Egypt, often evokes. “The piece stands at once as a beacon, a sanctuary, and a memorial for the people and communities of the desert whose histories are often dismissed or marginalized,” the project description reads.


“Hollow Earth,” Glenn Kaino

  • (Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist and Desert X)
  • (Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist and Desert X)

Watch your step as you enter this unassuming shed. Kaino installed a disconcertingly real-looking “tunnel” in the darkness that appears to drop into the belly of the earth. Stare into the void and you’ll see yourself—reflected in a series of mirrors. Stare a little longer and you might start to understand the fantasies of subterranean worlds that Kaino hopes to explore with this piece.


“I Am,” Tavares Strachan

i-am-tavares-strachan.jpg
(Brooke DiDonato/Courtesy of the artist and Desert X)

From above, the piece lights up to read “I am.” (Surprise.) From the ground, it’s just as striking—Strachan dug 290 craters across an area the size of two football fields to spell out the phrase in neon lights.


“The Circle of Land and Sky,” Phillip K. Smith III

  • (Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist, Royale Projects, and Desert X)
  • (Lance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist, Royale Projects, and Desert X)

The Circle of Land and Sky” will never look the same at any given moment. Smith staked 300 mirrored rods into the ground at 10-degree angles to reflect a new image and throw new shadows throughout the day. It’s a simple concept with a striking payoff. You’ll want to spend plenty of time walking through this one.

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