The alternatives to Instagram-ready desert art

Popular installations often frame the desert as austere and inhospitable. But there are artists who look at the land differently.


Nora Naranjo Morse’s ‘Numbe Whageh’ has resided in Albuquerque’s Old Town since 2004.
Courtesy of D. Nufer/Albuquerque Museum

Art in the desert went viral last fall with the debut of a bewitching spear of reflective metal in southern Utah. The so-called monolith, placed in a cleavage of crimson rock miles from the nearest road by an unknown maker, made international headlines and became ubiquitous on Instagram. Hundreds of visitors descended on the site, posting pictures of themselves leaning jocularly against the monolith’s sheer sides or offering a vague tribute to St. Simeon by perching atop its 10-foot summit.

The monolith craze was hardly the first time that social media users have obsessed over a sculpture in the desert. The current golden age of this style of art-making began in earnest in 2017, thanks to a homestead of mirrors in the foothills of California’s San Jacinto Mountains. The sculpture, Doug Aitken’s Mirage, took the form of a modest ranch house wrought entirely of reflective glass and situated amid tawny granite boulders. Mirage was the headliner to the inaugural edition of Desert X, a biennial exhibit of installations in the Coachella Valley, and it managed to lure 200,000 visitors — and their iPhones — to sites throughout the Mojave. The artwork’s popularity came from its clarity of form and the accessibility of its idea: to reimagine a seemingly inhospitable landscape by reframing it in a novel way.

When Desert X returned two years later, artworks that contrasted starkly with their environs proliferated again. Sterling Ruby’s Specter, a brilliant orange box the size of a shipping container plopped on an expanse of dirt, was the viral breakout. Images of Specter quickly became just as pervasive on Instagram as those of Mirage, even turning into clumsy inspirational memes, like one that read, “Maybe it’s because you don’t fit that makes you so easy to love.”

Art this unambiguous makes for a neat composition on a smartphone, but it often fails to evoke emotion beyond superficial wonder. 

Most of the entries at Desert X operate according to the same principle as the Utah monolith: Insert a structure of metal, plastic or glass into the desert to create a contrast that might otherwise only be possible through Photoshop. At best, they read as zhoozhed-up versions of the spare, concrete boxes Donald Judd first planted in the yellowed grass of West Texas in 1980, sculptures which helped turn Marfa into #marfa.The 2021 Desert X exhibition, now set to open on March 12 after coronavirus-related delays, will surely follow a similar blueprint. Art this unambiguous makes for a neat composition on a smartphone, but it often fails to evoke emotion beyond superficial wonder. It takes the Southwest’s deserts as alien geography, made legible only once an outsider has intervened. Such an approach refuses a deeper reckoning with the desert’s ecology or the millennia of human history that have unspooled there.

An aerial shows the spiraling composition of 'Numbe Whageh.' Its name drawn from a Tewa phrase that roughly translates to “center place.”
City of Albuquerque

Art in the desert does not have to treat its open spaces as a vacant background. Consider Nora Naranjo Morse’s Numbe Whageh, its name drawn from a Tewa phrase that roughly translates to “center place.” (Naranjo Morse is a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico.) Completed in 2004, the work of land art resides in Albuquerque’s Old Town. From afar, the piece looks like a small hill dotted with chamisa and mountain mahogany. The path that spirals into the artwork, though, traces a descent of surprising depth — on a blazing summer day, the feeling of reprieve that walking it grants is reminiscent of being engulfed by shade trees. At the end of the path is hidden a small spring so well insulated from the noise of the surrounding streets that its burble becomes audible.  

Taking a picture of Numbe Whageh is impossible; it operates by making the viewer feel the arid landscape rather than simply look at it. The Painted Desert Project, an ongoing street art exhibition on the Navajo Nation, has a similar effect. Since the project’s inception in 2009, curator Chip Thomas (an artist and physician also known as Jetsonorama, who lives on the reservation) and his collaborators have transformed vacant buildings into arresting, larger-than-life portraits and plastered road signs with statements on the impact of extractive industries. While each entry is photogenic on its own, The Painted Desert Project is best understood as a single artwork: The wall-sized faces and vivid, yellow warnings about uranium pollution accrue, readjusting a passerby’s understanding of the region. 

An installment of the The Painted Desert Project in Bitter Springs, Arizona, created by Jetsonorama in 2009.

The confrontational aesthetic epitomized by the Utah monolith is possible anywhere; indeed, Aitken’s Mirage has turned into something of a road show over the past four years, appearing in a Detroit warehouse and a meadow in the Swiss Alps. (Desert X itself has expanded more controversially, bringing the biennial to Saudi Arabia last year; the show drew international condemnation, given the Saudi government’s human rights abuses.) Meanwhile, Naranjo Morse’s work stokes a sense of the desert as an intricately balanced ecosystem, whose rhythms are detectable even at a city’s bustling center, while The Painted Desert Project forces acknowledgment of the troubles and triumphs visitors might otherwise overlook. Rather than social media ready-mades, both pieces engage with the reality of a desert rather than a cartoon of it. The result? Creations whose ideas remain rooted in place, indomitable as the earth itself. 

Kyle Paoletta’s work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and The Nation. He is a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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