Every two years, a truly unique art exhibit, Desert X, takes place for just two months in California’s Coachella Valley, an area that includes the popular resort towns of Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and La Quinta. This year’s exhibit features 13 newly commissioned, site specific-works created by artists from eight different countries. The artworks explore the desert as both a place and an idea and further delve into political and social issues.
Desert X began in 2017 with the mission to present contemporary art that engages with desert environments. It’s also an opportunity for artists to reach audiences outside museums and gallery spaces. The grand size of the installations as well as the opportunity to interact with them makes Desert X appealing for all ages.
Note: Desert X 2021 opened March 12 and will close on May 16. There is no admission fee for any of the installations, but timed reservations are requested at two of the sites to prevent overcrowding. Most of the sites are outdoors and can be visited at any time. Docents will be at most sites on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
What To See At Desert X
To get an overview of the exhibit, including a printed map and guidebook, start at the Desert X Hub located at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club Palm Springs. Volunteers will be happy to answer questions or provide recommendations for what to see based on your interests and time availability. If you’re hungry, grab a bite to eat at King’s Highway, the hotel’s restaurant.
Choosing which installations to visit will depend on several factors including your time, the weather, and the people in your party. Drive times between artworks may range from a few minutes to half an hour. Temperatures this time of year in Coachella Valley can hit triple digits, so be sure to bring water and sunscreen. And some of the artworks will be interesting to young kids while others will not.
If you’re planning to go, don’t miss Eduardo Sarabia’s The Passenger (pictured above), an arrow-tipped maze with walls made from petates — traditional rugs woven from palm fibers — making a connection between journeys and the desert. Visitors are encouraged to walk into the center of the maze and climb up the stairs to get a view from above while also appreciating the surrounding desert scenery. Timed reservations are highly recommended for this piece.
To get a break from the heat head to Sunnylands — the former estate of the Annenbergs — where you’ll see Ghada Amer’s Women’s Qualities. This installation is a series of positive words spelled out in metal containers filled with a representative plant. The words were chosen after asking men and women in the Coachella Valley to share words that describe women. This location offers restrooms, a cafe, and plenty of shaded places to get out of the heat.
Nicholas Ganin’s Never Forget is 45-foot tall letters that spell Indian land in a style reminiscent of the Hollywood sign. As a Tlingit and Unangax artist and musician, Ganin reminds us that this was originally land occupied by the Cahuilla Indians.
In addition to the art installations, Desert X offers several events for those wishing to learn more about the artists, their works, and related political and social issues. Be sure to visit their website for an up-to-date listing of all events, both virtual and in person.
Each artwork also has a short video with the artist describing their work and scenes of it being installed. Since many of these works are quite large, aerial footage in the videos gives a perspective visitors can’t get on the ground.
Before heading to Desert X be sure to download the free app, which includes an interactive map and background on all the artists and their installations.
What To Know Before You Go
Weekends can be very busy for Desert X. If you have flexibility, consider visiting on a weekday. If the weekend is your only option, try to get an early start to the day, both to avoid crowds and to experience cooler temperatures.
Most of the installations do not offer restrooms, food, or water. Be sure to bring your own water. Head into one of the nearby towns for a public restroom.
Look for Desert X signage to find the proper parking area for each installation. Some are along heavily trafficked roads and highways, so proceed cautiously when entering and exiting the parking areas.
What To Do Nearby
Combine viewing of Desert X with a fun day in Palm Springs. Filled with funky shops and great restaurants, downtown Palm Springs is an ideal spot to grab a meal before or after the exhibit. For great Mexican food and margaritas head to El Patron. If you prefer brunch, try Cheeky’s, home of the bacon-tasting flight. Art lovers will also want to visit the Palm Springs Art Museum, which recently reopened to the public.
If you’re planning to spend the night, consider staying at The Rowan, an upscale hotel in the heart of downtown Palm Springs with terrific views of the San Gorgonio Mountains. For more area inspiration, consider all our Palm Springs content here.