“This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought.” – T.E . Lawrence
One of the most paralyzing characteristics of the desert to the human psyche is its vast sense of emptiness. In a landscape without bounds nor the possibility of contacting others, one’s sense of space becomes distorted. There are neither reference points nor limits to follow. Most people feel small in comparison to the wide, open spaces. These feelings lead to questioning the significance of experiences and the meaning of existence . Perhaps, this is why some feel greatly liberated whereas others feel anxious in the desert.
The modern world has equipped with a myriad of distractions in daily life. In contrast, the desert offers nothing to distract oneself with. No sound, no motion, nothing to see. In the absence of such stimuli, which in other words is anything happening around you that distracts your mind, your attention turns inwards. For some, these wide, open spaces nourish and push one towards an inner journey. Throughout history, the desert was seen as the perfect setting for mystical experiences. Most Native American and Shamanic cultures relied on the harsh conditions and isolation found in deserts to embark on different forms of vision quests. However, confronting past trauma or being alone with one’s own psyche can be a stressful experience for others.
The desert is an empty canvas for the mind to draw on. On this canvas, your mind creates an experience. Your perception is easily distorted because the desert causes the mind to form illusions and play tricks, a common example is an oasis. Just as it can recreate experiences, it can also recreate a sense of self. The desert doesn’t care who you are or where you come from. It’s ironic how you are reduced to nothing yet the only form of life present. It causes us to reconsider our self perception. We are forced to let go of who we think we are and focus on the only thing that is important: who we really are.
Desert X, located in Coachella Valley, utilizes this mystical landscape to showcase modern art installations. The space in which art is shown is crucial to how it is interpreted. Sterling Ruby’s ‘Specter’ plays on the idea of distortion of perception. The fluorescent orange monolith which contrasts with the desert appears as if it’s been photoshopped, as if something has been erased from the landscape. Without a separate object for reference, it is impossible to gauge how much space the art takes up in this wide expanse.
Pia Camil’s ‘Rainbow Arc’ plays on a similar contrast. On the flat landscape, she erects an oversized arc as a symbol of reinserting hope into the dry land. ‘Drive-in’ by Superflex showcases marine life against the background of the desert to remind us of what used to be there. It is a tribute to the geological history of Coachella Valley, which is home to an abundance of fossilized marine life. The piece draws attention to the mutability of landscape and what may lay ahead.