Monday, November 10, 2008

High Desert Test Sites

I spent the weekend in the Mojave Desert attending High Desert Test Sites. This year's event was co-sponsored by the California Biennial, which I'm hoping to get to later this month.

The experience of walking and driving through the desert landscape was incredible. The weather was marvelously varied, and the clouds and sandy mountains were constantly changing. I felt, much as I did when visiting the Spiral Jetty, that the real artistry was done by nature and the artist's gesture was little more than a marker pointing out a site for engagement. That said, I thought most of the artists could have tried harder to make their markers more meaningful.

Ann Magnuson's "Time Traveling Hooker" installation in room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn was the best of the weekend's installations. It was powerful in that it evoked a real event, the death of musician Gram Parsons, in the place where it happened. Audio, video and installation elements combined to make an abstract historical footnote into something tangible, and charged the space with life and memory.

The Noah Purifoy Foundation was another highlight. Purifoy has created a permanently installed sculpture garden using recycled and waste materials, that has a wonderful junkyard sensibility. The sculptures are largely quasi-architectural environments, built into the landscape in an echo of some of the eroded structures found scattered around the Joshua Tree area. They are naive in a thoughtful way, and succeed as anti-monumentalist art in a way that most of the works in last year's Unmonumental at the New Museum failed to do.

Otherwise, the projects ranged from mildly unsuccessful to nonexistent. Yoshua Okon's "White Russians" gathering at a local home had a strangely unfriendly vibe considering they were handing out drinks in a private household. The locals were welcoming but the Angelenos seemed to have brought their bad attitudes with them. The whole project felt condescending to the rural types who were the hosts, as if we city folk were being invited into their homes to laugh at their unsophistication. The dogs were sweet though.

Marnie Weber and the Spirit Girls' performance was pleasingly odd and theatrical, and the band's musicianship was tight. Weber has an unfortunate voice and limited lyrical skills, but she looks good in costumes. I imagine it was a bit like watching the Velvet Underground perform with Nico.

The installation by Julia Scher, which consisted of a perimeter of signs announcing contamination in the landscape, and the nearby one by Joel Kyack involving an illuminated mineshaft and a bifurcated miner, were entertaining. Projects by Alice Konitz and Thom Merrick were not there when we went to check them out on Sunday. We got to explore some amazing spots while looking for them. In truth, we didn't miss the art much.

Photos from the weekend can be viewed here.

No comments: