“The Searchers” is a gift for anyone determined enough to find it
“WARNING: DO NOT DRIVE BETWEEN OUR IRON SITES AND HIGHWAY 62. IRONAGE RD IS FULL OF WASHBOARDS AND SOFT SAND.” The warning on the map was clear, but by the time I saw the cars zooming down Highway 62, it was too late: I had missed the artwork I was looking for on Ironage Road, a a seemingly perilous stretch of unpaved single-track through the majestic but isolated Wonder Valley, about 60 kilometers east of Joshua Tree.
The irony of the title of the 2022 edition of High Desert Test Sites (HDTS), organized by Londoner Iwona Blazwick, did not escape me. “The Searchers” may recall the romantic mavericks who have long rocked Southern California in Mojave. But here on the ground, what you’re looking for is a small white sign and a work of art of unspecified media and dimensions that its creator has hidden in a vast and unforgiving landscape. The research is part of the tradition of high desert test sites. Now in its 11th iteration, the biennial has long had commuters stuck their Hondas in the sand.
Two pieces, this year, are more or less essential. At the side of a long straight road, a giant, naked woman sits against a shipping container, staring impassively at the log that mysteriously pierces her chest. If Paloma Varga Weisz Foreign body (2022) sounds violent, the surprise is that it’s mostly just sad and beautiful. Across the road is another oversized apparition: Jack Pierson’s THE END OF THE WORLD (2012), which nearly filled the lofty galleries of Regen Projects when it was first exhibited in 2013. The silver-painted plywood letters, typographically reminiscent of the Hollywood sign but more dimensionally substantial, are by turns tragic, melancholic, ironic, or provocative. , depending on how you relate them to their context.
In the desert, the ladder is a ruthless mistress. by Alice Channer rock pool (2022), one of the pieces I missed along Ironage Road, spans 60 feet of arid desert floor, but is dwarfed by the space around it. The birthmark-shaped stain – white rock salt hemmed with a ribbon of red steel – captures the shape of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The work is overwhelmed not only by its site but also by its reference , their mediated meanings dimmed by the buzzing immanence of the desert and the veritable salt refinery glimpsed on the horizon.
One of the most powerful tracks from “The Searchers” is Dineo Seshee Bopape’s compact Lerato le le golo (… la go hloka bo kantle) (A great love […that has no outside]), 2022). Go far enough from Ironage Road and you might come across two stubby stacks of handmade bricks, maybe an arm’s width away. On top are arranged rosettes of dried mud and, on one, a bundle of dried twigs. Bopape’s indeterminate altars, formed from local earth, tap into their context rather than attempt to reach it.
It’s a fine line between giving and taking, for site-specific art like this. The less successful examples of the genre arrive from elsewhere and co-opt the territory’s most obvious referents and resources. Erkan Özgen’s video HARESS (2020), screened at a local community center, shows local military veterans adapting weapons as musical instruments. Despite Özgen’s laudable community involvement – the country’s largest marine base is nearby – the work could have been conceived and/or made almost anywhere except the picturesque Joshua Trees in the backyard. plan. Rachel Whiteread’s cast concrete huts, hut i (2014) and Hut II (2016), private commissions in sought-after, off-the-grid Pipes Canyon, veer into desert poverty chic – an endemic aesthetic fetish in this unevenly gentrified region.
Those contextual quibbles aside, each piece of “The Searchers” is a gift to anyone determined enough to find it. High Desert Test Sites, a free public art offering for everyone and no one in particular, remains one of the best reasons to turn off Highway 62.
“The Searchers” is playing at High Desert Test Sites until May 22.
Main picture: Alice Channer, rock pool2022, 2 tons locally mined coarse salt, hand bent steel, powder coated and lacquered, 2000 × 643 × 20cm. Courtesy of the artist and High Desert Test Sites; photo: Sarah Lyons