The biennial outdoor art extravaganza Desert X is back in all of its strange and provocative glory now through May 7. One of the biggest art celebrations in Southern California, Desert X is known for its large-scale, free-to-the-public art exhibits (past exhibitions have included a Hollywood sign-esque piece that read “Indian Land” and a silk and tulle adorned gas station). This year, the sculptures on display focus on everything from the precarious environmental status of the Salton Sea to the history of Black and Indigenous women in the United States. Desert X happens only once every two years, so it’s best to be prepared to get the most out of your time there.
Here’s everything you need to know about planning a trip to Desert X 2023:
What is Desert X?
Desert X is a biennial site-specific, contemporary art exhibition in the Coachella Valley. It was founded in 2017 by the nonprofit organization Desert Biennial, which is dedicated to using art to start dialogues about contemporary social, cultural, and environmental issues. The folks of Desert Biennial loved the conversations that art can spark, but they found museums somewhat stifling and constrictive—and what better alternative is there to a door and four walls than the wide open spaces of the Southern Californian desert?
In its inaugural year, Desert X featured provocative exhibitions like an underground bunker that housed a sculpture of John F. Kennedy and a “ShyBot” that was programmed to avoid people designed by Italian artist Norma Jeane. In the six years since, Desert X has grown by leaps and bounds and even launched a Saudi Arabian edition in collaboration with the Royal Commission of AlUla. This year, Desert X will feature the work of 12 international artists whose large-scale work will be located (these locations are highly considered and in many cases, site-responsive) at destinations throughout the Coachella Valley.
How to attend Desert X
Desert X takes place from March 4 through May 7, 2023, and installations are open to the public from sunrise to sunset. As usual, Desert X is completely free to attend. Because it is a self-paced, self-guided experience, visitors can check out as many or as few of the sculptures as they’d like, break up their visit over several days, or speed run through all the sites in one afternoon. Desert X, naturally, encourages visitors to practice a leave no trace philosophy; guests should carry out any trash or waste they bring with them to the art installations.
Before you head into the wild to find the 12 sculptures on display this year, stop by the Desert X Hub at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club to pick up a program, peruse some swag, and chat with volunteers about any questions you may have Fridays 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Docents will be at most installations every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, but the organization also recommends downloading its official app, which gives directions on how to navigate to each site as well as information about each artist and artwork. Since many pieces are located outdoors, it’s best to wear comfortable walking shoes, bring plenty of water, and wear a good hat.
These are must-see installations at Desert X
Desert X 2023 centers around the theme of water—its ability to change landscapes, its life-giving powers, and, of course, its scarcity in the desert. This year, Desert X features the work of 12 different artists: Rana Begum, Lauren Bon, Gerald Clarke, Palma Contreras Lomas, Torkwase Dyson, Mario Garciá Torres, Hylozoic/Desires, Matt Johnson, Tschabalala Self, Marina Tabassum, Héctor Zamora, and the late Tyre Nichols. (Zamora’s work was a performance that took place on March 3 and 4, while Desert X has commissioned a film about Tabassum’s work as an architect with modular homes in Bangladesh—it’s available to view on its website.) Though all the sculptures at Desert X are thought-provoking, don’t miss these four:
- By: Hylozoic/Desires
- Location: Worsley Road between Pierson and Mission Lakes boulevards
Hylozoic/Desires (also known simply as h/d) comprises London-based artist duo Himali Singh Soin and David Soin Tappeser, whose work is generally inspired by jazz and poetry. However, for their piece Namak Nazar, Hylozic/Desires was inspired by the recent trend of quickly proliferating conspiracy theories (think lizard people, chemtrails, and UFOs) as well as one of Earth’s most common minerals: salt. Namak Nazar consists of a wooden pole adorned with a smattering of salt around its base and loudspeakers that spew out a fictional conspiracy about a salt compound, namak nazar, that could have the ability to stop climate change—if only people would look inward.
- By: Tyre Nichols
- Location: N. Gene Autry Trail, between Via Escuela and the I-10
This series of billboards along N. Gene Autry Trail features photographs taken by Tyre Nichols, who was murdered this January in Memphis steps away from his mother’s house by five police officers. The work serves as a reminder of the vibrancy of Nichol’s life and his keen eye for beauty, as well as the senselessness of his death. “My vision is to bring my viewers deep into what I am seeing through my eye and out through my lens,” he wrote about his photographs. “I hope to one day let people see what I see and to hopefully admire my work based on the quality and ideals of my work.”
- By: Matt Johnson
- Location: I-10 Exit 110 Haugen-Lehmann Way to Railroad Avenue
Matt Johnson’s Sleeping Figure has been one of the most talked about sculptures at Desert X this year, partially because of its sheer scale. Comprised of 12 shipping containers arranged to look like a classic odalisque, the sculpture comments on the complexity and fragility of the global supply chain; it also evokes memories of the time a Japanese-owned, Taiwanese-operated, German-managed, Panamanian-flagged, and Indian-manned container ship blocked the Suez canal for more than six days. (Sleeping Figure recently made local news for breaking Riverside County code and “presenting a public nuisance”—code enforcement taped violation papers directly onto the statue.)
- By: Tschabalala Self
- Location: San Gorgonio Street and Bubbling Wells Road, Desert Hot Springs
Tschabalala Self’s sculpture, Pioneer, is perhaps the most provocative piece on display at Desert X this year: It consists of a woman’s torso and legs perched atop a bowing horse. The piece is meant to serve as an homage to what Self calls the American “foremothers”—the Black and Indigenous women whose bodies and labor enabled the nation to grow. Though it may be a bit jarring at first glance, Pioneer is intended to celebrate the feminine spirit and reclaim Black and Indigenous women’s place within the U.S. landscape. Self is a New Haven–based Black woman artist.
Where to stay in the greater Palm Springs area
As the official cultural partner and lead hotel of Desert X, the Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs is offering 15 percent off stays with the promo code DESERTX when you book directly. For more options, here are some of AFAR’s other favorite hotels to book in the Coachella Valley.
Autocamp Joshua Tree
- Location: Joshua Tree
- Book Now
Autocamp Joshua Tree offers 47 glamorously renovated Airstreams and eight suites spread across 25 acres of desert just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. All units are outfitted with queen-size beds, locally designed furniture, and kitchenettes; most have private bathrooms. There’s also a chic midcentury-modern-inspired clubhouse on the property where guests are welcome to feast on organic comfort food and sip Californian spirits.
The Bungalows by Homestead Modern
- Location: Joshua Tree
- Book Now
This Joshua Tree boutique hotel offers enchanting desert expanses, midcentury-modern accommodations, and a dash of New Age magic. Expect floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, polished concrete floors, and original post-and-beam ceilings. The Bungalows are located in the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, aka the Institute of Mentalphysics, which is dedicated to improving physical and emotional well-being through Eastern-inspired philosophy. It’s also home to the world’s largest collection of buildings by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright).
- Location: Palm Springs
- Book Now
This adults-only property strikes the perfect balance between midcentury-modern details and desert-inspired chic. Azure Sky has 14 rooms (11 of which have private patios) as well as an on-site heated pool and cocktail bar. The hotel is a five-minute drive from the bright lights of downtown Palm Springs.
- Location: Palm Springs
- Book Now
Owned by world-famous drag queen Trixie Mattel, the Trixie Motel opened in September 2022 and is every bit as pink and fabulous as you’d expect it to be. The property offers seven custom-themed rooms, including “The Queen of Hearts” and “Yeehaw Cowgirl.” There isn’t a full service restaurant on site, but a small café offers snack-size eats like margherita pizza and sweet and salty popcorn.