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Issue 229

‘The Searchers’ Is a Gift to Anyone Determined Enough to Find It

The 2022 edition of High Desert Test Sites, curated by Iwona Blazwick, sees the likes of Dineo Seshee Bopape and Jack Pierson scattered across the Californian desert

BY Jonathan Griffin in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 05 MAY 22

‘CAUTION: DO NOT DRIVE BETWEEN OUR IRONAGE SITES AND HWY 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 zipping past on Highway 62, it was too late: I’d missed the art works I was hunting for on Ironage Road, an apparently perilous stretch of unpaved single track through the majestic but remote Wonder Valley, about 60 kilometres east of Joshua Tree.

The irony of the title of the 2022 edition of High Desert Test Sites (HDTS), curated by Londoner Iwona Blazwick, was not lost on me. ‘The Searchers’ may call to mind the romantic non-conformists who have long rattled around California’s southern Mojave. But out here on the ground, what you’re searching for is a small white placard and an art work of unspecified media and dimensions that its maker has hidden in a vast and unforgiving landscape. The search is part of the tradition of High Desert Test Sites. Now in its 11th iteration, the biennial has long been causing suburbanites to get their Hondas stuck in the sand. 

Paloma Varga Weisz, Foreign Body, 2022, High Desert Test Sites
Paloma Varga Weisz, Foreign Body, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and High Desert Test Sites; photograph: Sarah Lyon

Two pieces, this year, are more or less unmissable. Beside a long, straight road, a giant, naked woman sits against a shipping container, gazing down impassively at the log that mysteriously transpierces her torso. If Paloma Varga Weisz’s Foreign Body (2022) sounds violent, the surprise is that it is mainly just sad, and beautiful. Across the road is another outsized apparition: Jack Pierson’s THE END OF THE WORLD (2012), which all but filled Regen Projects’ high galleries 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 defiant, depending on how you connect them to their context.

In the desert, scale is an unforgiving mistress. Alice Channer’s Rockpool (2022), one of the pieces I missed along Ironage Road, spreads across 18 metres of barren desert floor, but is dwarfed by the space around it. The birthmark-like blotch – white rock salt hemmed by a ribbon of red steel – transcribes the shape of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The work is overwhelmed not only by its site but also by its reference, their mediated meanings dampened by the humming immanence of the desert, and the actual salt refinery glimpsed on the horizon.

Dana Sherwood, Other Dessert Landscapes, 2022, High Desert Test Sites
Dana Sherwood, Other Dessert Landscapes, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist and High Desert Test Sites

One of the most powerful pieces in ‘The Searchers’ is Dineo Seshee Bopape’s compact Lerato le le golo (… la go hloka bo kantle) (A Big Love […that has no outside]), 2022). Schlep far enough from Ironage Road and you might encounter two squat stacks of handmade bricks, perhaps an arm’s span wide. Arranged on top are rosettes of dried mud and, on one, a bundle of dried twigs. Bopape’s, indeterminate altars, formed from local earth, draw in their context rather than trying to reach out to it.

It’s a fine line between giving and taking, for site-specific art such as this. The least successful examples of the genre arrive from elsewhere and co-opt the area’s most obvious referents and resources. Erkan Özgen’s video HARESE (2020), screened in a local community centre, shows local military veterans adapting weapons as musical instruments. Notwithstanding Özgen’s laudable community engagement – the nation’s largest Marine base is nearby – the work could have been conceived and/or made almost anywhere, except for the picturesque Joshua Trees in the background. Rachel Whiteread’s cast-concrete cabins, Shack I (2014) and Shack II (2016), private commissions in desirable, off-grid Pipes Canyon, veer towards desert poverty chic – an endemic aesthetic fetish in this unevenly gentrifying region. 

Jack Pierson, The End of the World, 2012, High Desert Test Sites
Jack Pierson, THE END OF THE WORLD, 2012, sculpture, plywood and silver paint, 427 × 3056 × 91 cm. Courtesy: the artist and High Desert Test Sites; photograph: Sarah Lyon

Such contextual quibbles aside, every work in ‘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 on view at High Desert Test Sites until 22 May.

Main image: Alice Channer, Rockpool, 2022, 2 tonnes of locally extracted coarse salt, hand-curved, powder-coated and lacquered steel, 2000 × 643 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist and High Desert Test Sites; photograph: Sarah Lyon

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.