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Desert X loses venue for Judy Chicago ‘smoke sculpture’

Following environmental concerns, The Living Desert garden and zoo has pulled out of a planned project with the artist this month

Rendering for Living Smoke: A Tribute to the Living Desert by Desert X 2021 artist Judy Chicago Courtesy of the artist and Desert X

Judy Chicago's planned “smoke sculpture” for this year's Desert X festival (12 March-16 May) in the Coachella Valley of California has hit a major snag. The Living Desert, a combination zoo and botanical garden laid out over 1,200 acres in Palm Desert, has backed out of hosting the performance on 9 April, following concerns from an environmental activist.

According to Chicago, based on a series of meetings with the venue, environmental precautions were already in place, such as locating the event 1½ miles away from animal habitats and using an electronic ignition to set off the coloured, nontoxic smoke, rather than hand ignition which would have been noisier. In person attendees would also have been limited, with most people watching the event online. And for the artist, this body of work, part of her Atmospheres series, is meant to highlight “the beauty of our environment and our incredible need to change our relationship to it”.

The decision came after a local environmentalist and journalist, Ann Japenga, started a letter writing campaign warning of the project's potential danger to wildlife, and she contacted the project's sponsor Jordan Schnitzer and the Palm Desert city council. Last Wednesday, Jenny Gil Schmitz, Desert X's executive director, was told by Allen Monroe, The Living Desert's director and CEO, that they were dropping out of the biennial. Chicago was deeply disappointed by the news, and wrote on Instagram: "I am devastated that The Living Desert rescinded their contract with Desert X for my piece."  

When contacted by The Art Newspaper, however, Monroe suggested that the project was never fully agreed upon. “The Living Desert began discussions with Desert X in December 2020 with the desire to partner together to produce an exceptional work of art that supported their efforts,” Monroe wrote in an email. “However, with the event only six weeks out, no formal contract finalised, and environmental concerns, The Living Desert concluded that there is just not enough time to address all of these factors in order to reach a contractual agreement. This decision to end discussions of being the host site was not made lightly, but it is in the best interest of The Living Desert.”  

This is not the first time Japenga has criticsed Desert X over its environmental impact on the desert landscape. In 2019, for its second edition, she described the outdoor exhibition as “a large-scale tourist attraction, a sprawling carnival sideshow”. And Japenga specifically called out a project by the artist Jenny Holzer, in which she planned “to light up a mountainside with huge letters protesting gun violence. The problem is, her lights themselves will do violence to the locals—chuckwallas, foxes and moths. Artificial light is profoundly harmful to wildlife. Birds become disoriented and crash; coyotes still their songs.” Holzer’s project was ultimately cancelled over such concerns.

But Schmitz says that Desert X it “is committed to protecting the desert landscape and its wildlife,” in an emailed statement. “We work with experts and follow recommendations to ensure our exhibition leaves no trace. We are deeply disappointed that the Living Desert has reversed its decision to host Judy Chicago’s work after months of research and preparation to ensure the safety of the animals and their natural surroundings. We acknowledge the importance of the voices that advocate for the environment and strongly refute those who would advance baseless claims against artists and their projects for Desert X.”  

Desert X and Judy Chicago are now seeking an alternative site for the event.