Desert X 2023: Photo Guide and Easy Tips for Visiting Early!

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Searching for the Sky (While Maintaining Equilibrium)” by Mario García Torres

Wow, it’s 2023 already?? I have a lot of (hopefully) big plans for this year, but the one I have been looking forward to the most was attending Desert X 2023, an art exhibition that happens every other year throughout Coachella Valley in Southern California. If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you might have noticed me mention Desert X before, or at least know of my fascination with large-scale contemporary collections.

If you haven’t noticed…hi I’m Kay and I like big art.

Desert X 2023 marks the fourth iteration of this bi-annual (every 2 years) event so naturally I was super stoked to continue this new tradition of mine. I’ve always loved Coachella Valley, so having a routine reason to visit is just the icing on top.

However, this time, I visited for opening weekend, which I’ve never done before. By the time I publish this post, and DEFINITELY by the time you see it, Desert X 2023 will already be over and done with. Yeah yeah I know, I have terrible time management. This is nothing new. But yanno what? I can still give you some valuable information for a Desert X trip down the line! Don’t worry, since this is a photo guide, I’ll try to keep this Desert X 2023 post short and sweet! But if you are looking for more info and tips, check out my Desert X 2019 and Desert X 2021 for even more insider knowledge 🙂

Quick FAQ

  • How often is Desert X? Every other year (so the odd years)
  • How long does Desert X last? About 3 is months, usually from late Feb/early March through May
  • What are the dates for Desert X 2023? March 4 – May 7
  • Is Desert X free? Totally free!

Tips for Visiting Desert X Early

Like I mentioned before, Desert X 2023 was my first time attending the event early in the season. In fact, not just early, but the opening weekend. In fact…


In hindsight, if you are flying/traveling into the area, arriving on the very first day Desert X opens is not the most seamless plan. The biggest reason is because you don’t know what to expect. For you travelers and artsy souls that love flying by the seat of your pants…IM A VIRGO SO WHAT DOES THAT FEEL LIKE I WILL NEVER KNOW. But also in the case, that’s not always the case for opening weekend.

Some pieces are only open at specific times and on specific days. And maybe even only ONCE in the entire event. That just so happened to be the case with more than one art piece for Desert X 2023, and…you won’t know until the very first opening day.

As it turned out, we would fly into LAX at about 10am (because we’re cheap and the Palm Springs airport was almost triple the price), and there was one art piece that would only be on view ONE day. Opening day. 9am-1pm. Now, it takes at least 2 hours to drive to the Coachella Valley from LAX, so after grabbing our bags and rental car, we really only had 30 minutes of wiggle room. I’ll talk more about this particular piece below, but by the time we got there, it was gone. Another temporary piece I missed was only viewable on a day that did not overlap with my trip.

Now, if I had already been in the area, or if I had attended later on, I would have the insight to plan better or perhaps move my flight around to accommodate those limited-time showings. Visiting early may also mean, at least for the more mechanical pieces, all of the kinks might not be worked out and may need to close for repairs – which happened on this trip. Another con to visiting early is the weather. While it’s generally cooler in the earlier months, there is also a chance of rain and/or flash floods. That -thankfully- didn’t happen this time around, but it was too cold to get in the pool 🙁

Are there ANY benefits to going early?

Visiting for opening weekend wasn’t all bad though. Mostly because of the shiny newness of experiencing Desert X 2023 with ZERO expectations or knowledge. It’s a double-edged sword, but you also get the chance to be surprised, and in today’s era of having basically everything at our fingertips, being genuinely surprised about how something will play out is a gift.

So my tips for going early would be:

  • Don’t splurge for accommodations with a pool
  • Accept the fact that you may not be able to see everything
  • Visit pieces early to avoid excited crowds
  • Have a backup itinerary in case the weather puts you inside or closes exhibitions

And, of course, the most important tip is to just have fun!

….okay yeah that one was a bit cheesy whatever. Let’s move on haha.

Desert X 2023 Theme

One of my favorite things about Desert X is that each exhibition follows a theme. In fact, I love a good theme on ANYTHING. It just makes an event that much more fun. The theme for Desert X 2023 was…drumroll please…WATER! I loved this quote the Desert X curators used:

“Contrary to the archetype, a desert is not defined by the absence of water. The desert landscape is formed by the memory of water.”

Ugh….. I LOVE IT. Maybe..idk, maybe it’s me, or my brain…I truly do not know, but there is just something about the desert that makes me feel…right. Whole. Complete.

That feeling of clarity. The silence of nothing, but everything. Everywhere. All at once. The feeling of


Or, like, idk something. I just really like the desert. And rethinking the desert of the memory of something just makes it that much more beautiful, no? I mean, whatever, it doesn’t really matter I suppose, but that is the theme. Water as a life force. Water as time. Water as change. Water as migration. Water as a messenger.

Water as water.

Let’s get into it.

No. 1225 Chainlink – Rana Begum

First up, in no particular order except how they are listed on the Desert X 2023 homepage, is this piece. Aptly named, as it is…at first glance, a chainlink fence. One, I liked that it was yellow. To me, yellow screams caution – but for who? It’s also a fence, or rather, a maze made out of a fence. Is it caution to the people behind the fence, or those looking to get to the other side?

My first interpretation of this piece was a statement on immigration, and the quite literal fence (and in many places a solid WALL) blocking the southern border of the USA from Mexico. Both a physical and metaphorical fence of caution. Although it may have an opening, it is not welcoming. Although it may not move, it is not passive. Fences are kinda violent when you think about it, huh?

You can look, but don’t you dare touch.

Overall, I really liked this piece! From the artists, they summed it up as “constantly changing with the movement of the sun and the visitors inside of it, the work emphasizes that nothing in life is static; everything, from the world outside to our emotions within, is in a continual state of flux.”

So like….basically what I said.

The Smallest Sea With the Largest Heart – Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio

This piece, while still free, required a bit more coordination as you needed to reserve timed tickets and it was only open at night. So those visiting the area (this one was in Palm Springs) just for the day might not have had a chance to see this one.

Unlike some of the other works for Desert X 2023, this one is pretty straightforward. If you haven’t heard of the Salton Sea, really quickly it’s this murk body of water down in Coachella Valley, and it’s slowly drying up. Climate issues aside, that isn’t too out of the ordinary for a body of water in the middle of the desert with no water inlet to dry up.

But in the case of the Salton Sea…there’s some nasty stuff at the bottom of that dying body of water. Nasty stuff as in arsenic, selenium, and DDT (a toxic insecticide), and when the water is gone, all that crude will get picked up by the wind and tossed into the lungs of everyone in the valley (and probably beyond).

This is a sculpture of a true-to-scale blue whale heart, and it’s submerged in a pool filled with the nasty water from the Salton Sea. I mean…look how murky that water is…oof. But in time, the contaminants will mineralize across the surface, leaving the water clean and clear. So it’s a real-time demonstration of clean and regenerative practices!

But…since we visited opening weekend…it obviously had not had enough time to collect across the surface of the sculpture. So I didn’t get the full effect of the transformation, but it was still pretty cool!

Immersion – Gerald Clarke

This piece happened to be in one of my favorite locations for Desert X 2023, right near the best BBQ restaurant in Palm Springs – Brown’s BBQ and Soul Food. But BBQ aside, it’s a great location for art pieces because it’s a large open space with no buildings to crowd the background, but still close enough to the city if you don’t have a car.

Immediately upon seeing it, my first thought was it reminded me of a labyrinth. The straw around the walkway was bundled, but looked weaved. Like a basket. So immediately my mind went to Native American basket weaving, and maybe the labyrinth was a passage through time via craftmaking – which is some of the earliest timestamps of history. But when I got to the center, there was a QR code to a video of sisters (if I remember correctly?) jingle dancing! So it got my gears turning that there was definitely more to this art piece.

But yanno then I looked up how the artist described it and…well, I wasn’t completely that far off. The piece was actually a big board game! Employing the language of traditional Cahuilla basket weaving and American board games, the artist created a monumental sculpture of a gameboard in the desert that immerses visitors in the natural and cultural history of Native Americans in the Coachella Valley.

Catalyzing active learning, the maze-like structure invited visitors to walk on it and move according to instructions driving a game of cards, rewarding the player with new ways of viewing and understanding the landscape. Super unique and engaging way to immerse (ahhh I see what they did there) the audience into the work.

Amar A Dios En Tierra De Indios, Es Oficio Maternal – Paloma Contreras Lomas

Photo by Desert X website

In all of my years of attending Desert X (…okay, so four times), I have never experienced a piece that was SO CROWDED than popping into to see this one for Desert X 2023. It was located in Sunnylands, which has pretty set hours since it is within an art/garden/i don’t really know. BUT, the day I decided to visit, Sunnylands was also hosting some kind of outdoor concert? So of course between sets, and even during, everyone who had come for the concert also came to see this magificent piece of artwork!

Great for them, 2-for-1 deal! Not as great for me since I get very antsy in crowds.

There was someone there explaining the piece, but he was surrounded by other listeners so I couldn’t really hear what he was saying. From what I could see between all the elbows, the vibe I got from the piece was…I dunno, something to maybe do with sicarios?

It wasn’t until after I looked up more information on the piece (I quickly escaped the crowds after about 10 minutes) that I got a more robust explanation of the artist’s intent. Her work seeks to push back at the violent male gaze of the landscape by confronting its historical association with the male libido, the occupation and instrumentalization of territory, and economies of extraction; and here it was as though those topics are explored through the perspective of an extraterrestrial seeing these silly traits play out on Earth.

Liquid A Place – Torkwase Dyson

Photo by Desert X

Imma be completely honest with this one, I wasn’t thinking “artistically” when I saw this piece. I wasn’t thinking about what it meant, or how it spoke to a large conversation at hand, or even what it was made out of and constructed.

I just knew I liked it.

The piece was located near a pretty popular hiking trail, so many of the visitors didn’t even know about Desert X 2023, but enjoyed the art nonetheless. So, sidenote, I purpose we install more public art pieces, but that’s a conversation for another day. I walked up and over the piece, then wandered into the surrounding areas. Overall, it was a nice stop even if I didn’t know what it was supposed to “mean.”

I looked up more of Torkwase Dyson’s work after Desert X 2023, and it pretty much cemented that her art speaks to me without needing words or meaning – which explained why I was drawn to the Desert X piece. It was actually an addition to a series she has, called Liquid A Place, which challenges viewers to imagine themselves as the water in a place. For this one, Dyson created a monumental sculpture that is a poetic meditation connecting the memory of water in the body and the memory of the water in the desert. 

Searching for the Sky (While Maintaining Equilibrium) – Mario García Torres

This piece was actually one of my favorites, as a concept, but unfortunately also served as a bit of a lesson on why visiting exhibitions at the start of the season can be a little challenging. The Coachella Valley region has an ample source of renewable energy – which is why most of the homes have solar panels and the valley is lined to the brim with windmills.

So naturally, I gravitated toward this art piece making a statement of some sort on renewable energy (solar) or…something to that extent. In theory, these small panels were supposed to move around as well but when we arrived that first weekend of Desert X 2023, they were having technical difficulties. The technician didn’t get it fixed until after we had left.

What the piece was meant to represent is a reflection on “cowboy culture” that exists across both Mexican and American borders, especially in the West, representative of a macho, self-aggrandizing and forceful control of nature. The work should lead us to contemplate the “wild West,” our relationship to the landscape, and our role within it.

Namak Nazar – Hylozoic/Desires

This Desert X 2023 piece was unique because it incorporated a sense that the others didn’t: sound. It was pretty self explanatory, it was a post with a bunch of megaphones attached to it. Simple enough, right? After the short walk to the piece, we sat down at one of the makeshift benches that surrounded the structure and listened to the message that soothingly (but loudly? how is that possible??) radiated towards us.

For 18 minutes.

Wow, really? I looked down at my watch after the first ten or so minutes passed, because I was a little baffled that it was still going. Was it on a loop? Did I miss the point where it started over? But no, it was all new words, new meanings coming out.

I had been experiencing Desert X 2023 SO FAST…that sitting still for longer than 5 minutes at one site felt…almost jarring. And isn’t that just the perfect parallel to life?

As it turns out tho, it wasn’t a piece (necessarily) on the brain chemistry of chronically hustling individuals.

Inspired by the proliferation of conspiracies — UFOlogists, Scientologists, cybernetic spiritualists, Area 51, flat-earthers, lizard people and chemtrails —the loudspeakers that spew an imaginary conspiracy theory about Namak Nazar, a particle of salt that spells the doom of climate change and offers redemption by looking inward.

The particle appears to climb up and crystalize over the trunk of the pole, connecting the salt found in the stories from the loudspeaker to the physical desert landscape, where salt lines forecast droughts and floods to come and salt songs describe the sacred geometry of the desert before settler colonialism.

Sleeping Figure – Matt Johnson

This one was another personal favorite of Desert X 2023, especially to photograph, BUT MY GOODNESS was it a whole TREK to get there. From the parking area, it was at least a solid 15-20 minutes of walking to get to the piece.

But wait, there’s more. The wind was ferocious. In fact, it was so bad one day that we didn’t even get out the car and vowed to return the next day. That wasn’t much better, but since it was our last full day in Palm Springs, we had to make it work.

From first glance, I thought it looked like a sleeping dragon, maybe resting between quests or coming down from the mountain for a lil break. But uh…no one else agreed with me on that haha. But…you see it right?? Is it just me??

The real inspiration behind the piece is MUCHH MUCH better tho.

Conceived at the time when a Japanese-owned, Taiwanese-operated, German-managed, Panamanian-flagged and Indian- manned container behemoth found itself for six days under Egyptian jurisdiction while blocking the Suez Canal, Johnson’s figure speaks to the crumples and breaks of a supply chain economy in distress.

Situated along the main artery connecting the Port of Los Angeles to the inland United States, the sculpture gains local relevance from the recently approved siting of distribution centers in the north of Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs.

Originals – Tyre Nichols

Born and raised in Sacramento California, Tyre Nichols’ photographs of landscapes, sunsets, monuments and the architectural vernaculars of his adopted town of Memphis, Tennessee are the unassuming documents of a young man whose eye was drawn to the moments of beauty and evanescence that shape the rituals of daily life. “My vision is to bring my viewers deep into what I am seeing through my eye and out through my lens,” he wrote. “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.”

January 7, 2023, Tyre Nichols was murdered by the Memphis Police Department.

The five officers criminally involved (per the courts anyway) in Nichols’ death are: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith. Four out of the five officers had prior disciplinary actions by MPD for various offenses like failing to report when physical force was used and failing to report domestic violence.

This work represents not just a vision that was brutally denied the opportunity to develop, but the potential of all those individuals whose lives have been lost to the state sanctioned violence of institutional racism.

And so many of those needless deaths, often Black, brown, Indigenous, LGBTQ2S+, deaths…taking place…on the side of the road. With no billboard of justice for them.

Support the Tyre Nichols Memorial Fund here.

Pioneer – Tschabalala Self

This isn’t the last artwork in Desert X 2023, but it is sadly the last that I had the opportunity to visit in person. It was another one with a bit of a walk, but thankfully not THAT long and it was mostly shielded from the wind.

Surprisingly, or…maybe not, sculptures of concrete things are usually sometimes harder for me to emote with. I saw a flexible woman…on a horse…

And that was about as far as my train of thought took me.

After about 2 seconds though, I forgot about trying to analyze art and just appreciated it for existing. And also made a solid reminder to get back into mobility classes.

Pioneer represents the lost, expelled and forgotten Indigenous, Native and African women whose bodies and labor allowed for American expansion and growth, while also standing as a beacon of resilience for their descendants — a visual representation of their birthright and place within the American landscape.

Khudi Bari – Marina Tabassum

Okay, there is technically one more Desert X 2023 piece I “experienced,” but it wasn’t in person. It was actually a video hosted on the Desert X 2023 page! So not much thought processing happening on my own (since I watched it go down), but still a great (and sooo beautifully executed) piece of work! For some, the video format may even be preferred!

Tabassum’s Khudi Bari (Bengali for “tiny house”) is an example of a modular mobile home that, in Bangladesh, is inexpensive, durable, and relatively quick and easy to assembled and disassembled with minimum labor, taking advantage of a rigid space-frame structure to save goods and lives in the wake of flash floods on tiny “desert islands” of sand known as “chars” that precariously dot across the Bengal delta.

Land is fluid on the floodplains of Bangladesh, and these islands often break off and erode into the water, forcing people to physically move their home. Khudi Bari reminds us to look to locally rooted knowledge to innovate solutions for uncertain futures.

Desert X has commissioned a film about the project in which Tabassum addresses dry and wet cultures and the role of design in enabling life in some of the world’s most extreme climate conditions. The film also reminded me of the memoir Birdgirl – I highly recommend checking it out!

Chimera – Héctor Zamora

And lastly but not leastly…the final piece in Desert X 2023. The one that got away. The ONLY ONE I didn’t see.

Chimera was a temporary piece, only viewable the first few hours of the first day of Desert X 2023. The same day we arrived. After picking up our rental car, we BOOKED it to the site.

Zamora’s Chimera is a performative action in collaboration with street vendors who are ubiquitous in the Coachella Valley but often invisible in the landscape. The artist’s work provides opportunities for people to use materials differently and to break the rules to open new possibilities of expression and individuality, in this case transforming street vendors into walking sculptures made of balloons, which dissipate as visitors buy and take home the balloons and interact with the vendors in a space of dignity.

The more time we spent driving, the more other Desert X 2023 attendees were there buying up the balloons and dissolving the piece. I WAS STRESSEDDD.

We got there with about 15 minutes to spare, and about a 6% charge on our eV rental…but there were no more balloons. If I remember correctly, there were supposed to be like 4 or 5 spots where the vendors would be holding the balloons, but we went to each one and didn’t find anything. We did, however, buy some fresh fruit which was basically just as good!

Desert X 2023: Conclusion

And with that, we’ve come to the end of this probably-longer-than-needed Desert X 2023 overview. Thanks as always for sticking with me through the end! I’m already SO PUMPED for Desert X 2025, but…maybe for the next one I won’t go so early in the timeline hahah.

Did you go to Desert X 2023, or any of the past events? Which art pieces were your favorite? Let me know in the comments below!

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text: what is desert x 2023? image: a young woman walking away from the camera and through a chainlink fence maze

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