In 2017, the Coachella Valley in Southern California became the home for a desert-transforming biennial known as Desert X. During the biennial, the San Bernardino Mountains become the substrate for large-scale installations that are free to visit. However, concern for bighorn sheep in the area affected by rampant bought of pneumonia has called for an installation by artist Jenny Holzer to be pulled from Desert X’s 2019 line up in order to protect the weakened animal population.
According to Jack Thompson, the regional director of the Wildlands Conservancy in charge of overseeing the land occupied by the biennial, the bighorns nearby to the location where Holzer’s work was set to exhibit are in a ‘vulnerable state’. The infectious outbreak, which began in November, has taken the lives of at least 25 sheep but Thompson expects that a plenty more may have died during the epidemic. A clearer picture of how the bighorn sheep population has suffered during the winter months will take shape after the Fish and Wildlife department completes a survey in March.
The artwork in question is a text-based projection work titled BEFORE I BECAME AFRAID, 2019 that focuses on issues stemming from gun violence. Holzer’s installation, if it were going to be seen as it was originally intended, would have displayed the words of those affected by gun violence, those who have survived it, family members of those who have died by it, and activists fighting against gun violence. These words would have been projected onto the side of a cliff in Whitewater Preserve, which is part of the Wildlands Conservancy.
Thompson told the New York Times that it is not clear how the installation might actually affect the sheep but since they have been spotted close to the cliffs in the preserve and have been acting ‘unpredictable’ that to move forward to pose ‘an unacceptable risk to animals and visitors as well.’
Though it is unsure as to if BEFORE I BECAME AFRAID, 2019 will be realized in a different capacity, perhaps in a different location, it seems that a number of people, including Holzer, certainly hope it will. In a statement from Holzer’s studio, the artist said: ‘I hope we can realize another projection by the end of Desert X so that the writers’ important text can be seen, felt and echoed.’ Neville Wakefield, artistic director of Desert X, mimicked these hopes saying ‘[w]e do want this work in some form or other to be a part of the show […] We have a number of months in which we can do it and adapt it to the circumstances.’
All in all, though, the wellbeing of the animals that inhabit the Coachella Valley are at the forefront of concerns, as it should be. ‘The right thing to do was either move or postpone the project out of respect for the environment and these particular conditions that are affecting the sheep at the time,’ said Wakefield. ‘These are the things one encounters in this kind of show.’
The second edition of Desert X will kick off February 9th and run through April 21st.