Retreating into the Desert and the Sky: Site and Memory across Coasts

These arts take a place and call it their own. Their existence is tied to their ‘site’, their spot, their habitat. The funny thing about a place is that it’s always that place in all of its different, complex, and convoluted iterations. Changing names and developing borders cannot ever move the space, they can only redefine it within a different vocabulary.

Let’s look at a few site specific artworks. And let’s take our crystal balls and peer just a bit further into the oncoming traffic of futurity. How do we see an artwork’s future? Or even its existence within a future that it didn’t see coming?

Located in the Mohave Desert just a few hours outside of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree defies the palm and pine images so characteristic of California. Dusty rock formations with stunning sienna coloring serve as the backdrop for a sparse collection of gnarled Joshua trees. This California desert bears few visual similarities to the brick and concrete lined avenues of the ‘up and coming’ — maybe now just ‘up’ in cost — borough, Brooklyn. Still, these dissimilar places do share one quality: the barren paradise of Joshua Tree and the ‘newly cool’ Brooklyn have both been home to recent site specific art installations by Black artists. Noah Purifoy’s “Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture” and Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant (usually referred to as A Subtlety) have respectively called Joshua Tree and Brooklyn their home.

Purifoy’s sculpture garden spreads across a rough expanse of sand and stone, filling the infertile landscape with clunky assemblages made up of various cast off materials: wood, metal, glass, concrete, rubber, cotton, porcelain, and more. Admitting to their origins as bed frames, toilets, fold-out chairs, tires, and dented buckets, these trashed materials remain artifacts of their factory fabricated past. Running away from the urban bustle of Los Angeles to the parched sands of the Mohave, Purifoy used acres of art to visualize Black histories.

In the late 1980’s Purifoy left his home in L.A. and moved to Joshua Tree. The last 15 years of his life were spent creating art in the desert. His process was a slow burn within the perpetual heat of the searing sands. Imagine the time it would have taken for him to cover ten acres of desert with his carefully constructed, large scale assemblage artworks. These cast off materials garnered from small town swap meets filled the desert with a wealth of new sights.

Still, these tactile structures are more than just a mixture of junk; they recall images of industrialized movement (bikes) (tires) (train tracks), human bodies in transit (chairs on a makeshift vehicle) (legs floating between posts) (abacus of large, black balls), and racial segregation (water fountains) (dominos) (barbed wire). Purifoy relocates these diasporic scenes — usually imagined on ships, in the South, and in the past — to the deserts of southern California. But the desert might not be so barren, so empty, so away, so in the past as it has been imagined.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, a 30 ton sculpture came crashing down. Rendered in blocks of refined white sugar, the giant saccharine sphinx became the object of mass acclaim — even art fervor — in the summer of 2014. Reaching an estimated audience of 130,000 visitors in just under two months, the installation was immensely popular. Every newspaper with a reputable arts and cultures section had an editorial about selfies, sugar, and stereotypes. But it was doomed from the start; its creation contingent on its own fall.

A Subtlety was created in the Domino Sugar Factory, a refinery plant that had existed in Brooklyn since 1856. Before it stopped processing sugar in 2004, the Domino factory had been home to a long history of labor disputes, chemical hazards, and fiery disasters. Quickly becoming more costly than it was productive, the factory shut down and over 225 workers lost their jobs.

For six years it stood as an outmoded landmark of an industrial past within the changing Brooklyn cityscape. In 2010, the old Domino Sugar Factory took on a new life. The New York City Council approved a proposal to convert the site into a residential area. After changing hands between multiple high powered housing companies, the Domino contract was under the control of Two Trees Management by 2014. And then came Kara Walker.

In partnership with Creative Time, Walker created the monumental sugar sphinx within the vacant walls of the Domino Sugar Factory. From its very inception, the artwork was meant to fall with the factory. Its short lived existence was part of its mystique; come get it while it’s hot, while the summer still burns, while the factory still stinks of molasses.

The references in A Subtlety are deep and plentiful, engaging with long histories of the Black diaspora, enslaved labor, abusive sugary supply chains, and images of Black women. On a hot summer’s day, with the sculpture literally melting in front of our eyes, these conceptions came together under the purview of Walker.

Of course, these histories have everything to do with the Domino Factory. Its explicit relationship to sugar — a colonial cash crop of the Caribbean — charges the site with an uneasy legacy. The historical wake of the slave ship remains central in nearly every conversation about A Subtlety; rightfully so, as the artwork is about that global past.

Sticky with sweat, as one always is during a New York summer, visitors could learn a bit about this global past they know little of, find pride in this majestic sphinx, scream with rage, or snap a sexualized selfie.

And then, on July 6th, it came down. And that was that. And the show was over. But of course the story doesn’t end there, it never seems to with any artwork.

But let’s move back to the dry heat of California for just a moment.

Purifoy didn’t move to an empty desert as the story is so often told. In the 1980’s and 90’s when his work was initially created, the Mohave village had a reputation for cheap housing, meth labs, skinheads, and recovering addicts. It had functioned as an escape from Los Angeles where rent was lower and the jaws of city life were less likely to draw blood. The community was an assemblage of its own; they had different reasons for coming but all ended up there just the same.

The desert served a unique purpose for each roaming visitor. Its chalky sands were a place to run away, a place to grow, a healing world, a miniature manufacturing plant outside the purview of the FDA, and even a place to die.

In the time of Purifoy, the desert was becoming a hotspot for artistic activity. He was invited to the Mohave by an artist friend, Debbie Brewer. At 72, living off of social security and with no retirement, Purifoy escaped L.A. and moved into Brewer’s desert trailer. Drawn into the dusty landscape for much the same reasons as his new neighbors, he began to create his massive “Outdoor Desert Art Museum”. As Purifoy’s work developed, so did the social landscape of the desert.

Now, almost thirty years later, the art colony has become a gentrified desert. Los Angelinos come to the Mohave for a rejuvenating experience away from the hustle and bustle of their urban lives. Joshua tree has changed since the 80’s. A sexy new art scene turned a refuge into the hottest new retreat out of the city.

Fly across the states and you’ll find much of the same.

Two Trees continued with their fifty five story megabuilding, allocating (after a bit of a push) approximately 700 apartments as affordable housing units. This past February, 104 of those apartments went up for lottery to decide who gets to live in them. 87,000 applications came flooding in; about 837 for each apartment available. Only .1 percent of those who applied will receive affordable housing from the Domino project.

Gentrification and forced exodus have been concerns for many years, with whiter populations coming in and housing prices on the rise. Some might see projects like Walker’s and Purifoy’s as gateways for this sort of shift, sweet flypaper to a wealthy art world looking for the next cool thing.

But were the artworks ever about gentrification? Perhaps they were. Perhaps they weren’t. It won’t change what’s happening now.

Distinct in their inception — Walker’s work came out of a wealthy, east coast art world while Purifoy’s came from a personal need to escape the financial and emotional stresses of Los Angeles after years of work on The Watts Towers Arts Center and the California Arts Council — both works are facing similar futures.

Each site specific project engages long histories of global Black diaspora, drawing attention to how those histories have influenced their own locations. Yet, the site engages something we can never actually see: the future.

The knowable futures for Brooklyn and Joshua Tree hold gentrification. And regardless of their ideological origins, these artworks are now about these issues and the futures their chosen sites hold. On paper, these works exist in 1989 and 2014. Today, they still exist, whether they are here literally or have been subsumed by a real estate development. How do we engage in an art history that can work in, not just the now, but in the ten or twenty years from now?

For today, we can only foresee. But might this clairvoyance be troubled? Could our forecasted futures be treated as unfortunate possibilities instead of inevitably propelled inertia?

I would like to pick up on the legacy of Purifoy and his commitment to socially engaged art projects. And no, I don’t mean art projects that are ‘political’ or ‘topical’. Rather, I mean that the challenges posed by site specific artworks — particularly their perpetuity — demand an engagement beyond historical looking. Does the art world owe something to Purifoy’s old neighbors and those displaced by the new Domino building? Undoubtedly yes.

Walker’s Black artwork, lauded by the art world for its magnificence, still engaged a largely white audience. By no means does this disparage its success, but it follows a trend of increasing disparity between the amount of Black and white museum goers. While the art world might be including more artists of color, general museum audiences remain whiter than in decades past.

These changes aren’t occurring in a vacuum. They have everything to do with the long colonial histories that Walker and Purifoy engage with. They have everything to do with $25 museum ticket prices. They have everything to do with the refusal of art institutions to pay interns. They have everything to do with my own unhindered slide into the art world.

I wonder what might happen if art elites shifted their gaze from a stunned spectatorship to a critical engagement with their own gentrified futures. I wonder what might happen if the art world took an active approach to degentrifying and decolonizing their art practices. I wonder what it would look like for me to do the same.