"The Nature of the Present" by Yulia Kazakova.

The National Park Service describes the Joshua tree as “twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.”

Unfortunately, this beautiful tree (it’s a member of the agave family, actually) is being threatened by climate change. The hotter, drier weather is decreasing the amount of ideal habitat for the plant, and the California Fish and Game Commission is currently deciding whether to list the Joshua tree as threatened or endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. As people await the decision, which has already been delayed several times, artists are using their works to stand up for the Joshua tree.

The annual Intersect Palm Springs art and design fair is returning to the Palm Springs Convention Center, from Thursday, Feb. 9, through Sunday, Feb. 12—and one of the special exhibitions this year is Investigations: Zombie Forest, a multi-artist, multimedia showcase of works focused on the Joshua tree. It is being curated by artist, educator and activist Sant Khalsa, and Andi Campognone, director of the Museum of Art and History (MOAH) in Lancaster, Calif. The two have been friends for more than 30 years.

“I live in Joshua Tree, and living here, it’s very difficult not to be aware of the plight of the Joshua trees, which are being impacted by climate change, development, fires, industrial solar and wind energy—all of that,” Khalsa said during a recent Zoom interview. “I went to Andi and proposed to her the idea of doing an exhibition, bringing together artists, science and indigenous scholars and conservationists for a very multidisciplinary project. She said yes; she lives in the Mojave Desert as well, and she’s as committed to defending the natural world as I am.

“When you walk around a Joshua tree forest, or you drive through a Joshua tree forest, you can see that the trees don’t look good. They’re alive, but they’re dying.”

Investigations: Zombie Forest is a preview of what is to come for the collaboration between Campognone and Khalsa: A full Joshua tree/Mojave Desert exhibit is slated for MOAH in 2024.

“This multidisciplinary show fits the museum’s mission, which is (about) activating communities through engagement,” Campognone said. “The exhibition itself is not just about the life of the Joshua Tree, but also inspiring our community to be engaged enough and to love a subject enough to want to preserve it. … Intersect said, ‘We would like you guys to come in, because we’re also looking at other subjects that are about activating your community, or activism.’ We thought, ‘Oh, this is perfect.’ This is an opportunity to get the community involved in understanding what this looks like, from a political standpoint, from a native standpoint (and) from an artistic standpoint.”

The California Fish and Game Commission is slated to consider whether to list the Joshua tree as endangered or threatened on Wednesday, Feb. 8—just before the start of Intersect Palm Springs.

“We’re not editorializing one point of view,” Campognone said. “This is an exhibition that’s presenting multiple points of view. … It’s just about educating everyone about all of the angles and all the perspectives of what the Joshua tree is going through politically, environmentally and even aesthetically. That’s what this art exhibition for Intersect is all about: It is really a beautiful exhibition giving the Joshua Tree a chance to be the star of the show.”

“Paradigm Shift” by Marthe Aponte.

Khalsa said she hopes the varied types of art will help viewers understand how complex both Joshua trees and the Mojave Desert are.

“You have painting, photography, sculpture, mixed media, embroidery, some textiles and bookmaking, and it’ll all be integrated together,” Khalsa said. “We’re not into separating media at all. This is really more content- and idea-based. … The Mojave Desert is a very fragile ecosystem. A lot of people look at the Mojave, and they think it’s just empty, and they don’t understand how it’s a very, very complex and fragile ecosystem that we need to protect.”

Like the Joshua tree’s appearance, these artistic depictions will be unconventional.

“You’re going to see some presentations of the Joshua tree, and the landscape is very different from what people will normally associate with the landscape aesthetic,” Campognone said. “There are also some really non-traditional uses of paper and paint, and it’s not going to be your traditional landscape, black-and-white Joshua Tree photograph. You’re going to see some really interesting presentations. I want to say it’s really sexy, because it really is, but that’s probably the wrong thing to say. It is a really, really stunning and beautiful show.”

Added Khalsa: “To me, it’s more of a very seductive show, and I think it’s because the artists are all so passionate, and so concerned, and also so well-educated about the science of what’s going on, and the cultural heritage related to the Joshua tree. They’ve made artwork that really seduces the viewer to look and consider all of the issues involved here.”

Even though most of Joshua Tree National Park is undeniably beautiful, the Mojave Desert region and its dying plants aren’t always pretty. Correspondingly, Khalsa described how this exhibit is the opposite of “nature porn.”

“The artists are really trying to un-layer a lot of the complexities,” Khalsa said. “Joshua trees are very unique and iconic. You mention Joshua trees to anyone all over the world, and they have that image of a Joshua tree. … There are not a lot of those images in Zombie Forest. It’s more expressive, and it’s more realistic.”

“Tangled Web” by Danielle Giudici Wallis.

Khalsa and Campognone said Zombie Forest is a “nice fit” for the diverse audiences that Intersect Palm Springs attracts.

“This is going to appeal to the collector; this is going to appeal to the student, the first time art-fair attendee, and also the veteran art-fair attendee,” Campognone said. “This is a really unique subject, and also the works are really unique, and I think people are going to be really interested in it. This isn’t just, ‘Go to the museum, and look at some artwork.’ … This exhibition is revolving around the idea of activism and whatever that means to the individual viewer or the participant.”

At noon on Sunday, Feb. 12, Campognone and Khalsa will host a panel dedicated to using art as a form of activism.

“The subject of that panel will be art and art engagement and activism, and what that looks like,” Campognone said. “… If the Joshua tree is not their bag, (people) could still come to the talk and learn about how art can be part of their life in terms of changing their neighborhoods, changing culture, and using art as that mechanism for change.”

Khalsa said she’s happy that this project blends science and art.

“I’m an artist who has worked with scientists for over 30 years, and artists and scientists have a lot of similarities in the way that they work, because both scientists and artists are problem-solvers,” Khalsa said. “We often think that art and science are really different, but I think this project really shows that they’re all working toward very similar goals. … We have several of our artists who are actually collaborating right now with the top scientists who are doing research on what’s going on with Joshua trees in terms of climate change.”

Intersect Palm Springs starts with an opening-night preview from 5 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 9, and continues from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday, Feb. 10; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 11, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros. Tickets range from $25 for a one-day pass to $100 for an all-access pass. For tickets or more information, visit intersectpalmsprings.com.

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Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...