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Smoky artwork by Judy Chicago at Desert Zoo is canceled
Judy Chicago on Fire at 80 © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo ©Donald Woodman/ARS, NY.

by Jori Finkel

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Two years ago, arts organization Desert X in Palm Springs, California, canceled a Jenny Holzer light projection to be shown on a local mountainside during its biennial exhibition for fear of endangering bighorn sheep that roamed there.

Now, Judy Chicago’s plans for creating an ephemeral, atmospheric artwork at the 1,200-acre Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, California, for the upcoming edition of the biennial have been scrapped after an environmental activist began a letter-writing campaign against the project, raising questions about its effects on sheep and other animals in the region.

Jenny Gil Schmitz, executive director of Desert X, said she had first learned of the Living Desert’s decision to pull out of their partnership in an email from its CEO, Allen Monroe, on Wednesday.

“The reason he gave is that they didn’t want to be part of a controversy regarding their environmental preservation,” she said. “The Living Desert specialists had assured us that the project would not damage the desert or any native or captive wildlife, so their backing out is incredibly disappointing and perplexing.”

Efforts to reach Monroe and the public relations manager at the Living Desert were unsuccessful Friday and Saturday.

The artwork, which had been scheduled for April 9, was called “Living Smoke: A Tribute to the Living Desert.”

Chicago, who said she was “very surprised and upset” by the decision, described raising environmental awareness as the point of her project. She began working with smoke in California in the late 1960s as an alternative to the male-dominated Land Art movement that involved bulldozing or digging up ground.

“The idea of the smoke sculptures is that I mix colors in the air, and as the colors swirl and move and clear, it gives people the chance to look at the beauty and fragility of the landscape,” she said. “It gives them the opportunity to think about how we’re damaging the environment and how they can help to change that.”

Chicago said she had already gone through a three-month planning process with the Living Desert, a nonprofit organization, to ensure that no animals would be harmed.

She planned the work “a mile and a half away from the zoo and the developed area,” she said, and decided on electronic ignition instead of her usual lighting of the smoke by hand with a so-called black match, which creates a “very loud sizzling sound.”

“That would very obviously scare any living creatures, so there was no way we were going to do that,” she said. She also made plans for reasons related to the pandemic to limit the number of guests in the audience and livestream it instead.

Art collector Jordan Schnitzer, who was funding this artwork and was present for multiple meetings with executives from the Living Desert, confirmed that account.

“We talked about several concerns and addressed them all up front,” he said. “The last thing we wanted to do was impose a spectacular art event that hurt the flora or fauna.”

He said the Living Desert’s decision to abandon the project had come just days after he and others received letters from Ann Japenga, a longtime Palm Springs resident who writes about art and the environment.

“Even though the smoke is nontoxic, giant clouds of colored smoke will surely startle wildlife on Eisenhower Mountain and also captive wildlife at the Living Desert,” she wrote Schnitzer on Feb. 21, citing “variables such as wind and the unpredictable behavior of smoke and creatures.”

“Eleven bighorn lambs have just been born in the mountains,” she wrote. “Who knows where they will be hanging out on April 9th?”

She sent a similar letter three days later to the Palm Desert City Council.

“On April 9th, 2021, Instagram images of smoke engulfing bighorn habitat will be flashed worldwide, with ‘Palm Desert’ in the hashtags,” she wrote. “Is this good publicity?”

Chicago said she was confident in the safety of her project, as were the Living Desert scientists she had been working with.

“We sent them all the stats on the smoke and what it’s made of, and they determined it would be safe,” she said. “After all, that’s their job, protecting the environment.”

She previously created a “smoke sculpture” in Miami in 2018 in conjunction with a museum survey there and another in her hometown, Belen, New Mexico, in 2019 for her 80th birthday. The next one is planned for the gardens of the de Young Museum in San Francisco when her retrospective, postponed because of the pandemic, opens there.

Gil Schmitz at Desert X said it was “actively looking” for other sites to host the artwork. Would Chicago consider a new site?

She sounded doubtful.

“The Living Desert had meaning, because it’s devoted to ecological and environmental values that I hold dear,” she said. “I’m not sure we can find a comparable site.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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