The phrase "Soham" means I am in Sanskrit. In philosophy, it's a mantra for people who follow Vedic teachings to identify with the universe. Over the last six weeks, artist Tavares Strachan has been digging the English translation into the Mojave Desert. Comprised of nearly 400 neon-lit craters, Strachan's I Am now spread across 100,000 square feet of desert floor to inaugurate Desert x 2017, a new, desert art biennial taking place near Palm Springs, California.
For the biennial, 16 artists, including Rob Pruitt, Richard Prince, Glenn Kaino, Norma Jeane, and Doug Aitken, created land art that responds to the Coachella Valley environment.
"I wanted to make something that had a singularity of experience, meaning that you could have separate, alternative experiences of the art," explains Strachan to Creators. "You can experience it from the ground or you can experience it from the sky but you can't experience it simultaneously from the land and sky." From the ground the work functions as an abstract light field of nearly 400 white light sculptures that seem randomly dug into the ground. An aerial view, however, reveals that the lit sculptures spell out "I Am" across a floor of dark sand. "Materially I wanted to create this existential crater in the desert. It's as if a meteorite hit the ground and you are confronted with these light sculptures," says the artist. For the artist, the duality of the experience references "the moment we are living in where there's this oversimplification of physical experience that happens to the body, the mind, and your politics when you are fully engaged" in society.
"The work is about how who we are is connected to the environment, community and the elements that are interwoven into how we exist," Strachan says. I Am explores how much identity is defined by access to land and space. If the current moment is the inspiration, the statement dug into the desert seems like an apt protest sign for America's increasingly isolationistic immigration policies. It also alludes to the debates surrounding climate change and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which saw this country seize, through war and plunder, California from Mexico. Situated in the desert, the phrase also encourages viewers to consider what defines them and their relationships to themselves. Standing inside the phrase, watching what it says from a drone that hovers above providing live footage of the public work, the urge is to turn it into a declaration of self: I am black, I am Trans, I am a woman, I am gender non-conforming. In that way, the project encourages the viewer to consider "how the words 'I Am' historically relate to self-realization."
"As someone who is from the Bahamas and who lives in America now, I am expected to identity with a certain experience. But my upbringing is different from someone who grew up in Queens but who is also black, like me," says the artist of the questions of identity he himself confronts. "I always wrestle with how we can open up those kinds of conversations and create a new language and ways of being. I found that some of the best ways to do it for me is through abstraction and creating these kinds of experiences using traditional language as a form of protest." Strachan says there's a kind of spacelessness in the Caribbean and his installation—"a kind of stamp into the ground"—that drew up questions of ownership and who gets to determine identity.
"My responsibility is not to mandate an experience, I made the thing and now I want to listen," he says. "In terms of expectation, the sensation for me is disorientation. It best mirrors my experience as a human being. At the moment, many people feel disoriented culturally, socially and politically."
I Am is on view through April 30 at Desert x 2017. Click here for more information.