Baaad Luck: How a Bunch of Bighorn Sheep Nixed Jenny Holzer’s Plans for Light Projections at Desert X

An unusual strain of pneumonia has been killing the sheep at an alarming rate.

Bighorn rams are seen in the early morning near Essex, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

A rampant bout of pneumonia is killing bighorn sheep in California’s San Bernardino Mountains, and concerns for their safety have prompted the Wildlands Conservancy to pull its approval for artist Jenny Holzer’s light projection work, which had been set to appear at Desert X, the Coachella Valley-based biennial opening this weekend.

Holzer had planned to install her trademark LED-light text projections—this time using excerpts of poetry and testimonials from family members, activists, and survivors whose lives were shaken by gun violence—on the western face of the mountains at Whitewater Preserve.

“Our first responsibility is to the environment,” Desert X’s artistic director, Neville Wakefield, told artnet News. “We maintain a strict ethic of leaving nothing behind, and of raising awareness to these issues.” In the end, he said, “we are beholden to nature.”

Desert bighorn sheep at the Whitewater Preserve | Photo: Brittany O’Connor, courtesy of CC Flickr.

Though the Wildlands Conservancy, a nonprofit that manages the area, granted permission for Holzer’s work, titled BEFORE I BECAME AFRAID, 2019, the sheeps’ aberrant behavior poses unknown risks to both people and the animals. “The combination of sick animals, light projections, and large groups of people—it just seems insensitive and unpredictable,” the Wildlands Conservancy’s regional director, Jack Thompson, told the Los Angeles Times.

Holzer, who found out about the cancellation last week, said she supports the decision. “Of course the wildlife should be protected,” she told artnet News in an email. “I’ll find a suitable site or sites for the projection if the authors wish to proceed. I was so lucky and grateful that these good writers and good people wanted to participate. Their important content should be read.”

Jenny Holzer, I’VE (2008). Courtesy of the artist.

Jenny Holzer, I’VE (2008). Courtesy of the artist.

The preserve spans 2,851 acres, which includes a canyon with active wildlife inhabitants, including the bighorn sheep. Last month, at least 20 were found dead in the southern California mountains, felled by a strain of pneumonia that is alarming wildlife specialists. In an encounter as early as November, Thompson told the Desert Sun, one sheep “was confused and should have been more disturbed by the presence of people. That was the first time we saw one that we said, ‘There’s obviously something going on here. This is a sick animal.'”

This isn’t the first time a work of art has been thwarted by bighorn sheep in the US. In 2011, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s vision for unfurling fabric panels over the Arkansas river in Colorado, hinged on how construction might harm the animals. After years of legal arguments with federal, state, and local authorities, and an Environmental Impact Statement, Christo abandoned the project in 2017.

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