Robolights: Dystopian Christmas Wonderland in Palm Springs

Great art often makes us uncomfortable. It tells us that the status quo is not necessarily okay and that the world is unstable and problematic. In an age of Photoshopped reality and Instagram shams, art sometimes make us look at what we don’t want to see. As the British street artist Banksy says, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

That’s what makes Robolights, an annual Christmas light display in Palm Springs, so compelling. It’s a far cry from the typical twinkling-lights-and-candy-canes show that we see across America at holiday time. Yes, there are lights—about 8 million of them—but they shine on post-apocalyptic sculptures and sci-fi statues made of ordinary American trash—toilets, microwaves, sippy cups, leaf blowers, paint cans, vacuum cleaners, doll heads, cell phones, and other discarded ephemera.

The display’s creator, 44-year-old Kenny Irwin, has constructed a 4-acre extravaganza of recycled art on his father’s massive lawn in the swanky Movie Colony neighborhood of Palm Springs. Dozens of red-and-white Santas dot the grounds, but they’re mingled with gun-toting aliens and grimacing robots, some towering 40 feet high. The overall effect is, well, creepy.

A visit here leads to some lively discussions. Is Irwin’s art a statement about America’s crass commercialization of Christmas? Or is Irwin simply pointing out how much crap we throw away? 

In recent years, more than 50,000 visitors have come to see the annual show, which runs from late November to early January. Irwin’s neighbors, and the city of Palm Springs, have been unhappy about the traffic. After a series of lawsuits, Irwin has agreed to move his display to a new location, and Palm Springs has agreed to pay him $125,000 in moving costs.

Robolights fans shouldn’t be concerned that the light show will disappear. Art that provokes a strong reaction is art that endures, so expect to see a completely new incarnation in winter 2019.