The beach, a three-hour drive from Los Angeles or San Diego, is not at all paradisiacal. Its waters are toxic and smelly, and there are dead fish on the banks. But the place is a popular meeting place in the Southern California desert for people interested in art, something that has intensified in the last year with the closure of neighboring cultural spaces.
Next to the ram-headed skeleton, which seems to beckon the viewer, was a tower nicknamed “bonolito”. Installed by an unknown artist, it is probably a satire on the metal monolith that appeared in the Utah desert in November. There was also an old wooden swing in the shallow waters and a sign in the sand with the philosophical sayings: “the only other thing is nothing”.
The apocalyptic scenario seems perfect for the present times, although the artist and art researcher Paul Koudounaris prefers to call his creations “archaeological fantasies”. He owns the skeleton in question, an ancient and heavy anatomical model made of ceramics. The artist takes his “companion” to pose in sceneries across the desert, sometimes with colorful wigs and sparkling mermaid tails.
A specialist in ossuaries and funerary rites, Koudounaris has spent the last decade touring the world to make three books on the topics. With the pandemic, he started to explore more of the region where he lives, which includes the Joshua Tree national park, the Coachella valley and the Mojave desert. Instead of bones, he now seeks ruins left by the mining villages of the 19th century gold rush.
What he finds out about these places, posts on Instagram. In addition, it incorporates its skeleton to create photographs that move the viewer to another dimension. Far from the macabre, most of his images have a sense of humor, although some are inspired by Renaissance religious paintings.
Sometimes, it is your pet cat Walter who serves as a model, inside a curious luggage rack that transforms you into a cat-astronaut.
“The desert is still, in a way, the Wild West. There is so much here that has been overlooked, ”says Koudounaris. “Deserts have this strange, somewhat tragic personality. You will never defeat the desert, it always wins. In the end, everything is reduced to desert. It is a power that attracts and awakens a romantic imagination. ”
In places with easier access, like Bombay Beach, it is difficult not to come across visitors, most of them with a camera in hand.
Despite the arid landscape, the place is rich in history. Created by accident in 1905, when water was diverted from the Colorado River, the Salton Sea lagoon was a popular resort in the 1950s. Three decades later, it became a ghost beach with water degradation, the result of high salinity, drought and pollution.
Over time, artists found potential for the place, whose toxicity and salinization give special colors to their waters and foamy margins. In the last year, interventions have multiplied. Installations appear overnight over the sands. “It confuses the definition of what art is. Art becomes part of daily life, and daily life part of art, ”says Koudounaris.
For him, the pandemic created a certain revival of works of art in the region. “We don’t need to stand in awe looking at a museum glass showcase. Here we can be part of art and the creative process. ”
Koudounaris also makes funerals for dead animals that he finds on the roads. He records the scenes in photographs that he does not consider art, but rather a form of mourning. The high mortality is not necessarily relative to tourists, but due to the fires of 2020. He says that many animals have migrated here and are still discovering their new habitats.
Since the 1960s, the deserts of the American West Coast have attracted artists in search of great remote spaces far from the clutches of cultural institutions.
Today, the movement is also the opposite. Artists are taken into the desert by cultural institutions such as Desert X, a biennial that started here in 2017 and won an edition in a desert in Saudi Arabia in 2020.
“The desert brings an idea of unlimited possibility and, perhaps, of existential scrutiny,” says one of its curators, Neville Wakefield. “It is a place of discovery precisely because it does not have the intense social and architectural presence that is distracting in environments where there is greater human concentration.”
The third Californian edition opened in March and runs through May, with 13 works spread across the Coachella valley by artists from eight countries. Judy Chicago, one of the land art pioneers, will make one of her smoke sculptures in a performance in April. Doug Aitken, John Gerrard, the Superflex collective and even a Brazilian, Cinthia Marcelle, from Minas Gerais, participated in the previous biennials.
The edition is more compact, with less work and in places closer to each other to facilitate transport and give more time to introspection. “We want to explore the desert as a place made up of layers of stories accumulated over time, similar to the geological layers here,” says Wakefield.
“Thus, we come to certain topics related to social justice, environmental narratives and immigration. It is an exploration of both the social and the physical landscape. ”
Among the selected artists are angeleno Eduardo Sarabia, with a large-scale maze made of palm fiber by local artisans, and Nicholas Galanin, from Alaska, who addresses the issue of monuments and the right to land with a gigantic sign that says “Indian Land”, similar to that of Hollywood. There are three other Latin artists: Argentine Vivian Suter, Colombian Oscar Murillo and Mexican Felipe Baeza.
Desert X’s work is temporary, but there are many permanent creations to explore in the region, in addition to Bombay Beach, which, incidentally, also has its biennial in years interspersed with Desert X.
In the city of Joshua Tree, artist Noah Purifoy, who died in 2004, spent the last 15 years of his life setting up scrap metal installations on a site, now known as the Outdoor Museum. It is a space without fences, without cameras and with free entry.
Although hidden in the fringes of the city, where houses and trailers are increasingly spaced and the desert shows, the museum has started to receive more visitors in the last year. “We know that the flow of people remains good because the amount of donations at the entrance remains good,” says Joe Lewis, president of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.
“Our only problem is that sometimes people come here to drink at night. Other than that, there is no vandalism ”, he continues. The works are exposed to heat and snow, causing some materials to disintegrate. “Noah said it was his collaboration with the environment. But we do an annual maintenance. ”
A 30-minute drive from Bombay Beach is another classic from the Californian desert, Salvation Mountain, where a local artist converted a hillside into a 15-meter painting dedicated to Jesus. It was precisely here that Koudounaris came across a group of models when he was getting ready to photograph his cat.
“They wanted to take a picture with him, but I didn’t let him,” he says, laughing. “Honestly, these meetings are part of the beauty of what we see here. The desert is not a static, stagnant place. It is a living picture. ”
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