How Much Hip Can the Desert Absorb?

BOMBAY BEACH, Calif. — On a blustery Thursday in late March, Stefan Ashkenazy, a hotelier and arts patron from Los Angeles, was bucketing through town in his dusty Chevy Tahoe, pointing out the sights while overseeing the finishing touches on a medley of unusual construction projects: a skeletal-looking Ferris wheel, which, he said, would soon be part of a voodoo-noir, circus-themed sculpture park; a mock subdivision of derelict concrete brick and wood houses flecked with graffiti and planted with stumps of charred palm trees.

Sunburned and with a movie star’s polish, Mr. Ashkenazy, 43, was sheathed in black, Johnny Cash style, from his cowboy hat to his jeans, moving briskly to a backbeat of cellphone pings.

He doubled back on the dirt-packed streets to consult with his crew on how to secure LED lights to show off the gilded letters of signage for a pretend subdivision called the Bombay Beach Estates, one of Mr. Ashkenazy’s many sight gags here.

Despite the Burning Man-like shenanigans, this was no wealthy bohemian boondoggle or corporate branding bonanza.

For the last four years, Mr. Ashkenazy and others have been funding large-scale art installations for this tiny and very idiosyncratic desert community, unveiling them during a three-day free event archly known as the Bombay Beach Biennale that also features classical opera, dance performances and a conference of philosophy professors. (This year’s topic: postmodernism.)

Some of the work is designed to confound, like Mr. Ashkenazy’s “Drive In,” which is filled with rusted-out cars and looks like a scene from the “Twilight Zone” episode in which everyone on earth has vanished.

Some is frankly gorgeous, in the tradition of earthwork artists like Walter De Maria or Robert Smithson. And Mr. Ashkenazy’s drive-in is a working theater: The projector is set in a shopping cart, and when he runs a film, Mr. Ashkenazy drapes the car seats in fabric and lights wood fires in the engine beds.

‘Lunacy and Chaos’

Mr. Ashkenazy’s primary collaborators are Lily Johnson White, 38, a philanthropist and scion of the Johnson & Johnson family who is on the board of Creative Time, and Tao Ruspoli, 43, a filmmaker, philosophy buff and son of an Italian playboy prince. At first glance they do seem like another gang of well-heeled Burners, as Burning Man participants are known, run amok in another desert town.

Yet their l’art pour l’art efforts are more akin to old-fashioned patronage than modern desert debauchery or ruin porn slumming. Who’s going to argue with buying lots in an area that has been down on its luck for decades and turning them over to artists to make large-scale work for public viewing outside of the gallery system?

Certainly not Ariana Vafadari, a French-Iranian mezzo soprano who would perform during the biennale in a heartbreakingly beautiful dawn performance, and was squashed into the back seat of Mr. Ashkenazy’s Chevy with the members of her band.

“Is it always this windy?” Ms. Vafadari asked. “Tell me again what this project is about.”

Mr. Ashkenazy, husky voiced from weeks of desert work, said, “From my side, the whole thing is managed between the twin pillars of lunacy and chaos. The hope is that the people in town will be proud of what is happening and want to show it off.”

Set on a gentle peninsula on the east coast of the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach had its heyday at midcentury, when resort communities flourished along the shoreline of one of the more complicated ecosystems in Southern California.

The largest lake in the state, the Salton Sea was formed at the turn of the 20th century, when the Colorado River breached its levees and flooded what used to be known as the Salton Sink: a vast basin shaped long ago as the river meandered from within its delta, pushing sediment as far as the Gulf of California.

From the beginning, the sea drew schemers and dreamers, like the sea captain who ran a dance hall and imported sea lions, as Kim Stringfellow, a Joshua Tree-based artist whose work investigates cultural landscapes, notes in “Greetings From the Salton Sea: Folly and Intervention in the Southern California Landscape, 1905-2005.”

The military directed all sorts of operations around it. (One of the region’s many contemporary tribes is the scrappers, who collect exploded ordnance and other metal treasures to sell.)

What was once a Marine base to the east is now Slab City, one of the largest vehicle squats in the country, named for the concrete foundations upon which it sprouted. Some say Bombay Beach came by its name because bombers leaving target practice over the Chocolate Mountains opened their bomb bay doors over the spot.

In the 1970s, as farms in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys grew more crops, increasing their agricultural runoff, the sea began to flood, swamping many of the resort’s little beach houses, concrete brick cabins and R.V.s, and many residents abandoned their homes.

And then the sea began to shrink. In the last few decades, it has grown increasingly inhospitable, with algae blooms and ever higher salinity killing off fish and birds in huge seasonal die-offs.

Remediation efforts have been slowed by competing interests. Should the focus be on constructing shallow ponds to feed migrating birds and control dust, or would it make more sense just to abate the dust on the playa? Should the state of California honor a commitment made in 2003 to restore the Salton Sea, despite moving water away from the area to thirsty coastal cities? Or should this artificial, long-festering sea be left alone to dry up entirely?

While politicians have dithered, Bombay Beach’s atmospheric decay has drawn filmmakers, novelists and other artists who marvel at the thriving community hidden inside seemingly derelict properties. Granted, it is small, not even officially considered a town, but rather a C.D.P., or census-designated place, with a population now at 341, up 50 or so people since 2010, and with a median age of 71, according to the Census Reporter.

Like many hardscrabble desert hamlets, it attracts those who by choice or necessity perch on society’s edges. It is also populated with house-proud weekenders from San Diego, and seniors who grew up camping here when they were children.

As Cathy Ahinger, one such weekender, said, pulling up late one afternoon in her golf cart, “What you see on the outside doesn’t always reflect what’s on the inside.”

In the 1980s, the photographer Richard Misrach made lyrical, large-scale prints of Bombay Beach’s decaying trailers and submerged lampposts. Marisa Silver set her dark and lovely coming-of-age novel, “The God of War” (2008), here. Anthony Bourdain once visited the Ski Inn, the place’s only restaurant, besides the American Legion Hall.

Its filmography is disproportionately vast and includes “Bombay Beach,” a 2011 documentary by Alma Har’el, from Israel, that teeters on the edge of fantasy, capturing the precarious lives of three Bombay Beach dwellers (a young boy whose parents have been in prison; a teenager fleeing gang violence in Los Angeles; and a cantankerous elderly man). More prosaically, it has been a favored backdrop for zombie films and the video game Grand Theft Auto.

The zombie movies did it no favors. Bombay Beach continues to represent the declining fortunes of the Salton Sea, said Michael Cohen, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute, a think tank devoted to sustainable water policies, but he is hopeful that California’s new administration will help save it.

“I’m cautiously and perhaps foolishly optimistic,” Mr. Cohen said. “I’ve been working on this for 20 years, and I keep thinking, ‘This is the year something is going to happen.’ But I’m sure this is the year something is going to happen. I’m pretty excited that people have reimagined Bombay Beach because it really changes the narrative and hopefully all these narratives will come together and we’ll see some progress.”

‘Quixotic in the Literal Sense’

It was Ms. Stringfellow’s book that propelled Mr. Ruspoli here nearly 12 years ago. He noted others taking photos, shooting music videos and fashion spreads, and then leaving. Why was there no mark of their work in Bombay Beach? he wondered.

He bought a lot with a double-wide for $20,000 and invited his friends, including Ms. White. The Bombay Beach Biennale began as a sort of joke, he said, because he liked the alliteration and the idea of spoofing the art world.

“We don’t pretend that we can raise the billions it will take to fix the Salton Sea,” Mr. Ruspoli said. “But one of the jobs of the artist is to show the world to people in a fresh light. I hope we’re going to do that in a way that’s not too sanctimonious or too on the nose.”

He knew that Mr. Ashkenazy, a friend since seventh grade with a flair for experiential art projects, could help him pull it off. Mr. Ashkenazy’s girlfriend at the time, Arwen Byrd, a lanky filmmaker, now 31, had been a Bombay Beach regular since college.

“Your first thought when you drive through the town from just a budgetary and logistical standpoint is that you have to make the obligatory post-apocalyptic zombie movie there,” said Ms. Byrd, who has already set one here and is working on another, which she described as a love letter to the place, with nobody dying. “It’s easy to be dismissive of the town when you only look at it from the surface level of poverty.”

It’s easy, also, to be concerned than an infusion of hip and rich may spoil this strange sea. For decades, Joshua Tree, an hour and a half to the north, has been welcoming artists who are drawn to its lunar landscape and libertarian mythos.

Each spring, more than 100,000 people now attend Coachella, less than an hour away. Pioneertown, east of Palm Springs and built as a movie set in the 1940s, is now a weekend destination for Los Angeles hipsters who have been renovating its miner’s cabins, building recording studios and lining up for mushroom toast at La Copine, a roadside restaurant.

Even rough-hewed Slab City, 30 minutes or so from Bombay Beach, has lately been battling an influx of Instagrammers, fashion photographers and Airbnbs.

Randy Polumbo, an artist who has a house in Joshua Tree, led me up the vertigo-inducing ladder of his upside-down fuselage, which he planted on two lots at the biennale and which blossoms into a bulbous cage from which you can see for miles. Gentrifying Bombay Beach doesn’t seem probable, he said as I peered through the cage, wind whipped and white knuckled. “It’s just too hard a life.”

Even so, he continued, “There are so many interesting people creating a sense of place and wonder out of not much, or something awful. It’s part of a longstanding tradition that made this whole thing bubble up. Originally people came here to have a kind of textbook waterfront leisure experience, and then it turned into something much richer, darker, weirder.”

The elements take their toll. The artist Kenny Scharf was back this year to tend to a house he had strung with large plastic children’s toys — cars, ponies, baby carriages.

“This house is an expression of our consumption,” said Ms. White, who was putting up Mr. Scharf in the double-wide trailer she had just bought at the edge of town. “Artists have to be willing to brave the elements here, and Kenny is a badass and just deals with it all.”

Mr. Scharf yelled for more toys, and Ms. White handed up a pink plastic shopping cart and some yellow rope. “I’m totally at home here,” Mr. Scharf said. “Anything goes and no one is watching. It’s like the East Village in the ’80s.”

Not exactly, Ms. White said: “There are definitely people watching. We want to be good neighbors. We own homes, and we sit on the community board.”

Mark Wrathall, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, has attended every biennale, part of the academic conference his friend Mr. Ruspoli has programmed. “When I first landed, it just seemed insane,” Mr. Wrathall said. “Quixotic in the literal sense. This ridiculously absurd effort to do something in an environment that’s so hostile to art.”

Now, he said, “I look forward to this more than anything else I do in my academic life.” On the Saturday afternoon of the festival, he gave a talk on postmodernism and the work of Hieronymous Bosch to a full (if burned-out) house at the Bombay Beach Estates.

‘Like a Vortex’

The Ski Inn, a cheery and sun-shot establishment named for the water-skiing that was a long-ago Salton Sea pastime, was also packed that day.

Its walls and ceilings were shellacked with dollar bills, and the jukebox was playing classic rock. Sonia Herbert, who bought the place from its retiring owners last June, came out from the kitchen wearing a Bombay Beach Biennale T-shirt and wiped her hands on her apron.

Now 76, she was in her 30s when she moved to Bombay Beach in the early 1970s, the mother of five sons fleeing an abusive husband. Her father had a trailer, and she felt reassuringly enveloped by the community. “I was a housewife and never worked before then,” she recalled.

Ms. Herbert cleaned houses, and ran a sandwich truck and the fire department (one truck and, this year, just one volunteer). She became a paramedic because there was no ambulance service.

She left in the 1980s, moving to Oregon, England (her birthplace) and then France, before returning 16 years ago, because, as she said, “This place just draws you back. It’s like a vortex or something.” She has been buying property ever since and recently sold a lot or two to the biennale folks and their friends for art projects. “If it hadn’t been for art, I wouldn’t have done it,” she said.

Running the Ski Inn has been hard, Ms. Herbert went on, “because the employment pool is so small,” and business is up, thanks to the biennale. That event, she added, has been like winning the lottery for this town.

“I think it’s marvelous,” she said. “You see lots of young people with lots of energy and good spirits. It’s refreshing. A lot of the old people are bitter because they don’t like to see change, but they do everything they can to appease everyone’s concerns. You could see little places being bought and cleaned up — this year it’s been like a wave.”

Mr. Ruspoli estimated the cost of the biennale as upward of $100,000, shared among his collaborators and with gifts from donors like the philanthropist Aileen Getty. But not all of the biennale’s work is funded by its organizers. Volunteers from hither and yon sign up to build the work and feed the participants.

Some artists, like Mr. Polumbo, have made their own considerable investments here. Of course, real estate in this harsh environment can be cheap: $500 may get you a “beachfront” lot; for $8,500, you might pick up a trash-filled cement box, as Mr. Ashkenazy did, turning it over to the artist Greg Haberny to curate as a year-round museum.

Danielle Aykroyd, the daughter of the actor Dan Aykroyd, is a singer who goes by the name Vera Sola. Last year, she bought a lot with conjoined trailers, not really habitable, at a tax auction for $2,500.

Her first thought was, she said, “Oh, God. What have I done? The last thing I need right now is to be responsible for this quite literal ruin.” She shot her last album cover there and performed during the biennale in her new “living room,” which she had embellished with garlands of flowers and fairy lights.

Stephanie Giuffre, a disabled veteran and artist who had been living in Slab City, bought two lots in Bombay Beach for $10,000; the only structures were a garage and a shed. She has planted the yard with fruit trees, grapes, passion fruit and edible cactuses, along with a vintage Cadillac hearse, a vintage Cadillac limousine and a vintage Corvette trailer.

She had become frustrated by the looky-loos at Slab City, she said. “It seemed like everyone was filming and had a hidden mic. It was becoming a side show,” she said.

Life at Bombay Beach is not as harsh as at the Slabs, as the place is known — there is water and electricity, after all — but it feels like the Slabs used to, she said, in terms of community. “There is that give and take of people keeping to themselves, and also being there for you,” she said. “And wow, there’s a lot of art!”

Across the street, Rhonda and Mark Hagedorn were sitting on their porch after a day’s yard work. Their spacious lot is ringed by lush salt cedars. Full-time residents since 2016, they had been coming as weekenders for 15 years from San Diego County.

“We’re desert rats,” said Mr. Hagedorn, explaining how they have four-wheel adventures at the Glamis Dunes, about an hour to the southeast.

Ms. Hagedorn said, “The artists are doing their part to clean things up. It’s great here, if you can get past the ugly.”

Penelope Green is a Style reporter, covering home, garden and the built environment. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times, an early iteration of Style, and a story editor at The New York Times Magazine. She lives in Manhattan. @greenpnyt Facebook

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