Just a few hours south of Los Angeles there’s a tiny desert town called Bombay Beach– though its geographically close at hand to many millions of people, it might as well be another world.
One of several beachside settlements on the shores of the Salton Sea, the town was once a booming resort spot popular during the prosperous post-War years when more than a million vacationers traveled there annually. But the sea– actually a sprawling, shallow lake– and the dusty desert expanse around it, have since lost their appeal, slipped out of range, and essentially vanished from the minds of many Southern California residents. “I’d never heard of it,” filmmaker and LA native Tao Ruspoli explained in a recent interview.
“I was immediately enthralled,” Tao recalled of his first trip there in 2007. “I drove around the entire coast, taking photos and just fell in love with it. It’s one of the most bizarre, fascinating, offbeat, and captivating places I’ve ever been.”
All of this breeds toxic dust, noxious odors, and the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the state– still, Tao’s interest in the Salton Sea wasn’t just a passing fancy. Despite the area’s poor prognosis, in the ten years that Tao has engaged with the area, he has bought property, fixed up abandoned homes, opened up Bombay Beach’s very own Hermitage Museum. He even introduced his friends and colleagues to the area, who in turn have brought in more artists.
Now Tao has launched the Bombay Beach Biennale (BBB) along with two partners, Lily Johnson-White, who sits on the board at Creative Time (an NYC non-profit arts organization known for sweeping public projects, including Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx at the Domino Sugar factory) and Stefan Ashkenazy, owner of LA’s L’ermitage legion of luxury hotels.
The three-day art fair wrapped up its second year a few weeks back, with crowds that numbered “in the hundreds.” Which is great, but it’s hard not to wonder how things smelled. In a 2015 article on the Salton Sea’s myriad environmental problems, The Atlantic noted that over the years agricultural runoff both sustained water levels and poisoned the lake, dumping pesticides, heavy metals, and tons of salt into the Salton. This was exacerbated by the ongoing drought. At that time, the lake was prone to “burping up hydrogen sulfide, a gas created by the decaying organic matter trapped beneath the water,” resulting sometimes in an “intense rotten-egg stench” that drifted as far as Coachella Valley.
Borrowing a loaded, frou-frou term like Biennale conjures elite art fairs attended by wealthy collectors and gajillionaire art stars, hinted at the organizer’s anarchic intentions. “It was a way in one fell swoop, to make fun of the pretenses of the art world, and to elevate Bombay Beach–but in a way that’s not condescending, by focusing on the decay of of the place,” Tao said.
Knowing the area’s past as a beachy vacation spot with excellent water skiing, swimming, and sunbathing–there was also fishing, the best Tilapia catch in the whole state, actually– makes the present-day degradation all the more tragic. As the lake became gross and started to stink, people took their vacay time elsewhere, and after a brief period of success, Bombay Beach and other settlements like Desert Shores started losing residents, businesses, and establishments of all kinds en masse. What’s left of that time are rusted out trailer homes, abandoned houses, and a beachfront that looks more like a nuclear wasteland than leisure city. Slowly, Imperial County lost much of its farming due to droughts over the years (which will only continue and worsen, because… climate change) and as a result the sea lost its major source of water intake, which could no longer outrun the rapid evaporation rate owed to the relentless harsh desert sun.
This trajectory is, of course, horrifying. So when a Vice writer concluded that this was “the most apocalypse-y place I’ve ever seen in real life,” he wasn’t being hyperbolic.
But take a look at photos of the Salton Sea, and you might start to see what Lily described as a kind of “mesmerizing beauty.” Though the water is toxic to pretty much everything except Tilapia, nasty bottom feeders that they are, it’s strangely placid, which makes for a supremely smooth surface and perfect reflection of the bright blue sky and dusty mountains on the horizon. The high salinity rusts and rots everything it touches leading to a rainbow of blood red puddles and sage green relics.
So in a way, it was the perfect place to stage an art exhibition that Tao described as rebellious in that as opposed to ignoring the difficult issues facing places like Imperial County, or dealing with them from the safe distance of a white-walled, air-conditioned gallery in LA, the artists here are facing them head on. This year, more than 100 artists came out, including a slew of New York-connected names.
Kenny Scharf was on the bill. An LA native, Scharf shared an apartment with Keith Haring in the ’80s, and is now the proprietor of the “Cosmic Cavern,” in Bushwick. At Bombay Beach, Scharf transformed an abandoned house into a psychedelic burst of color, tying toys to the exterior of the house– which Lily said looked like “cosmic barnacles.” Inside the house, “He painted the walls, he put down grass and live plants all over the place, and then we got local white-tailed bunnies to inhabit the space,” she recalled. “From the outside view on the street, it was this barren, gravel yard and then this unbelievable Kenny Scharf explosion of graffiti and toys. He completely breathed new life into something that had been left for dead.”
Greg Haberny was there, too. If you remember him from Spring/Break art fair this year, he was the dude who would burn his own paintings and smash his sculptures into smithereens, which were then pulverized down to ashen paints, resins, whatever– anything that could be used to start the process of creation and destruction all over again. Obviously, he was perfect for BBB.
For the inaugural fair, which the organizers refer to as “Year Zero” since it was something of a test run, just about everything was kept under wraps. “Because we didn’t want 10,000 partiers from Coachella showing up wanting to be entertained,” Tao explained. But that’s not because the organizers want to hold out for when BBB has perfected VIP “tee pee” (i.e. tipi) campsites of their own, or something similarly barf-worthy. Tao insisted that compared to events like Coachella, the spirit of the Biennale “wasn’t about that.”
It doesn’t seem like an accident that BBB was scheduled for the same weekend of Coachella– it’s definitely a convenient way to weed out the hangers-on. But for his part, Stefan insisted that the Biennale is not an “anti-Coachella” or an “anti-Burning Man,” for that matter. “We’re not making a political statement,” he said. “And its not designed to make something look less.”
The notion of an apolitical art fair came up in conversation repeatedly as the organizers insisted that the event was about freeing artists from the usual constraints of the art world. “It’s just important to allow artists to have room to create work unencumbered, and for it not to be for sale, and just for the sake of creation itself,” Lily explained.
But it would be a disservice to say that BBB was all about making art for art’s sake. “Just by the nature of us bringing attention to this community we’re bringing attention to this impending environmental disaster,” Lily noted. That in itself makes BBB supremely political.
The Biennale organizers are hardly the first artists to show up in Bombay Beach, but it was a fact that fashion photographers and commercial artists were coming through, capturing brooding images of the decrepit environs and leaving without so much as a friendly “What’s up?” This has been happening for a while, Tao recalled. “Every time we’d go, there was always a music video shoot, always a fashion shoot, always some kind of commercial shoot happening there. But the town had nothing to show for it.” Supremely wealthy Palm Springs is only about an hour away from the Salton Sea, but Imperial County is the poorest in the state. Tao could not abide when he witnessed “people coming in and taking advantage and gawking– and none of [the art] was staying there.”
Ruin porn itself belies the fact that people actually reside around the Salton Sea– and not only that, but they have managed to retain a certain vibrancy in their towns. “It’s not a ghost town,” Tao said. “There are over 200 residents who live [at Bombay Beach]– each one with their own amazing personality and story of what brought them here.”
BBB would be just the opposite. ‘We wanted to make sure that whatever we did celebrated the town,” Lily said. “Because we felt like a lot of artists have come through and sort of preyed upon the character of the town, but didn’t leave anything behind that engaged with the town or was respectful of who the residents were. “
Culture, of course, was here long before BBB got here. When Anthony Bourdain brought his show No Reservation through Bombay Beach, he stopped at The Ski Inn–a neighborhoody bar (and one of just a few establishments in business here) that recalls the town’s past as a water skiing destination. “There’s an undeniably spartan cultural scene in Bombay Beach,” he says on the show. “I’m sitting in what amounts to the Bombay restaurant scene.”
He wasn’t being ironic. Lily used the word “magnetic” to describe the residents and the community they’ve maintained despite the odds.
But nevertheless it must have been tricky navigating an art exhibition in a place that was not only excluded from the art world by and large, but had been exploited in the past by artists. How would you get people involved and at the same resist imposing anything on the town? “What we contemplated when we were there is: How do we channel the innate weirdness and celebrate it, so that the people who live there can enjoy [the Bienalle] too?” Stefan explained.
The organizers did the only thing they really could, and embraced the inherent contradictions. After all, wasn’t this whole thing inspired by absurdity in the first place? Even the Salton Sea itself, Tao pointed out, “embodies a lot of contradictions.” It’s ugly, but beautiful. Serene, yet straddling a fault line. California’s largest body of water, and yet has a maximum depth of 43 feet– and the lake is shrinking, at that. It depends on agriculture, it has been destroyed by agriculture. It’s a toxic wasteland, and yet an important refuge for some very brave animals. “It’s become this nature preserve, and all these bird species depend on it as a watering hole on their migratory paths, since most of the wetlands along the California coast have been developed,” he explained. The list goes on.
For the organizers, this meant that fine artwork could co-exist alongside street art, ecstatic creations, and anarchic one-offs.
Among the more “refined” programming at BBB, the philosophy conference might seem like the least accessible. But the talks were anything but alien– the theme was decay, something Bombay Beach residents know a thing or two about.
A few unadorned abandoned buildings served as venues for the conference, while participating visual artists took on dilapidated homes, transforming them into surreal dream houses. Others were more permanent spaces like the Bombay Beach Opera House, one of Tao’s personal projects– it’s a grandiose title, but in reality a rather DIY operation rendered in eye-popping color. But it was perfectly fitting for a lone opera singer and a ballet dancer to grace the stage against the backdrop of the dying sea. Lily called it “magical.”
“The whole thing very much had a Dadaist or Surrealist vibe,” Tao said.
Consistently, the artists at BBB engaged with the environment and toppled any notion that “high-brow” art should be elite and typically inaccessible and crazy expensive. Since it was free to check out, “high-brow” art became readily available to anyone and everyone.
But maybe the most important way in which the Biennale stayed true to Bombay Beach, was by eschewing the usual branding and corporate sponsorship awfulness that seems to creep into every cultural event these days, large and small. This only made sense– the town itself is like a refuge from the commercial onslaught we face almost everywhere else. “There are no billboards, no stores– I mean, there’s none of the trappings of modern America that we’re used to,” Tao said.
The organizers insisted that BBB will remain “a non-commercial endeavor.” And that benefits not only the residents and anyone else who wants to attend BBB, but the artists as well. “Something that was felt by visitors, guests, and the artists– everyone was really vibing on the same wavelength because they weren’t being sold to,” Stefan said. “They weren’t being used for marketing, everyone was there to create and enjoy the creation.”
If BBB can maintain its purity of vision, it will only continue to attract artist and visitors. And that’s exactly where things could go completely and horribly wrong. “The danger with enhancing the town is that someone could come in and easily ruin it by dramatically improving it,” Stefan said.
And yet, development and environmental remediation are exactly what this town needs in order to survive. Looking at the bigger picture, the fate of the Salton Sea will mean a great deal for the future of the planet in general. If we can’t fix this problem, how can we address our much more daunting global crisis of climate change? Unfortunately it’s hard to predict how these things will play out, but meanwhile, the Bombay Beach Biennale will continue.
During our conversation, I told the organizers that the Salton Sea reminded me a lot of Detroit. I mean, there are obvious and huge differences, but the heart of the problem is the same. For a time, outsiders had the luxury of ignoring the city’s problems and the sea’s crisis, and even benefitted from the misfortune of these places (one man’s toxic agricultural runoff is another man’s cleancut, waste-free fully-watered lawn). But plausible deniability is no longer really an option. Already, Bombay Beach looks more alive– all thanks to what Lily called the “incredible, regenerative power of art and creativity.”