The contradictions of a beleaguered sea

Special to The Times

In the 1950s and '60s, the Salton Sea was a bustling vacation spot, attracting crowds of tourists who came to fish, water-ski and enjoy acts like the Beach Boys and Sonny & Cher. These days, it's an environmental curiosity, a desolate place ringed with dusty flats, dead fish and ruined mobile homes.

"Everywhere you look there's a contradiction," says Nicole Antebi, whose exhibition "The Salton Sea Project" is on view at Kristi Engle Gallery through Saturday. Antebi first heard the sea was a "dead place." But when she looked it up online, she was surprised to find postcards depicting a gleaming yacht club and happy vacationers. Struck by the contrast between these idyllic pictures and the Sea's present-day reputation, she decided to create her own images.

"I just went to town and started making these little watercolor postcards and sending them out to travel agents and people with the last name Salton," she says, wondering, "What if this became a tourist destination as it is?" Painted in a loose hand, Antebi's postcards combine such cheerful invitations as "Experience the Salton Sea" with illustrations of a dilapidated yacht club, a half-submerged building and dead fish.

Both satirical and nostalgic, the paintings explore the contradictions of a place that has been characterized as an environmental disaster: an accident of greed, manifest destiny and poor planning. In 1901, eager to create an agricultural paradise in the Imperial Valley, developers diverted water from the Colorado River. Four years later, the levees overflowed, flooding local communities and collecting at the area's lowest point, a former salt mine 200 feet below sea level.

In the '50s, the sea, 50 miles south of Palm Springs, was developed as a resort. But it was flooded again in 1976 and '77 by tropical storms that destroyed most of the shoreside real estate. Without an outlet and fed only by agricultural runoff, the sea has since become saltier than the ocean, with strange ecological effects. Overwhelming algae blooms periodically trigger mass die-offs of tilapia, the only species hardy enough to survive in its waters. The fish regularly wash up by the thousands on the shores, only to spawn again the next season.

Antebi's video "Tilapia Jetty" addresses this phenomenon with a humorous homage to artist Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty," a 1,500-foot raised coil of earth and rock built on the shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake in 1970. Antebi fashioned a miniature jetty out of cardboard, placed it on the shoreline of the Salton Sea and covered it with tilapia carcasses. In the video, Antebi, in red rubber boots, scoops up buckets of dead fish and detritus and pours them onto the jetty as it wobbles in the waves.

The piece draws a connection between the Salton Sea and the Great Salt Lake, a hyper-salinized body of water that Mormon leader Brigham Young once interpreted as a divine sign to settle by its shores. Antebi sees both lakes as symbols of a "belief in reclamation and that it's somehow God's will that there's water for us . . . and if there isn't, we're going to create it," she says. She perceives a similar impulse in the work of Smithson, who sought to reclaim the landscape by creating huge, often disruptive works within it.

"I found it somewhat irreverent," says independent curator Irene Tsatsos of "Tilapia Jetty." "Smithson is so iconic and so monumental and the . . . small scale of her homage against the monumental scale of his original construction -- the decaying life right in front of us, it's hard not to be struck by that."

The failure of the irrigation projects that created the sea, and its subsequent rise and decline as a resort community, echo themes that have occupied the 32-year-old CalArts graduate for several years. In 2004, she began working with co-editors Colin Dickey and Robby Herbst on the anthology "Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices," published this year. "Failure," she says, is "probably more often the rule than the exception, but I think our culture will have us believe otherwise. . . . What I discovered in putting the book together is that there are aspects of failure that maybe we should look at and acknowledge and investigate."

Although she maintains that it's not her intention to deliver an environmental message about the Salton Sea, she hopes her work will encourage people to wrestle with the contradictions that inspired her to take a diverse set of approaches to the subject. In addition to video and postcards, the exhibition also includes a wall painting of the sea adorned with a gold-plated tilapia, a pile of fish scales and barnacles that conceal a romance novel set during the original 1905 flood, and an artificial palm tree that juts out from the wall.

"The image of a tree," says Tsatsos, "a natural phenomenon growing in a twisted, contorted or somehow perverted way, touches on that strange environmental asset that the Salton Sea now provides." She refers to the fact that the sea, as the largest body of water in a state with rapidly diminishing wetlands, has become an important stop for flocks of migratory birds.

Although Antebi's work examines the sea's failures, it reveals its potential, too. "It's sort of like this oasis in a lot of ways," she says. "This idea that it's dead isn't entirely true."


"The Salton Sea Projects," Kristi Engle Gallery, 453 S. Spring St., Suite 741, Los Angeles. (213) 629-2358

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