The art world loves a work of art that requires trekking to a remote location. There's "Spiral Jetty," one of the most iconic pieces of land art in existence, on the northern shores of the Great Salt Lake. New Mexico has "Lightning Field," Walter de Maria's installation of 400 stainless-steel poles that serves as minimal sculpture at most times, and a veritable light show during lightning storms.
These experiences are about long journeys, landscape and meditation. (And showing your friends that you were there by putting photos on Instagram: Look at me! I'm contemplating!)
Now there's another piece to add to this list: "Social Pool," by Austrian artist Alfredo Barsuglia, who was a resident at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture here in Los Angeles.
The piece was completed last Friday and it consists of a single, diminutive swimming pool located somewhere in the southern Mojave Desert between Joshua Tree and Apple Valley. The public is allowed to use the pool, but in order to do so visitors need the key that unlocks it (it is kept covered) as well as the GPS coordinates. Only once you have the key, which is kept at the MAK Center, are you given the coordinates.
"It's really hard to find," says Barsuglia. "There is no road. There is no fence. There is no sign. There is no trail. You just come on it. I'm sure some people won't find it."
The piece, he says, "is about the effort people make to reach a luxury good." Pools, says Barsuglia, are often used as markers of wealth. "I'm interested in the way that these are often integrated into the architecture of a house. And, often, people will have a pool, but they don't even get into it. They just like to show that they have it. It shows they don't have to think about water."
Water is the first thing I thought about when I first heard about the piece. As in: why is some artist building a swimming pool in the middle of the California desert during one of the worst droughts on record? Could the art world possibly be more out of touch? How much more decadent ridiculosity can we stand?
Barsuglia says those are exactly some of the thoughts that he wants to inspire. "When you are there by the pool," he says, "I think you really understand what a luxury this is and you start to ask yourself if it's really worth it. Perhaps some people might feel that this is not something they need to do."
Certainly, Barsuglia isn't making it easy to get to "Social Pool." For one, reservations are not allowed, nor is calling in to find out if the key is available. "You have to go to the MAK Center and see if the key is there," he says. "If the key is there, then you go."
In addition, the user is only allowed to hold onto the key for 24 hours. "I don't want people to go there and combine it with other things," says the artist. "The idea is that it all starts the moment you pick up the key. You then have the experience of getting there: of maybe sitting in traffic, of the walk in the desert, of enjoying the pool if you find it, then returning the key to the MAK Center. That is all part of the project."
Moreover, once you've landed in the vicinity of the pool, there are no instructions on how to arrive. "You really have to go and search for it," explains Barsuglia. This requires a hike through the desert, which, depending on where you happen to leave your car, could be anywhere from 20 minutes to more than an hour. Barsuglia warns against trying to four-wheel it all the way to the site: "I've gotten stuck in the sand. Plus, if you drive in, it destroys the desert ecology."
Each participating person is asked to take a gallon of water to help replenish the pool. And since it is small, and this is set up as a contemplative exercise, only four people are allowed at a time.
"There is an element of danger to it, too," says Barsuglia. "There are scorpions and rattlesnakes. You might get heat stroke. I recommend not going alone."
Barsuglia, who is from Austria, but comes regularly to Southern California, has done other works that play on ideas of desire, luxury and consumption. In 2008, he built a sculpture, "Oderfla Beauty Resort," which resembles a spa structure being consumed by a desert dune. He also put that one in the Mojave, in a dune outside of Flamingo Heights in the Lucerne Valley.
"That piece looks like something in a natural catastrophe," he says. "It's like we come from the future and reflect on this buried spa, on the importance of being beautiful. It's like an archeological site."
The pool, in some ways, echoes the theme of consumption, albeit in a different way. But is the statement really necessary? Did some artist really need to gobble up 800-plus gallons of precious water to make a point about the lengths we go to consume? I asked myself this question repeatedly, but then thought of all the swimming pools already in existence in nearby Palm Springs and I realized that Barsuglia's project was literally a drop in the bucket.
By my estimation, the large family pool at the Viceroy Hotel in Palm Springs easily contains something in the vicinity of 50,000 gallons of water. (!!!) And it's just one of three pools at the hotel, which is just one of the countless hotels in Palm Springs with a pool. And that doesn't begin to get into the number of private pools, as well as fountains, ponds and emerald green lawns — not just in Palms Springs, but all over the state.
In this context, Barsuglia's swimming pool is probably no more or less ridiculous than any of the pools that have already been built throughout California.
Still, is the artist's piece part of the problem as it points to the problem? Yes it is. But is it the biggest part of the problem? Not even remotely. Will it make viewers, who've had to hike through the desert clutching a gallon of water, more enlightened about the way we manage humanity's most precious resource? I sure hope so, especially the city managers who insist on planting grass all over a region it wasn't meant to grow.
But, most significantly, will I go see Barsuglia's work? Well, that depends. If I can get my hands on the key...