In a way, it is appropriate that Virginia Wilcox’s installation Bombay Beach at GLASS BOX gallery was all too brief. The area that it documents, the communities around the Salton Sea, are fast disappearing, the remains of an also brief boom in middle of the 20th century. Originally the Salton sink, the was sea formed in 1905 by waters from the Colorado River. In the 50s, it was developed into a resort to rival Palm Springs. Fish (like Tilapia) were introduced into the lake. Hotels were built to accommodate tourists, including celebrities.
Before long, however, rising salinity and water temperature and erratic water levels led to floods and endemic botulism in the water that causes (and still causes) major fish die-offs. By the mid-70s, entire communities had been abandoned. The beaches are white with bone meal and scales, where decades of fish remains have decayed at the water’s edge. Motels, cafes and vacation homes are sharing a similar fate, slowly collapsing back into the desert earth.
Wilcox has spent the last four years traveling in the Salton Sea area, meeting and befriending locals, documenting the state of the communities, now mostly confined to mobile homes among the ruins of the brief boom times. At GLASS BOX, she shares portrait and landscape photography along with squalorous fragments of life there: old medication and supplement bottles; dirt encrusted work pants shedding grey soil; a tattered, almost sculptural old phone book; fish carcasses. On their own, they would read as an unsavory fetish for poverty, but in the gallery setting, conjoined with the documentary photos, they reified the tactile and emotional reality of those images. The sterile light and soil of the desert produces scenes that are bright and bleached beneath vivid blue skies. At a distance, the bits of vivid color are all that keep the desert from dissolving into the white walls of the gallery itself. The human figures can at one glance look fragile, and then remarkably resilient at another—the only real thing in a world on the verge of evaporating.
The signs of what it takes to cope—religion and substance abuse, art and escapist media—were present both in the photos and the artifacts (and also video clips played in the small theatre of the gallery). As a whole, the installation was finely balanced: broad enough to access the human condition, which, though inexhaustible as a subject, is most sincerely expressed when anchored in experience; detailed and personal enough to keep its subject matter from becoming mere specimens in an abstract, philosophical argument. The dignity of both the audience and the subjects is maintained as Wilcox connects the two.
There is even a trace of hope, despite the pervasive morbidity—from the thousands upon thousands of fish that die annually, to the slow fade of humanity’s presence and works. It isn’t a mawkish guarantee that “everything is going to work out.” It isn’t an insinuation that everything can be made to feel okay by adjusting (i.e. lowering) one’s expectations. Rather, by the essential experience of empathy, of seeing and being seen with dignity, the seed is planted for better things, even in the most unforgiving desert.
Check out shots of the installation and images from Bombay Beach in the gallery below. All images courtesy of the artist.