Bombay Beach Biennale 2019
Written by Genie Davis
In its 2019, ironically annual iteration, the Bombay Beach Biennale continues to expand its collection of year ‘round, permanent art installations along with weekend music, lectures, and more transitory art works, which combined and individually dazzle with innovation. It’s an immersive event for both attendees and artists, and an exclusive one: the town permits only 500 guests, which means volunteers, artists, donors, and press are the lucky few, along with the small town’s residents.
The Biennale serves as the galvanizing focus that transforms empty houses, lots, and a crumbling, drying shore into a wide-flung visual canvas. In a 72-hour timeframe, this year’s event encompassed 150-plus “activations” from live music to art, art, art. It began on a smaller scale in 2015, founded by Stefan Ashkenazy, Tao Ruspoli, and Lily Johnson White, and continues to grow and add surprising new installations to the town.
This year, the big, bright, new shiny thing taking up permanent residence was Randy Polumbo’s Lodestar, an incredible use of a section of a fighter plane, with a wire mesh viewing platform shaped like a version of the Seattle Space Needle, and steep interior stairs to get to the top. At night, the gorgeous, bulbous, colored and mirrored glass ornamentation dangling from its undersides lit up like a wild visual circus, a perfect analogy for the festival itself. Last year, Polumbo’s permanent silver and purple Angler’s Grove house opened, and its doors remained a mecca for visitors this year, as well.
On the beach, there was Showtown, curated by Stefan Ashkenazy; two of the large scale sculptures are permanent, the waterslide Last Splash, and Ma Ruin Avant La Votre, both by Boris Chouvellon. It was a raucously wonderful installation, with a striped tent holding dance parties and burlesque shows, a broken but evocative Ferris Wheel, fireworks, and a stage. It was to that stage that stilt walkers, a red-feather-and-chiffon wrapped performance artist and a musical processional marched just before sunset. Down the beach from there, large-scale sculptural cutouts by Marco Walker and Tomo Sadurski created a new silhouette alongside the salt-crusted pillars of an abandoned dock; Chris Wessman & Damon James Duke’s swing set was wading-distance out in the sea; Josephine Wister Faure offered the illusion of levitating over (eliminate the words: over a black bar suspended above) a white bed at the water’s edge. Also on the beach, Keith Jones & Lee Henderson’s The Open House – a pale green door plus mailbox (in which guests could leave letters) and chalk to mark one side of the door, opened onto a vista of the sea.
Another dazzling permanent piece perched along the skyline in town: the fish and helicopter hybrid Da Vinci Fish, created by artists Sean Guerro, Royce and Juanita-Huff Carlson, John Murphy, and Jay Cobe, among other collaborators. It cast a beautiful shadow over the outdoor coffee house-style setting of the Bombay Beach Arts Culture Center. Olivia Steele’s multiple orange metal signage, “Public Displays of Awareness” popped up both in town and on the sand, suggesting guests “Control Thyself” and telling them “I love you;” her neon work Save Me, last year positioned in the sea itself, glowed from a rooftop.
Among the shattered homes and trailers of Bombay Estates, a cluster of terrific small spaces unfolded. Moral Turgeman’s Museum Number Two presented individually color-coated rooms: a green kitchen with green scrub brushes dangling in a curtain, a baby blue bathroom with baby blue plungers on every surface, a bright pink exterior, white painted phone, typewriter, cinderblocks on a patio, a yellow wall with images of curvy buttocks.
In the same area, the diminutive Museum of Natural History featured Carrie Schmidt’s sparkly silver triceratops head, along with amethyst geodes, a sandbox of glowing crystals, an ersatz fireplace with a glowing crystal. The cave-painting-like images outside were dazzling, too. Sarah K. Larsen’s outdoor Pastmodern Portal gave us a cut out room with a view. A gold-lame suited spaceman walks forward looking at wiry, spidery black and white ink drawings in Susanna Della Sala’s A Fish Grows Legs in its Dreams and Sleepwalks.
Alex Thev’s Unity in Motion was a one-off dazzler – a mirrored spinning mind game that, should two people position themselves on either side and gaze into each other’s eyes, they would see themselves shift from self to other and back again in bits and pieces.
Louisa Owen’s To the Land of Gold and Wickedness: The Journey of Lorena L. Hays, gave us an ephemeral, delicate construct of the gold rush era; while Liz Avalon’s Magic Room (Infinity Portal) took us into an era beyond time and space within a small white box, thanks to lights, and mirrors, and, well, magic.
Permanent installations such as fest co-founder Stefan Ashkenazy’s Drive In – where wrecked cars are poised to watch the sometimes-shown films on a screen that’s one side of semi-trailer; and the Foundation/Foundation Museum, Greg Haberny’s changing selection of curated artworks, are always a must see at the event. So too are the ballet and opera; performances take place at yet another architectural gift to Bombay Beach, James Oster’s stunning Opera House, whose walls are decorated with discarded, washed-up flip flops from Nigerian refugees. The acoustics are perfect.
There were a number of outstanding photographic installations this year, including Salton Sea area images from Instagram artists, Sea Dream Avenue, created by Martine Pinnel and Melanie Planchard; Alicia Anderson’s haunting black and whites; the rainbow photo collection at The Chicken Foot House, whose exterior was decorated with a cool abstract mural from artist Jennifer Korsen, who also created an immersive sequence of hearts on the walls of a super comfy soft-sofa outdoor seating area – and the only place this writer sat down in 7 hours of exploration.
All told, it is not any individual work or installation, as marvelous as many are, it is the event itself which captivates, from the dulcet sounds of a piano played at the Opera House stage between formal shows to watching the captivating ballet rehearse against a sunset sky, to seeing the sun sink into the dangerously shrinking, wind-whipped Salton Sea.
Here’s to the art that may save it and the sea and the town that inspired the art: long may they live.