Virginia Beahan’s haunting photographs of the Salton Sea and its surrounds reveal the region’s layered history and precarious present. In Elegy for an Ancient Sea, Beahan presents images from her explorations of the California desert, as she brings a nuanced eye to the landscape’s fraught past. Through her visually sumptuous photographs, the Salton Sea becomes a kind of character, struggling to sustain life as its physical reality deteriorates.
The Salton Sea stretches across the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, 85 miles east of San Diego. The result of an engineering accident, California’s largest lake was created in 1905, when the Colorado River overwhelmed irrigation canals, flooding a desert basin formed by the San Andreas Fault. Over the next two years, millions of gallons of water rushed into the dry ancient lakebed before finally being dammed. Later dubbed “The Riviera of the West,” the Salton Sea’s popularity peaked in the 1950s and ‘60s, when glamorous resorts hosted vacationing politicians and Hollywood celebrities.
Now the lake is rapidly shrinking. California is suffering chronic drought, and waters that once fed the Salton Sea are being diverted to meet increasing needs of urban populations. Evaporation is raising salinity, concentrating pollutants, killing fish, and destroying bird habitats. Frequent dust storms carry airborne toxins over many miles, posing a serious health threat to residents in nearby counties. Receding sea levels have exposed geothermal hotspots, leading to further development in the region, with eleven geothermal electricity plants already located around the sea.
Beahan’s larger photographic project engages the idea of reading landscapes, exploring how new places are understood gradually, over time. In Elegy for an Ancient Sea, Beahan examines the Salton Sea’s complexities as they manifest in the present. Some focus on destruction: rust-colored water, bare expanses of lakebed, dilapidated homes and trailer parks. But others record the persistence of life amid the ruins. Slab City, an abandoned military base, is now an independent, off-the-grid community. Artists in the area are integrating their socially conscious work into remnants of what is left of the human-altered landscape. And new dreams of cities rising from the desert--disconcertingly similar to those that failed decades long ago--shimmer on the horizon. Like these markers of creativity and perseverance, Beahan’s images evoke an incongruous beauty. Underlying the photographs’ allure exist questions about the implications of human intervention into the natural world.
Virginia Beahan: Elegy for an Ancient Sea is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and made possible by proceeds from the 2014 Biennial Art Auction and the William H. Neukom 1964 Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College. Institutional support for MCASD is provided by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the County of San Diego Community Enhancement Fund.