A lifeguard stand was transformed into an 'Intergalactic Space Station' at the Bombay Beach Biennale held last weekend at the Salton Sea. Credit James Frank
Last weekend, a mostly abandoned town on the Salton Sea was transformed into a pageantry of art and opera and weirdness.
The three-day Bombay Beach Biennale was free to attend, unpublicized and driven by a mission of local engagement.
Call it the anti-Burning Man.
Films were screened at a drive-in theater featuring the shells of broken-down cars. Credit James Frank
The idea came from Tao Ruspoli, a Los Angeles filmmaker, who years ago became fascinated by the Salton Sea, a onetime tourist mecca straddling the Imperial and Coachella Valleys that has succumbed to environmental decay.
He started visiting often and even bought a house in Bombay Beach, a speck of a town on the eastern shore.
“This idea of Bombay Beach Biennale popped in my head because rather than play up the sadness of the place,” he said, “I thought it would be more interesting to play on the surrealness of the place.”
Men in yellow bikini briefs tended a bar at the Bombay Beach Club. Credit James Frank
He added, “It’s such a mixture of contradictions, of natural and unnatural, of beautiful and ugly.”
Mr. Ruspoli partnered with two friends, Stefan Ashkenazy, an art lover and hotelier, and Lily Johnson White, a philanthropist and member of the Johnson & Johnson family.
Last year, the trio self-funded the inaugural festival, under the theme “Decay,” and invited artists, philosophers, writers and other assorted merrymakers from their network of friends to join. It was a hit.
But rather than simply clear out once the fun was over, the festival has aimed to reinvent some of the abandoned buildings in town as permanent art spaces.
Artists explored the surreal setting of the decaying Salton Sea. Credit Laura Austin
“The ethos is to be playful but also leave a lasting impact to the town,” Mr. Ruspoli said.
For this year’s biennale — redefining the word, meaning every other year, is all part of the contrarian spirit — more than 100 artists and performers were invited to interpret the theme “The Way the Future Used to Be.” (Attendance wasn’t tracked, but it was in the hundreds rather than thousands.)
Carmiel Banasky, a Los Angeles writer who visited the festival for an article in LA Weekly, set the scene:
My first stop at the fest was a Mad Hatter-esque tea party, where cake pops (made by a local family), joints and edibles were passed around while fairy women made bondage art in the branches. Along the beach was a lifeguard stand turned into a psychedelic space station. Colorful smoke bombs set off at sunset through large sea creature cut-outs asked us to remember where we were, while the outdoor bar next door (tended by men in yellow bikini briefs) asked us to forget it.
An art installation on the sand at Bombay Beach. Credit Jennifer Wiley