“The desert, by virtue of disassociating us from a familiar environment, allows us the cognitive room to fantasize more freely.”
–William Fox, Playa Works
This essay arose from a conversation I had with Bill Fox, author of Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty, at the Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + the Environment in early July 2014. Reoccurring themes of Fox’s investigations examine how human cognition informs our understanding of the spaces we inhabit and the cultural construction of landscape.
Desert playas are considered to be the flattest naturally occurring geographic feature on Earth. These extreme environments, found at the lowest elevation of a closed or endorheic basin, were formed through the continuous layering of silts washed down from the surrounding elevations over millennia. Many trace the ancient lakes or marshes that dissipated some 8,000 years ago to after the last great pluvial period. Playas of the American Southwest are often referred to as dry lakes, alkali sinks or flats.
Playas are typically free of vegetation and all organic life other than microbial, or perhaps a few specialized insects. These expansive, oblate surfaces act as a blank slate where the majority of mammals including humans remain temporarily, if even at all.
Indeed, most early accounts of the first nonindigenous individuals crossing the great arid expanses of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts share foreboding tales of barrenness, desolation and death to those who dared to traverse them. In Playa Works Fox describes these spaces as “great isotropic landscapes” where the uninitiated, unaided by the absence of human-made landmarks or way-finding technology, may find themselves completely disoriented and utterly lost with no sense of direction, no matter which direction one turns. These particular environments do not offer an objective correlative to orient oneself, to navigate or accurately judge distance when confronted with their vast emptiness.
Summer monsoons driving flashlood events along with seasonal stream flows, naturally occurring springs or subsurface groundwater sources transform the physical surface of a playa, erasing any tracks, animal, human, motorized or otherwise, from one season to the next. This cycle of flooding and subsequent drying out of a playa’s surface yields a hard-packed nearly level topography where fine sediments containing clay, silt and sand are disbursed by thin layers of flowing water or from wind-driven wave activity occurring across standing water. As water evaporates from the surface, certain playas such as Death Valley’s Racetrack will erupt into an endless cracked pattern of desiccated clay polygonal fissures that occasionally allows plants and other biota to flourish at its periphery. These dynamic environments transform from wet to dry conditions within a matter of hours.
Where groundwater is present near the surface of a playa, mineral deposits and soluble alkali salts such as sodium carbonate and borax will precipitate to form ephemeral crusts that dissolve during consequent wetting. Some, such as the Bonneville Salt Flats at the border of northeastern Nevada and Utah, offer brilliant white surfaces where many land speed records have been broken. Playas, comprised of salt or otherwise, appeal aesthetically to artists, filmmakers, photographers and hot-rodders alike. Extensive surface mining of soluble mineral deposits, precipitated salts and brines occurs throughout the region—most notably at Searles and Bristol Dry lakes.
The playas of the Mojave Desert—Badwater Basin, Bicycle, Bristol, Cadiz, China, Coyote, Cuddeback, Dale, East and West Cronese, Death Valley’s Racetrack, El Mirage, Goldstone, Harper, Ivanpah, Jean, Koehn, Lucerne, Nelson, Owens, Rogers, Rosamond, Searles, Silurian, Silver, Soda, Superior, Troy and others—each offer unique physical features where an array of varied human activity and industry take place.
Prospectors and entrepreneurs began profiting from borax mined at Searles Lake during the 1870s and later at Furnace Creek in Death Valley beginning in the 1880s. From here, the famous “twenty mule teams” hauled processed borax 165 miles across the scorching desert to reach Mojave’s rail line. Over 20 million pounds of borax was mined, processed and hauled out of Death Valley between 1883 and 1889.
The military, of course, has had a long relationship with the regions’ playas—every military installation sited within the Mojave Desert either contains, or is located directly adjacent to one or more dry lakebeds where numerous experimental, testing and staging activities take place. These include the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Edwards Air Force Base, which surrounds both Rosamond and Rogers Dry Lakes. Here, the world’s largest compass rose etched onto the lakebed like some cryptic geoglyph communicating with the heavens from an earlier time. Others, such as the notorious Groom Lake (aka Area 51) located adjacent to the larger Nevada Test Site have engendered their own mythic identities.
Hollywood utilized the playas of the western Mojave early on for western, sci-fi and other movie locations being a stone’s throw from Los Angeles. Director John Ford chose Lucerne Valley’s Rabbit Springs Dry Lake as a location stand-in for an ambush scene shot in “Apache country” for his critically regarded 1938 film Stagecoach, starring a young John Wayne. Playas such as El Mirage near Adelanto continue to be a favorite location for filming car commercials, music videos and fashion editorial shoots that all seek a stark, minimal backdrop for their machines and models.
The appropriation of a playa for staging artist interventions and performative actions is known primarily through the works of the 1960s Earthworks artists. However, Swiss painter/kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely was the first artist to stage a site-specific artwork at a playa in the American Southwest. Study for an End of the World No. 2 (1962) was a self-destructing array of sculptural pieces comprised of mostly found detritus collected from a nearby Las Vegas landfill. The project was originally commissioned for NBC’s David Brinkley’s Journal as a news feature on Tinguely’s work for national television. Tinguely aptly chose Jean Dry Lake for the location of the event, about 55 miles south of Las Vegas. This well-publicized event was performed for an audience that included LIFE magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and other regional and national press entities. Brinkley commented in the program that it “was the biggest collection of reporters since they had the atomic bomb tests out here 15 years ago.”
Tinguely and his partner/assistant Niki de Saint Phalle—herself an budding art star known at the time for “painting” with a .22 rifle—actually assembled the “plastic bombs” necessary to blow up the sculptures in their Flamingo Hotel room located on the Strip. Tinguely built the sculptural elements over four days within the hotel/casino’s provided parking lot, specially cordoned off for him to work in privacy. The whole shebang was driven out to the playa in a motley caravan on March 21, 1962, set up on the lakebed in a ramshackle configuration with multiple cables and wires leading to the makeshift control booth. After a few unexpected delays, the entire piece was blown up in about an hour.
Tinguely’s intent was to illuminate and critique the materialistic excesses and absurdity of consumer culture through a playful spectacle—a precursor to the Situationist-inspired, 1980s art-machine destruction antics of Survival Research Laboratories or Burning Man exercises staged annually at another now well-known Nevadan playa located in the Great Basin’s Black Rock Desert. Tinguely seemed eager on taking a tongue-in-cheek poke at the Cold War politic that pervaded and at times quite literally invaded daily life of folks downwind of the Nevada Test Site.
In her 2012 essay Desert Ends, Emily Scott states that Tinguely’s Jean Lake project was “thoroughly infused with the military-technological” that combined the theatricality of Hollywood and the media savvy of a Madison Avenue advertising executive. She continues to remark that it was no coincidence that the performance was staged on a Nevada playa. Jean Dry Lake was a logical stand-in for Yucca Flat, the notorious staging ground for Cold War atomic weaponry testing—739 aboveground/underground atomic explosions were conducted in the early 1950s. “Jean Dry Lake operates in this piece as a double for Yucca Flat, a nearly identical-looking playa on the Nevada Test Site some ninety miles north that had served as ground zero for dozens of atomic tests, many of which were relayed to the public via the mass media and in elaborate propaganda campaigns by the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FDCA) throughout the 1950s.”
Six years later, Michael Heizer, accompanied by artists Nancy Holt and her husband Robert Smithson, traveled to Jean Dry Lake to excavate one of the earliest Earthworks—Rift 1, from the series known as Nine Nevada Depressions, described as “a project dispersed over 520 miles of the state that will occupy a coveted position in most origin stories of Land art in the American West.” The trio, equipped with shovels and a cheap point and shoot camera to record their efforts, set out to construct the zigzagging trench about a foot deep into the desiccated surface of the lakebed. In her essay, Scott imagines the artists coming across a bit of debris from Tinguely’s earlier intervention, tossing it aside without a thought—after all, the group had no knowledge of Tinguely’s well-documented performance staged here in the years prior, as the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Land Use Database states that this earthwork has been fully subsumed through passing seasonal deterioration.
Heizer continued to create numerous earthworks into the 1970s on dry lakebeds including two large-scale drawings at Coyote Dry Lake northeast of Barstow titled Black Dye and Powder Dispersal 1 and 2 (all 1968), consisting of powdery water-based pigment placed on the surface or ground that would eventually be dispersed into the air from wind or dissolve over time. Other works on Coyote Dry Lake include his 1969 Primitive Dye Paintings and another pair of excavation pieces using heavy earthmoving equipment titled Triple Landscape and Five Conic Displacements, which required the viewer to fly over in order to take in its monumental scale. Returning to Jean Dry Lake in 1970, he leased surface rights here from the Bureau of Land Management to orchestrate a series of circular drawing interventions by motorcycle riders he directed from a scaffold.
Dennis Oppenheim, Walter de Maria and other associated Land Arts practitioners additionally appropriated playas throughout California’s Mojave Desert for other artworks and actions. Walter De Maria’s Mile Long Drawing consisted of two parallel lines of white chalk about four inches wide and four yards apart, running the length stated in the title. This time Heizer assisted De Maria in the creation of this earthwork.
Oppenheim’s Whirlpool (Eye of the Storm) was staged in the summer of 1973 at El Mirage using two chartered airplanes, with the lead plane creating a spiraling trail of ephemeral liquid nitrogen smoke that was directed by Oppenheim via radio from ground. After building the vortex upon three separate aerial passings, the event was photographed from the second plane. The resulting action held its shape for several minutes and then dissipated. A photograph of a slightly askew image of a whirlpool drifting across the plain of the lakebed is the only documentation confirming that the action ever took place.
In October 1969, the “ground-breaking” exhibit Earthworks organized by Robert Smithson opened in NYC at Dwan Gallery, featuring himself with Heizer, De Maria, Oppenheim and others.
More recently, artists such as Walter Cotten (1947-2008) have continued to investigate the Mojave’s playas as subject. Before his untimely death in 2008, Cotten, in partnership with the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) had embarked on a documentary photographic series called The Dry Lakes Project to record the physical surface of dry lakebeds with a specifically designed custom cart that he could move across the surface of the playa photographing the surface below him with a medium format camera. The series of images Cotten produced methodically mapped the surface of each dry lake he encountered, sometimes pictured as smooth, but more than often exhibiting polygonal fissures within the topography. His intent was to photographically document every accessible playa within the Mojave Desert region. Of course, many are located within publicly inaccessible military installations that require official clearance to visit.
Cotten’s daughter Siobhan Arnold, also a photographer and art educator like her father, interviewed the CLUI’s Matt Coolidge about the project for a 2013 ARID Journal essay. Coolidge stated, “It became clear that dry lakes were evocative proving grounds of the extremes of human achievement and failure, so we embarked on a long-term project to catalog and describe them all.” The collaborators were halfway through the project when Walter died suddenly of a heart attack in February 2008. Coolidge stated that he hopes to complete Cotten’s documentation at a later juncture.
Earlier in his career, Cotten had collaborated with Steven De Pinto in the 1980s, documenting military detritus and other industrial remains the two had found on the peripheral reaches of Southern California’s various defense installations—often along the border of a desolate bombing range or maneuver training ground. The two would construct on-site installations, arranging the collection of somewhat threatening but benign found objects in the desert, most often on a dry lakebed surface. They would in turn photograph the installation as some sort of mock-classified document. From what I gather, their installations were not dissimilar to (and most likely consciously referenced) the work of Tinguely some 20 years earlier. Referred to as Desert Test Sites, their body of work provided the inspiration for Andrea Zittel’s internationally regarded High Desert Test Sites (HDTS), as Ms. Zittel had earlier studied with Cotten as an undergraduate student at San Diego State University.
Brooklyn-based installation artist William Lamson’s 2010 A Line Describing the Sun resulted from an action where the artist followed the movement of the sun over an entire day, using a large Fresnel lens mounted on a nonmotorized rolling apparatus. Here he focused the intense desert sunlight to a 1,600-degree Fahrenheit point of light onto the surface of a dry lake, melting an arching line of molten mineral deposits and silica into a black glasslike substance. Lamson repeated a second “drawing,” completed at half the speed of the first performance, producing a 22 foot-long arc onto the lakebed that he later excavated and used as a sculptural element along with a 13:35 minute two-channel video documenting the action for an installation shown in NYC.
The performance and resulting artifact serves as alchemical gesture, marking the passage of time through human intervention within an extremely harsh but strikingly beautiful landscape. Lamson’s subdued presence is in quiet contrast to Tinguely’s and Heizer’s more heavy-handed posturing within a similar environment—all of which have or will be erased over time through the constant cycle of renewal occurring at their host dry lakes.
Suggested further reading: Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty, William Fox, University of Nevada Press, 2002.
To view the entire NBC David Brinkley’s Journal 1962 episode click here. Image of Jean Tinguely preparing Study for an End of the World No. 2 was photographed by Alan Grant for LIFE Magazine in 1962. The LIFE Picture Collection. © Getty Images 1999-2014. All rights reserved.