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Context - Greetings from the Salton Sea


Artist Kim Stringfellow explains the history behind her interest in the Salton Sea.

My first visit to the Salton Sea was in 1995. I went to visit a former professor who was spending the winter months in Slab City, the R.V. squat near the eastern shore of the Sea. After several visits and heightened interest, I began my research into the area's conditions and started to photograph the site. During explorations of abandoned motels and other desolate places I collected artifacts - organic objects, human refuse, carcasses of dead fish - all worn beautifully by harsh, desert elements. These objects became powerful icons of place, which I photographed and arranged in both a virtual and physical installation. I titled this body of work, Greetings from the Salton Sea.

The human refuse, the detritus of human occupation, suggest memories and stories of former lives, relics of spaces no longer occupied. The stark, sun-bleached shore debris, fragments of diseased animals convey a sublime and fragile beauty amid chaos. When viewing the images of dead Tilapia, (an introduced non-native fish species at the Sea), you begin to notice the individual qualities of each creature. Frozen in their death-throes, they seem to mirror us, connecting us with other organisms, allowing us to contemplate our own existence. Contained within a vitrine structure, the rubbish collected from the local golf course leads the viewer to examine leisure class values and suggests the absurdity of greenbelt development in a harsh desert landscape. Debris left by transient laborers lead us to consider the silent trail of migrant traffic continually crossing the border day and night.

As a humanly altered landscape, the Salton has gained little sympathy from environmentalists; many consider it a man-made system unworthy of any focused remediation effort. Unfortunately this mind set fails to take into account the role of the Sea as a major stopover destination and temporary residence for many threatened and endangered avian species traveling along the Pacific Flyway, 97% of inland wetlands in California have been lost to human development. The Sea in a sense is a poster child for the artificial/natural debate, a contemporary and divisive topic for ecosystem management today.

As a largely misunderstood environmental asset, the Salton Sea represents and suggests the impending future for animal and plant life dependent on undesirable land and waste water cast off by humans. Because animals cannot distinguish between "natural" and "unnatural" habitat, it is safe to say that as human populations grow and pristine wilderness areas continue to diminish, flora and fauna will be increasingly dependent on areas like the Salton Sea.

Even if we manage to change the bleak future of the Salton and other areas sharing a similiar fate, will we be able to share the land and its resources with wildlife or will we again force out non-human occupants because real estate is more valuable than life?

As we persist with development in the southwestern desert beyond its sustainable capacity, we should be mindful of the Salton's legacy and look to it as a portent of our imminent future if we continue our reckless conquests in these arid landscapes.

© 2010