Above the steel stairway that connects the upper and lower galleries at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, for the duration of the current exhibition, a large monitor displays, in a continuous loop, recent satellite images of Great Salt Lake by UMOCA preparator Jeff Griffin. Watching the lake’s two unequal bays fill up and empty out over time, it may occur to a viewer that they resemble an X-ray of a pair of breathing lungs. To visualize air instead of water is a very suitable metaphor for some of water’s roles in our lives: at least half the oxygen produced on Earth comes from the oceans, bodies of water which are in mortal danger from the same climate change that threatens the lake, while the water in Great Salt Lake holds down pollutants that, if released into the atmosphere as airborne dust, would render Utah’s air mortally unsafe to breathe. Seen accurately, here in a single continuous image, is a clear statement of the perilous fact of our present moment.
Art used to be thought immortal. It may still be in some places, but Contemporary art characteristically cares more for Now: the present time. The best to be hoped is that, should it outlast the decisive moment that brought it into being, some new meaning will attach to it and keep it relevant. That may, of course, be just a more transparent vision of how traditional arts remained current, when it did. Was “Mona Lisa” the portrait of a beloved wife? The invention of a new way of painting? A memorial to a King’s dear friend? An object stolen to celebrate Italy’s part in the Renaissance? Or a symbol of France’s gratitude towards America? It turns out it was all those things, and more, at different times. So it may be that artworks exploring “drought, climate change, and the environmental crisis today through the lens of the Great Salt Lake”—the stated purpose of UMOCA’s As the Lake Fades—will fulfill their present purpose by helping to end this crisis, and then survive to find new meaning in a time to come.
At the entry to the main gallery, at the bottom of the stairs, a pair of paintings usher the visitor into As the Lake Fades. In and out, actually. On the way in, Alfred Lambourne’s 1883 oil landscape, “Cliffs of Promontory Great Salt Lake,” on loan from the Church History Museum, welcomes viewers and invites then to enter its European and Romantic-styled vision of Western America. Like his contemporary, Albert Bierstadt, whose works for the railroads’ newly-minted millionaires were meant to encourage tourism, Lambourne borrowed heavily from the likes of Caspar David Friedrich, but he also observed his subjects with a later, more scientific eye: note the clouds being created by compression of the winds as they rise over the distant mountains, then watch for the same effect in the real world.
On the way out—though nothing requires this order—Tom Judd’s “Saltaire,” collaged together in 2023, captures much of the messiness of our modern understanding of how memory works: each recollection recalled from the vault is a skeleton on which visual imagination hangs whatever it can, accuracy coming in second and yielding to utility. Everything in “Saltaire” was once real, yet the recollection remains as much a fiction.
Within the gallery, at least two works demonstrate on a smaller scale how art can still travel in time. Alisha Anderson’s video, “lacustrine,” intercuts a ritual—in which an altar is built on a dry lakebed using water, salt and feathers—with mechanized scenes of the salt industry and stunning shots of birds inhabiting a wetland. Throughout, the photography is precise and unerring, while the voice-over narration creates poetry out of factual observation: describing the evaporation of saltwater, the artist says, “the salt is invisible until the water burns away.” “Lacustrine” feels like nothing less than the perfect response to the emergency announced last year … but Anderson made it in 2016. Yes, the lake was dying then, too, but there were few in positions of power who would say so. Just six years later, she can rekindle her art, writing here that it “flows from the confluence of identity and earth and attempts to question (and reposition) how humans fit in this world.”
Likewise, Mary Toscano first presented her four incandescent visions of water, alternately penetrating and being captured by land, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, when talk about the weather was shunted aside by fear of being betrayed by our own bodies. Thus, “We live in the aftermath of one disaster while a new disaster unfolds around us,” the accompanying statement read. Two years later, both disasters can be named. The works are still, literally, “fictions,” or images of imaginary scenes, but now it’s possible to see how those stories are true over time in a way that local truths cannot equal.
Another way of disclosing the contrast between these two languages, images and speech, can be found in Sant Khalsa’s “Western Waters,” an ensemble of 60 photos of what the artist succinctly identifies as “retail water stores, selling reverse-osmosis purified water,” and goes on to label an “absurdity.” But wherein does the absurdity lie? Who among us has not bought a bottle of water, or even installed a purifying filter in our own home? Going further, who doesn’t pay a utility to deliver water through a pipe? As these mundane truths roll back, it comes clear that the sense of absurdity arises not from paying for water, but from the dissonance of seeing water on a commercial shelf, alongside manufactured products like toothpaste and t-shirts.
There’s nothing new about the absurdity of a society wherein the “right to life” ends with birth. In Anne-Katrin Spiess’s video, “Great Toxic Lake,” a figure in a hazmat suit tends a six-foot square lawn in the middle of the dry, toxic bed of a former lake. So much for the illusion that one can find, or create, a safe space on an increasingly hostile planet. Michael Handley’s “To Die Unsung,” its paint tinted by fire-retardants, resembles a choir of praying hands and recalls the obscenity of the phrase “our thoughts and prayers are with you”—sentiments cheapened by ceaseless repetition. What’s left in the place of neutered language is the image, like Handley’s “A Funnel is Not a Cone.” Here, rubber boots, a sartorial staple on lakes, have been left standing in pigment and water. As the water, essential to life, evaporated, what was still immersed grew darker, until the universal component, time, became visible.
Time also appears in Andrew S. Yang’s “A Record of Heedless History (Earth’s summer temperature variations, 1880-2023)” and, “A Space of Pivotal Possibility (Earth’s summer temperature variation, 2024-2167).” Instead of a gradual fade, in these works time is shown in discrete bands of data representing years. The contrast between those on the left, which document the increasing heat leading up to the present, and those on the right, data-less years of unknown climate yet to be, combines with the architecture of the room’s corner to create a dizzying animation as the viewer walks past.
Not unlike Yang’s division of past from future, only half of As the Lake Fades has been represented in this review. Like the future, the other half remains to be seen, in the gallery: substantial works inspired by an existential challenge to our lake, and a way of life that depends on it in ways we are only now beginning to fathom.
As the Lake Fades, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through June 1