Tears are made of salt water. Grief is love. Whatever I have come to know as love and grief, I have learned from Great Salt Lake.
-Terry Tempest Williams
The fate of Great Salt Lake is hardly more than a footnote in the longer story of how immigrant (some would say white) developers, engineers, and politicians have dammed rivers and flooded much of America, even as they drained swamps and wetlands, in either case destroying the homes where uncounted millions of people and animals had lived for thousands of years. It seems as though wherever water was located, it was generally found to be in the wrong place. Most of those projects, of course, ultimately failed, and today dams are being dismantled even as efforts are made to save disappearing bodies of water, including the entire Great Salt Lake system.
The struggle to save Great Salt Lake goes forward amidst the worst climate crisis and drought in history. Many thoughtful individuals today question what the future holds, or even if there will be a future for us and our children. Those asking the question include a significant number of artists, who have to contend with the thought that even if humanity survives, civilization—including the arts—might not. In the face of such an existential threat, some artists have stripped down for a fight and prepared to do battle for life: their lives and the life of art. Take, for example, Modern West’s exhibition, Lake Effect, including Tom Judd’s “Avocet,” a figure of a wading, shallow-water bird that in the past, like other birds that include the frequently seen seagull, has “bet the nest,” so to speak, on Great Salt Lake as a vital extension of its coastal range. There isn’t space in this review for a lengthy discussion of the predicament of the lake, but Judd has encoded much in the succinct form of images, which he has further compressed by not wasting time or energy on surface polish, but allowing haste to convey his feeling of urgency.
In “Standing in the Lake,” Judd uses paint to patch together antique photos of the land and five persons, perhaps members of a family, wading in a lake while wearing attire of a more modest era: a time when the Lake may have been an attractive place to bathe. Among them, placed to appear to be in the foreground, he’s attached a hose bib. This very real faucet, projecting from the fictitious scene into the viewer’s real world, is the sort used to water a lawn or wash a car. It wouldn’t be right to argue that such domestic uses alone are sufficient to account for the drying out of the lake, but a lot of people believe they symbolize the heedless notion that enough water flows down from the Wasatch snowfields for it to be diverted for any and every purpose of a growing population. Judd nails his idea in another mixed media collage, titled “This is the Place,” where he moves the monument celebrating the spot where settlers first beheld the lake down to the lake’s shore. He might have renamed it This is the Point.
It’s more than appropriate to choose the avocet, along with the other birds Judd paints, to convey the death of an ecosystem like Great Salt Lake. After all, such animals visit the lake more regularly than we, and depend on it far more. Birds have survived since they were dinosaurs by adapting and yielding, skills that may not save them now that humans have overtaken their once-remote, migratory stopover. Terry Tempest Williams celebrates living nature daily, but often lets her writing and photography speak for her. She did agree to join the Modern West artists included in Lake Effect, and contributed a video that proved almost impossible for some to watch. In fact, it raises the question whether she stopped when she felt she’s made her point, or when her strength to go on filming was exhausted. What she did was walk, in the winter of 2023, along a stretch of the Lake’s edge, carrying a video camera with which she filmed some 496 dead eared grebes she passed in a scant quarter mile—she says she saw more—while her feet at the bottom of the frame rhythmically counted her steps as she trod among them. At least two million grebes, she tells us, come to the lake each year, a major stopover on many birds’ migratory routes between the poles. Here the eared grebes molt—an annual event that leaves them largely defenseless against predators, weather, and other challenges. Each also eats between twenty-five and thirty thousand brine shrimp a day, competing with a local industry that contributes 65 million dollars a year to Utah’s economy. But in the winter of 2023, a year of record low water levels, the supply of shrimp may have failed the eared grebes: how else account for such carnage in an otherwise warm and mild year?
Everywhere at Modern West, meanwhile, there is evidence of the impact on the artists of Great Salt Lake’s crisis, which continues in spite of the illusion of salvation that followed one year in which some “extra” water was found and a seemingly inevitable, even greater emergency was avoided. The sea wrack shown by Eric Overton in his “Great Salt Lake (Antelope Island) #1,” can’t quite distract a viewer from noticing that the land seems to extend all the way out to the former island. Overton’s fundamental use of the ambrotype process, which predates the settlers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, urges viewers to make a mental connection between the way the West looks in photographs from that time and how it looks today, its natural beauty in the former often replaced by the despoliation and negligence of human actors since then.
Diane Tuft’s title, “Entropy,” employs a compound term that means several things, none of them positive. Fundamentally, the physicists’s term measures energy not available for doing work. It also often labels a system running down. So in her photo, entropy metaphorically refers to the falling off of Great Salt Lake’s water table, while in general it refers back further, to the surplus heat produced by fossil fuels—heat that can neither be used nor disposed of. In her photograph, Tuft relates all this to the textured floor of the lake as the recently extreme process of evaporation reveals it.
The English City of Bath, where Al Denyer was born, was also invaded by city dwellers from the east, with the ironic difference that its ruins were left by the Roman invaders, rather than the indigenous inhabitants they only briefly displaced. That encounter with the magnetic effect of water on humanity may have had nothing to do with Denyer’s focus on the world’s watersheds, in which paintings she celebrates the influence of water as it shapes, and allows others to further shape, the Earth’s surface. In her latest paintings, though, she replaces the effects of water on land with memorable portraits of how that water itself looks. In three paintings, all titled “Surface Area,” the colorless liquid, given to picking up hues by reflecting and refracting light that strikes or passes through it, takes on colors associated with passions, or the passing away of the day: red, violet, and black.
Along with fresh subject matter, Contemporary art employs innovative techniques. Perhaps the most intimately appropriate examples here come from Alexandra Fuller, whose “Dissolution” series of photographs are salt prints, images that bloom and spread into the paper, which, having been saturated with water and salt, is then dried, even as the lake they depict may one day soon become desiccated, leaving only a photograph, a painting, or some other relic separated and irreconcilably disconnected from its historical identity.
Lake Effect, Modern West Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Mar. 2