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BOMBAY BEACH: An installation of a crashed plane by artist Randy Polumbo at the Bombay Beach Biennale in California.—AFP
BOMBAY BEACH: An installation of a crashed plane by artist Randy Polumbo at the Bombay Beach Biennale in California.—AFP

BY any stretch of the imagination, Bombay Beach is an oddity, starting with its exotic name, its location by a dying lake and the post-apocalyptic landscape that greets visitors. The desert town, once a thriving resort set along the Salton Sea, is among the poorest communities in California, its 250 or so residents seemingly forgotten by the rest of the world. But the tiny hamlet is experiencing a rebirth of sorts as a group of artists and well-heeled sponsors have taken up residence, buying up dirt-cheap property and organising an annual three-day festival called the Bombay Beach Biennale.

Launched in 2016, the festival, which was held this weekend, is the brainchild of three Los Angeles-based friends — Tao Ruspoli, a film-maker and artist, Stefan Ashkenazy, an art collector and hotelier, and Lily Johnson White, a philanthropist and member of the Johnson & Johnson family. Ruspoli said he learned about the town about a decade ago after he stumbled on a book about the Salton Sea — the largest lake in California, created in 1905 by an engineering error and now shrinking — and was enthralled after a first visit. “It’s mystifying and wonderful and weird,” said Ruspoli, 43, who is the son of an Italian prince. “It’s so removed from the kind of homogeneity that exists in the rest of America where you have a Denny’s and a gas station at every corner,” he said.

Eccentric artworks — a dome made of discarded metal, an air­craft fuselage representing a fish, a slide made of twisted iron rods and two shipping containers in the form of a cross with the inside painted with religious figures representing “per­secuted scientists” — make up some of the pieces on display at this year’s festival. Much of the artwork made for the festival is gifted to the town afterwards, a welcome distraction for most of the locals as well as the increasing number of puzzled-looking tourists driving through. To avoid hordes of people descending on the town during the festival, the dates of the event are kept secret. Attendance is by invitation only. Ashk­enazy said the ultimate goal is for the artists and sponsors to help the town get back on its feet and recover some of its faded glory.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2019