Notes from the Desert

1.  I took an overnight trip to Nevada with my brother about two weeks ago.  I was a city dweller in need of a desert fix, an injection of sand, a shower of still air.  My brother had never been to the desert.  So, I picked a spot about six hours by car from San Francisco—a small town that nobody makes a destination of: Hawthorne, Nevada.

2.  To travel to Hawthorne in the winter, when the road through Yosemite is closed, one drives through Reno.  Thankfully, I had a reason to be in Reno: to see two exhibitions at the Nevada Museum of Art.  Even aside from the museum, the city is something fun to pass through, like running one's fingers through a faux fur coat in a thrift shop.  (You know that fur coat has been to Burning Man and back).  The casinos of Reno present a sonic glitter and sensory spectacle at great contrast to the outlying desert.

3. The first exhibition I saw at the museum was Landscape Futures, guest-curated by Geoff Manaugh.  (Hurry to get out there, it closes Feb. 12th)  This room, packed with objects, contraptions, drawings, and dreams at all scales, reminds me of Borges' citation of "a certain Chinese encyclopedia" in which animals are categorized: "a. those that belong to the Emperor, b. embalmed ones, c. those that are trained, .... h. those included in the present classification, i. those that tremble as if they were mad, j. innumerable ones, k. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush... " and so on.    How is it that all these things exist in a single space? We could say it is testament to the imaginative power of the curator, which is no doubt true.  It is also compelling to look at the atmosphere which allows these things to exist together.

One must hold in suspense a certain scale, say 1:48, when looking at mountains of vegetation and models of drone/ferret hybrids scurrying about.  Swelling to fill a two-story volume immediately adjacent is a Goldbergian machine without scale, standing in for some planetary hydrological system consisting of wind sails, pumps, and a simulator for the moon's gravitational pull on the earth.  On a wall nearby, large images of London and New York are shown as living museums in a world not much more absurd than the one we know.  Then, glossy faceted objects painted in bright colors - things made at a 1:1 scale - are to be worn by human beings in order to experience the sensory kaleidoscope of an ant.  We don't get to try them on, but that's part of the point.

What holds all of these things together is the visitor's willingness to go one step further than the separation already exercised from the city to the museum (the city itself a separation we unconsciously make from the landscape).  If not in a desert, and then if not in a city, and then if not in the building which we call the museum... what is the space of the exhibition but a fictional world swirling inside of my head.  Landscape Futures says to me: Why not imagine all landscapes as infinitely malleable.

4.  The other show at the Nevada Museum of Art is The Altered Landscape, a selection of photography which in a broad swath,  "examine(s) human interaction and intervention with environments".  My brother, on our drive out of Reno, made it clear to me the value of having just witnessed all of these photographs of massive-scale interventions in the landscape--rock quarries, gold mines, river deltas, and Christo.  We were flying past some gravel yard on the I-80 and it was though we were seeing these trucks and mounds of rock as alien interventions.  Who is it that makes piles out of earth, who carves terraces out of mountains and yet, as large as these interventions may seem, how small they are, and how unchanging the earth is.  So, the opposite is also true: when viewed at a large enough scale, a landscape is immutable.

5.  The museum was our threshold to the desert, the vestibule which permitted a shift in atmosphere as we left behind the anthropocentric city.  I gained a new appreciation for the museum as a perceptual acclimatizer, just as it is necessary to physically acclimatize in order occupy the desert (warm clothes for the winter, drinking water, chapstick, etc)  The museum enabled us to see on another level, which, in turn, I am always translating to the world of sound.  What kind of space in a museum might permit an acoustic threshold.  Further, how might we hear in the small space of a gallery a sound at the grand scale of the desert.

6.  Over halfway to Hawthorne, we pulled off the road to eat a lunch of Manchego cheese, salted almonds, and olives.  Foods from some far off, verdant land, preserved by salt.  What a luxury to eat salty things in the desert, for we could quest our thirst with the greatest ease with the water we drove in with.  In that case it wasn't a true desert.  Each town which offered us human comforts negated the desert.  Even the road itself, while beautiful in its simplicity, negates the desert.  It is the string which reminds us we are still tethered to the city.

7.  A lake stretched out below us, its blues shifting into greens superimposed by the reflection of yellow hills on the far shore.  Hundreds of small white objects appeared to float motionless in the lake.  As we scrambled down the rocks, I could see these were not inanimate objects but rather birds, probably Loons.  Here and there, the birds ducked down to get something in the water.  They were a long distance off, probably a quarter-mile away.  And yet, when we stopped rummaging through the bag of almonds and sat silent, you could hear each of the birds make their tiny moves in the water.  The astounding thing was this: the landscape was so massive, and here were these tiny sounds that were almost negligible yet still audible. There would be no way to hear them at that distance if not for the stillness of the air.

8.  T.E. Lawrence said he liked the desert because it was clean.

9.  The United States Navy also liked the desert because it was clean.  In 1930, by order of Congress, a new ammunition depot was opened which would later service the war in the Pacific.  And so Hawthorne, Nevada--our destination--became a bunker city.  There are over 2,400 bunkers containing 600,000 square feet of storage for weapons, bombs, and other such not-so-clean things.  Curiously, the Wikipedia article linked to above lists as "capabilities of the center" both "demilitarization" and "ammunition renovation".

But that's par for the course when it comes to the history of the military and the desert.  The apparent 'cleanliness' of the desert has always provided an excuse to drop bombs and test missiles.  I have witnessed this elsewhere--for example, at White Sands, New Mexico.  The desert does not demonstrate the same malleability when it comes to demilitarizing.

Hawthorne Army Depot via Google Maps

10.  I had recently finished reading Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a conversation with the artist Robert Irwin.  He describes visits to the desert outside Los Angeles as incredible sensory experiences that he wished to share with others.  But to intervene in the desert, to add something (or subtract something ala Michael Heizer) so as to signify "PAY ATTENTION" would be pointless.  Whatever it would be, even something as simple as a painted rock or an arrow, would be mistaken for part of the experience itself.  The experience of the desert is already complete.