Desert art: Bombay Beach Biennale and the revival of a forgotten town


In 2016, Stefan Ashkenazy and friends set up an annual, anti-biennale arts festival in the California desert, the Bombay Beach Biennale. Its ambitions soon grew into a project of permanent cultural regeneration, bringing life back to this abandoned town by the once-popular Salton Sea


Words by Anthea Gerrie

‘It’s not so much a festival as a permanent engagement,’ says Stefan Ashkenazy of the Bombay Beach Biennale (BBB), an event in the California desert attracting increasing attention, despite its location on the road to nowhere.

Actually, Highway 111 does lead somewhere — from the affluent resorts of Palm Springs to the Mexican border — but the desolate stretch along the shoreline of the dying Salton Sea, a mid-century playground once hyped as the state’s inland Riviera, has stood abandoned for 40 years.

‘[The town of] Bombay Beach was built to house 1000 and only 100 people remain,’ says Ashkenazy, co-founder of an annual festival in its fourth year and its chief underwriter. More than 100 temporary installations and events are gradually augmenting a permanent infrastructure of half a dozen new art- and performance-related venues, most of which he has funded, dedicated to regenerating joie de vivre in a last-chance community. The name is an ironic poke at Venice and other grand events to which the BBB — held over one mad, under-the-radar, spring weekend every year since 2016 — is an antithesis.

Stefan Ashkenazy, Bombay Beach Biennale founderStefan Ashkenazy, Bombay Beach Biennale co-founder. Credit: Sara Essex Bradley

Reasons to visit the ‘biennale’ are growing exponentially. Developed initially for the event, Bombay Beach now boasts a rudimentary art museum, a drive-in cinema seeking a permanent projectionist and an ‘opera house’ with a sprung stage where a prima ballerina performs annually. This year sees a pop-up hotel housing festival-goers more interested in sleeping inside a piece of art than in home comforts.

It’s an obvious project for Ashkenazy, a hotelier and collector; the walls of his Petit Ermitage hotel in West Hollywood are hung with Rauschenbergs, a de Kooning, a Miro. The Rauschenbergs he bought back from a sale of the assets of legendary hotels created by his father, Severyn, before he went bankrupt. Ashkenazy later turned to hotel-keeping himself. ‘My form of art is making space,’ he says of the small hotel once owned by his father. ‘For six years I had a tented version of [the hotel] at Burning Man,’ he explains. ‘I still have this whole space in trucks I can deploy anywhere.’

A bus belonging to artist Tao Ruspoli, who has a house in Bombay Beach, but parks this bus outside and sleeps in itA bus belonging to artist and biennale co-founder Tao Ruspoli, who has a house in Bombay Beach, but sleeps in this bus outside. Credit: Sara Essex Bradley

His original plan was to create an anti-establishment Bohemian camp somewhere in the Californian desert during Coachella ‘because I wanted to do something disruptive. It’s not the format in which I want to be fed my music — brought to you by Pepsi, with a wristband and the performers way over there — or to visit a museum and only have two minutes with a piece of art because there are too many people.’

Bombay Beach, 40 minutes from the Coachella site, was already in his mind. ‘A friend produced a film there in the 90s, and my then girlfriend set a zombie apocalypse movie there, so I had been hearing about this place on the Salton Sea, a beautiful place until the fish started dying off in the 1970s. I was looking for somewhere for people to commune with nature, but Bombay Beach sounded more like a place to commiserate.’ The lake, originally connected to the ocean, has been declining over several decades through an overload of salt which killed the fish and a storm which destroyed its marina; restoring the ecosystem and recreational potential of the water would cost billions.

The Last Resort hotel project, launching this year, comprises eight shipping containers, with each room decorated by a different artistThe Last Resort hotel project, launching this year, comprises eight shipping containers, with each room decorated by a different artist. Credit: Sara Essex Bradley

Another inspiration for the biennale was Banksy’s dystopic theme park in Weston-super-Mare, for which Ashkenazy worked on a pop-up hotel. He shelved the project but forged an alliance with sculptor and painter Greg Haberny, who worked with Banksy on Dismaland. It was a childhood friend, artist Tao Ruspoli, who introduced Ashkenazy to the real dystopian site in Bombay Beach where he had bought property himself. ‘Bombay had a spirit of resilience in the 100 people who decided to make it their home,’ says Ashkenazy, recalling his first visit. ‘Some remembered the glory days of the 50s when they had come with their parents — and believed this post-apocalyptic place could turn around.’

As the two discussed the town’s potential for renaissance, Ashkenazy bought the house which was to become Greg Haberny’s Hermitage Museum, a key biennale venue, for $8,000 (£6,185). ‘The front door was gone, the windows were broken, and restoration wouldn’t make sense for someone struggling to pay taxes on it,’ says Ashkenazy. ‘I bought it solely for Greg to create something, and although it required a good amount of money, the energy that went into it was from friends and friends of friends who volunteered their time.

The Hermitage Museum, a key biennale venue, was created out of a small house Ashkenazy bought for artist Greg Haberny, who now curates the museumThe Hermitage Museum, a key biennale venue, was created out of a small house Ashkenazy bought for artist and biennale co-founder Greg Haberny, who now curates the museum. Credit: Sara Essex Bradley

He was the first artist I reached out to and I invited him to do whatever he wanted.’ Ashkenazy turned his own energies to creating other festival components, including: a 1960s-style beach club complete with oyster bar; a drive-in, for which he personally sourced vintage cars as cinema seats; the Bombay Beach Opera House, a building he bought and handed over to British artist James Ostrer to repurpose as a performance space; the Bombay Beach Estates art park and, coming this year, a new hotel.

Haberny, who is passionate about his own curatorship of the Hermitage Museum, views Bombay Beach as ‘special, with a very peaceful, organic, salt-of-the-earth quality. I see it as full of life — when it rains, plants and flowers burst through everywhere — as well as what every artist looks for, truth. But it was so broken down, a community that doesn’t have much, people living in devastation. I had seen other communities, like Marfa, Texas, grow through art into something that gives people a little bit of hope. I wasn’t interested in creating an audacious Burning Man piece of crap, but in building an institution that gives back to the community, brings in high-end, contemporary art that people in far-out areas wouldn’t get a chance to see. My whole work process is about reincarnation.’

The Hermitage Museum, a key biennale venue, was created out of a small house Ashkenazy bought for artist Greg Haberny, who now curates the museumThe Hermitage Museum. Credit: Sara Essex Bradley

So far, local reaction has been positive, say Haberny and Ashkenazy, and Ostrer comments: ‘When we put on the first show at the Opera House many locals thanked me with tears in their eyes after watching live ballet and opera that close up for the first time. I have interacted with at least 75% of the residents and only ever had one piece of negative feedback — from a person who had moved to Bombay to get away from people.’

Haberny plans funded residencies for the Hermitage, where he lives several months a year, from next year on: ‘We’ll sell absolutely nothing, the work will be donated for a year — it’s about giving Bombay Beach the kind of museum you might see on the Lower East Side, downtown LA or London.’ For the moment he is headlining the shows but curating contributions from other artists.

Currentsee, a project by British artist and biennale contributor James OstrerCurrentsee, a project by British artist and biennale contributor James Ostrer

An outdoor movie theatre, The Bombay Beach Drive-In, despite its distressed mid-century looks, is another made from- scratch installation. ‘Everything is permanent — the screen, the burnt-out cars you can sit in — except the projector,’ says Ashkenazy. ‘It operates whenever anyone has the initiative; the idea is to become a gathering place for locals with a system that can be wheeled out and plugged in by someone living there year-round and a website to advertise what’s playing.’

The first festival ran in 2016 with no publicity: ‘We did it for 72 hours to see who would turn up.’ Since then, numbers have grown from a few dozen curious passersby to a few thousand people in 2018 who clocked the dates, which Ashkenazy keeps under wraps (to all except local residents). ‘It’s not fair to the town to turn it into a venue,’ he says, noting he is more interested in making Bombay Beach a permanent hub of artistic life with facilities for locals as well as visitors.

'Local residents have come to us, expressing their gratitude for the vision that we've brought and the way that we've engaged the community as friends and neighbors,' says Ashkenazy. 'At first we may have been looked upon as outsiders, but after many years of being homeowners and active participants in the community, there's less of a distinction between "us and them". We are getting closer to "we".'

Ostrer designed the Bombay Beach Opera House in 2017 for his friend, ballerina Maria Kochetkova, to perform in. It is decorated with thousands of flip-flops washed up on the beaches of LagosOstrer designed the Bombay Beach Opera House in 2017 for his friend, ballerina Maria Kochetkova, to perform in. It is decorated with thousands of flip-flops washed up on the beaches of Lagos

This year, to avoid overcrowding, the local authorities have enforced an attendee cap of 500 people. A ticketing system has subsequently been set up ensuring access is granted exclusively to Bombay Beach residents, artists, volunteers and donors — reflecting Ashkenazy’s commitment to the local community, and to artists, though the two groups are beginning to overlap.

Ashkenazy sees sculptor Randy Polumbo, who has exhibited at Burning Man and Art Basel, as a model contributor to BBB — within eight months of creating his first work in the town, he had bought a house and self-funded a permanent installation, Angler Grove, within the front room. It’s illuminated 24/7 to show off its mirror balls and other shiny components: ‘He has invested in the town, and so have other artists,’ says Ashkenazy.

Belgian artist Charlotte De Cock is creating a work for the biennale this year which addresses the decline of the Salton SeaBelgian artist Charlotte De Cock is creating a work for the biennale this year which addresses the decline of the Salton Sea. Credit: Sara Essex Bradley

Belgian artist Charlotte De Cock, whose work in progress Toxic Tango addresses the decline of the Salton Sea in paint, has moved full time to Bombay Beach, and the next foreigner to follow suit may be a Brit — if not Bella Freud, an early adopter who designed the BBB logo and other graphics, then perhaps Ostrer, who spends almost three months a year on site: ‘The only reason I don’t spend longer is that I don’t have citizenship; it’s an incredible place to work,’ he enthuses. ‘There’s nothing for sale; it’s art for art’s sake.’

Ostrer designed the Bombay Beach Opera House in 2017 for his friend Maria Kochetkova to perform in. ‘I have known her from the 10 years I spent painting sets for the English National Ballet and made a sprung stage for her to dance on.’ The building opens up to reveal Ostrer’s installation of thousands of flip-flops washed up on the beaches of Lagos.

Ashkenazy envisages other public buildings — ‘an aquarium, an observatory, a bakery’ — and this year architect Mark Mack, who creates and operates a disco every year, is building the town’s first plaza on one of five plots he has bought, illuminated with street lighting he designed.

The Last Resort Hotel under constructionThe Last Resort Hotel under construction. Credit: Sara Essex Bradley

The Last Resort hotel project, also launching this year, is a construction of eight shipping containers, each room decorated by a different artist. The infrastructure was designed by architect Thomaz Regatos, who has worked with Anish Kapoor and has a history of creating spaces for sitespecific art. His concept is to mound the containers randomly, suggesting the fictional wreck of one of the freight trains which trundle through nearby. ‘There was no brief, but I was excited by Stefan’s vision of bringing dignity and possibilities to Bombay Beach by changing the city through art,’ he says.

Ashkenazy’s grand vision is for it to be a ‘hotel de ville’ for surrounding outsider communities — the found-art sculpture yards of East Jesus and Salvation Mountain, the renegade off-grid community of Slab City — as well as Bombay Beach itself. A whim or a long-term commitment? ‘I don’t see a world where I would be able to stop myself putting energy into it,’ he insists. ‘Everything else in my life has to make a little bit of sense, but this doesn’t have to make any.

It’s purely for the joy of creating something, an exchange with people I care about, to engage with strangers who come through town and the people who live there.’ As Mack says: ‘At Burning Man it’s all about “don’t leave a trace”; at Bombay Beach it’s: “Do leave some positive trace behind.”’





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