Favorite Installation Artists

Monday, June 22, 2009


No one, traveling east from the Sierra Nevada, can be a stranger to Interstate 80, especially that section between Nevada and Utah. The intense brightness of the Great Salt Lake, spreading in all directions to the horizon, will make you reach for your sunglasses, until you realize that you are already wearing them. The western entrance to this salty wilderness takes you past the Bonneville Salt Flats, a raceway named for the huge and ancient Lake Bonneville that in the time of the mammoths, covered most of the Great Salt Basin. Although fed by several watercourses, this is a terminal lake, regulated only by evaporation. And evaporate it does, at a rate of 3 million acre/feet annually. That is a lot of salt by any standard.

Ambling along in my RV at a sedate 55 mph, past the track where world land records are set at speeds exceeding 600 mph, I was trying to maintain some enthusiasm for the coming 115 miles, a trip I've made dozens of times. Thoughts of "if you've seen one Great Salt Lake, you've seen 'em all" were hard to suppress, knowing full well there is just the one.

It was in this state of mind that I noticed in the far distance something not white in a world beyond white. Once again, here was the strange object that I had first encountered years ago and passed many times, rising up from an otherwise featureless landscape. This giant pillar has what appear to be alien eyeballs stuck up on it, one of which, by design, has fallen to crack apart in pieces that lay scattered below. A few passersby were stepping in and out of the shapes, trying by some tactile sense to understand what imagination failed to register. This time, I stopped.

Called "Metaphor: The Tree of Utah" or simply, "The Tree of Life", this monument pays tribute to times when life was lost. Near here, the harsh environment fatally delayed the Donner Party. In the last century, the crew of the Enola Gay practiced for a mission that would take them to Hiroshima and another blinding brightness we hope never to see again. But the sculpture shrugs off tragedy to end on a positive note, for on it's base is inscribed an "Ode to Joy", the uplifting closing to Beethoven's 9'th Symphony. Life is triumphant.

I get that. And, I'm mightily impressed. But for my life to triumph, there would be more than 75 searing miles to go and I would rather think about something other than the Donner Party when I did it. And so, humming Ode to Joy, I soon neared a manufacturing facility out on the salt.

Pioneers used to drive a team of horses out here, load up what they needed and be on their way. Four barrels of salty sand, boiled down, equaled one barrel of usable salt. In a trade, that was as good as money. Small companies competed for business but in the end, Morton Salt dominated the industry. In 1914, a simple idea for ease of use caused a consumer revolution. A cylindrical cardboard container was designed and a spout added. Into this new packaging went salt with an anti caking agent. A blue label with a picture of a little girl under an umbrella and a new slogan taken from a proverb, "it never rains, but it pours", completed the transformation. An American icon was born.

Later, Morton would add iodine to help prevent goiters, a common ailment that has largely disappeared. Still later, men using shovels were replaced by powerful tractors with huge scoops and the term "Hootin Nannys" entered our common lexicon. Morton Salt maintains over 15,000 acres of evaporation ponds, distributing salt for human and animal consumption and for diverse purposes from water softeners to deicing. I like Morton Salt. They have donated thousands of acres to The Nature Conservancy and I wanted them to know, if they ever read this, that I appreciated it. Thanks.

Within sight of Salt Lake City, I see my last stop. A tarnished reminder not of days gone by but just wishful thinking, Sal
tair III sits forlorn in a weedy patch just off the highway. It isn't the "real deal". More like the "real place". Called the "Cursed Resort", Saltair burned and was rebuilt twice. This third example was flooded for years when the water advanced, but now the Great Salt Lake has again receded along with people's tastes; there are newer, flashier entertainments to be had. Peeling turrets and doors shuttered and locked with rusty chains offer testament to the way the world and the lake have moved on.

But in 1893, the original and queenly Saltair reigned over the Great Salt Lake offering swimming, dancing, vaudeville, rodeos and even a midway. Huge staircases rose to the second level, pedestals held forests of ferns, and the clink of silver on china echoed through the dining rooms. Tuxedoed men squired their elegantly dressed, bejeweled and coiffed ladies around the rooms in a sea of silk. Pictures attest to a time when this grand old gal rivaled any Atlantic City resort. Saltair has now gone the way of those more elegant times, living not in memory any longer, but only as a curiousity in history books.

A lot can happen in 115 miles. Take my word for it. Or, take it with a grain of salt.

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