The drive from Salt Lake City to the Nevada border feels like a ride in a not-too-seaworthy sailboat. Long-haul rigs blast past me, leaving my rickety little four-door swaying in their wakes. The flat, briny waters of the Great Salt Lake reach south toward the highway, threatening to rise up and reclaim their ancient territory. Under the gray, early afternoon skies, the few ports-of-call look abandoned, and I nervously inspect my gas gauge.
Wendover, an urban island split by the state line, is my
temporary refuge from the storm. Brassy casinos poke up from the
Nevada side of town, overshadowing the more demure architecture
next door in Utah. Just a few blocks to the south, an abandoned Air
Force base reaches into the salt flats, its buildings
disintegrating into the sandpapery Great Basin wind.
follow the directions I found on the Internet: left at the Shell
station, over the railroad tracks, left at the first sign, right at
the second sign.
The directions end, and I’m inside
the old airbase, confronted by a row of anonymous barracks. I feel
like I’m about to get caught, though for what I have no idea.
Finally, I see a small metal sign near the door of one building.
I’ve found the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and
I’m ready for all the interpretation I can find.
The Center is self-service: I punch in the combination on the door
and push inside. Hospital-green paint peels from the walls, and the
desert light filters through dirty windows. It’s an odd
setting for a museum, but that’s exactly what this is.
Carefully labeled, neatly mounted photographs fill the
two long, white exhibit panels running down the room. There are
photos of the Bingham Pit in western Utah, the second-largest
open-pit copper mine in North America; the "Tree of Utah," an
87-foot-tall concrete tree on the interstate between Wendover and
the Great Salt Lake; the remains of the Black Rock Beach resort,
which once stood on the shores of the Great Salt Lake; and the
Topaz War Relocation Center, a Great Basin prison camp that held
90,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.
photographs have only two things in common: They were all taken
within a few hundred miles of this crumbling airbase, and the
scenes they depict are all part of what the Center for Land Use
Interpretation calls the "built landscape" of the Great Basin.
CLUI (rhymes with gooey) is based in Los Angeles, where
its small staff and extensive photo archive share a building with
the equally oddball Museum of Jurassic Technology. CLUI staffers
spend much of their time on the road, photographing and documenting
the large and small human transformations of the environment. They
run bus tours for people curious about military test ranges and
open-pit mines, and they invite artists to spend time in and around
Wendover. The artists-in-residence live in a trailer on the old
airbase; they photograph the region’s monuments and ruins,
create collages of sounds recorded in the desert, or build winged
sculptures that roll gently around the salt flats.
director and cofounder Matt Coolidge wants the Wendover museum,
built in 1995, to be the first in a network of "remote sites" run
by the center. "We’re trying to paint a national portrait,"
he says. "Like, how does one hazardous waste site compare to others
in the country? How many are there, and where are they? We think if
people can see a few more things, understand a few more things,
they’ll feel more involved in the world."
There’s a reason why the group chose the divided desert town
of Wendover for its first exhibit hall, he says. People often see
the stark peaks and valleys of the Great Basin as both ugly and
beautiful, at once a pristine wilderness and an industrial dumping
ground. It’s in such lonely, paradoxical territory that CLUI
most likes to operate.
"People say we’re more
interested in back space — rural space — than in urban
space," says Coolidge. "But really, everything is urban. Rural
areas are just urban areas diluted by space. They attract things
that would not be tolerated in a dense urban network."
would be easy to assume that CLUI is a group of citified artists,
eager to make dark fun of the Great Basin’s toxic
misfortunes. But Coolidge’s tone, and the tone of the exhibit
in Wendover, are almost perfectly serious. The museum does showcase
the Basin’s kookiness, its wanderers and its cranks, but it
also documents the region’s environmental and social
disasters. The photos of massive mines and incinerators and test
sites, crowded together in a single small building, help dissolve
the space that normally dilutes them, the space that makes each
acceptable to passing drivers. The museum’s attitude may be
cool and aloof, but the feelings it inspires are not. Here’s
the sum of what we’ve done to this place, these photos seem
to say. What do you think?
Later in the afternoon, I
drive out toward the Bonneville Speedway, where daredevil racecar
drivers regularly set land-speed records. The two-lane road to the
Speedway ends abruptly, a dark, rickety pier in the blinding salt
flat. If there’s an end to the built landscape, I think, this
must be it. This must be the border. But the car ahead of me
pauses, then bumps gently over the asphalt edge, disappearing into
a white storm of salt.