A Land Art Project Materializes By Owens Lake

Owens Lake Land Art
Plaza shade structure constructed for the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1). | Photo: Christopher Langley.

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles on Perry Cardoza's land art project in the Owens Valley, read the first article here.

“If landscape as an entity does not exist -- if it is in all cases a mental construct -- then these earthworks are, among other things, the means of re-presenting a particular place. The appearance of that place becomes a part of the content of the work, whether in photographs or in reality, and whether the artists intend it fully, partially, or not at all.”
-- Elizabeth C. Baker,  “Artworks on the Land” in "Art In the Land: A Critical Anthology of Environmental Art," edited by Alan Sonfist

"My first impression was as if I just landed on Mars," landscape architect Perry Cardoza says of the first time he visited Owens Lake, the large dry desert lake that Los Angeles Department of Water and Power drained by the 1920s via the L.A. Aqueduct, precipitating the "Owens Valley Water Wars." Cardoza continues, "The scale of the playa, the smells, the exposure, the lack of plant material and shade... I could go on and on." Eventually he came up with a two-part land art installation made up of a central plaza, and surrounding paths and roads called Owens Lake Trails.

I spent an early fall morning with Cardoza as he worked with the contractors on tweaking the realization of his complex designs on the alien, and severely altered landscape of this dwindling Pleistocene lake in the Upper Mojave desert. The sink of the lake lies in the slowly sinking Owens Valley floor, geologically called a graben. On either side, the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains rise to create what many have called the "deepest valley." Cardoza had been awarded the large task of creating an installation on this lake. He goes on, "After spending some time on the playa, I started to imagine 'what if?' I have to say having clients that allow design to flow naturally and to have an open mind on how we interpreted dust mitigation and habitat creation was astonishing."

Owens Lake trails designed as part of the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1). | Photo: Christopher Langley.

Before this land art and bird habitat installation could be, there was the Owens Lake Master Plan Committee, a group of user groups and stakeholders that included LADWP, State Land Commission, Inyo County, and various environmental groups that met regularly at the lake and in Bishop, California. It was like a crash course in everything Owens Lake with the goal of creating a plan to address the many challenges the lake presents and the California Supreme Court had ordered be addressed.

Then the DWP withdrew and everyone that had worked so hard wondered if DWP was actually going to walk away. Later Los Angeles announced its own Owens Lake Master Project in a 32-page proposal. Much of the work of the preexisting committee was incorporated and although much had to be fleshed out, many of the previous participants were cautiously optimistic. The goals were specifically laid out: control dust; protect, create and enhance habitat; protect cultural resources; promote area-wide economic development; renewable energy exploration; create a flexible adaptive management plan; and reduce total lake-wide water use. The report included two pages of "Public Use Studies" with the NUVIS Landscape Architecture logo at the bottom. Even then, the installation was in the development stage.

Kiosk constructed for the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1). | Photo: Christopher Langley.

Other aesthetic documentation in the paper included "Colors of the playa," "Species Guilds" (the birds) and "Preferred Habitat Conditions" for the six identified bird guilds. There were also four waterless dust control methods named: brine, gravel cover, non-uniform meandering ridges; and tillage. Many of the pieces of the final art land project were already identified there.

Cardoza and his team planned for their relatively small part of the entire lake project and drew from various sources of inspiration: "Our NUVIS team had an abundance of inspiration," he said. "From nature. we looked at how the wave patterns were left behind in the sand and how we could incorporate this into our design. We considered looking at the interesting forms we saw when looking at the salt crystals and salt grass under a microscope. We considered colors from the playa, and the local bird life."

Both the birds and historical perspective were used in developing the project. "The snowy plover is a key inspiration for our design," he said. The birds are especially present in the plaza and shade areas at the center of the project. "Historical photographs and images helped shape our concept as well as the Native American culture in the valley." Several locations were considered. The lake had been broken into several sections with unique challenges and solutions. Finally the area called T30-1 was chosen.

Concept drawing of the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1) for CDMSmith/LADWP.

"In my opinion T30-1's location was perfect for providing a variety of dust mitigation measures," Cardoza explained. "The blend of good soil conditions, topography, and water allowed us to be creative in how we met the habitat and dust mitigation requirements needed to satisfy LADWP."

The presentation documents show the central attraction. It is what has been named "the plaza." "The shade structure at the plaza is meant to be large in scale," Cardoza said, "the purpose is to provide a reference point to visitors, a landmark of sorts." Cardoza uses the palette of natural colors that occur in the mineral planar surface of both the lake and the hills and mountains that frame it. Using these colors in various ways is significant to his vision. The selection of Corten steel, he said, was important for its variation in color as it changes over time. The patterns that were cut out of the Corten shade structure came from a photograph he had of birds flying from the playa after being startled. This image was then cut into the Corten so that it would cast a shadow of the bird silhouettes on the concrete below.

"The gently sloping stone columns that hold up the shade structure came from the image we had of the snowy plover in flight with its curved wing," Cardoza said. "The primitive design for the interpretive base features came from the Native American art influences we found in the valley."

Cardoza wanted to only use local materials, but he struggled to find boulders of just the right color to match the project, so he ended up visiting a quarry in Riverside. "It was important to the design to show a variety of colors in the large rocks that we just couldn't find in the local quarry. When a person is experiencing T30-1, one can't help to be in awe in the majesty of the surrounding Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountain ranges. The incredible colors of the surrounding mountains needed to be experienced in the plaza and the trails. The colors came out perfect."

Detail of the plaza roof constructed for the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1). | Photo: Christopher Langley.

Cardoza has several aspects to his vision for this giant piece. He says he wants the visitor or spectator to be made aware of the context in which the lake formed, and that is necessary for his artwork as well. "Five directional concrete bands point to important peaks in the distance," he said. "Both the name of the peak and elevation are blasted into the concrete." Cardoza is very convinced that landscape architects and artists have much in common when it comes to land as a medium. But the challenge was to develop a solution that met his team's dust mitigation goals. Their solutions could not only be based on artistic expression, he said, but it also must create habitat, reduce water use and provide cover over airborne particulates.

Shadows produced from the petroglyph cut outs of the plaza roof. | Photo: Christopher Langley.

Yet, not everyone may fully appreciate that this is a piece of land art. In his article "Some Attitudes of Earth Art: From Competition to Adoration," Mark Rosenthal categorizes five forms of land art. He describes them as "gestures in the land;" "enclosures in the landscape;" "modest gestures in the landscape;" "nature for itself;" and "idealized landscape." Arguably this project falls into one or even more of these descriptors. Jeffrey Deitch in "The New Economics of Environmental Art" comments on the organizational nature of land art as opposed to the individual nature of much art:

"In an age of organization some of the most interesting vanguard artists have chosen to build their own organizations in order to structure a meaningful interaction with the environment. One of the most significant differences between early modern and the contemporary manifestations of environmental art is the shift in the economic basis of the work, a shift that begins to parallel the evolution of small proprietorships into complex corporations... An organizational rather than an individual approach has made possible many of the past decade's more significant artistic interactions with the natural environment." Cardoza's plaza would not have happened without the State Lands Commission, the Court, environmental groups' lobbying and the Owens Lake plan itself being forged. Lest we forget the Los Angeles ratepayers have brought the money to the table.

Photo: Christopher Langley.

Arts writer and editor Elizabeth C. Baker adds to the point why I think we should see the plaza and Owens Lake Trails as primarily a land artwork. She writes about Robert Smithson's use of desert land and water: "It could be argued that for 'Spiral Jetty' and 'Amarillo Ramp' the surface of the water provides the planar surface on which he makes a graphic statement -- a surface akin to flat desert -- but water's complicated reflectiveness is typically Smithsonian. And finally, it is well known that Smithson had a propensity for 'distressed' land areas rather than unsullied virgin land."

As I drove and walked the many trails and roads of Cardoza's site, I saw many patterns of rock that elicited in me a meditative and peaceful state of mind. I kept thinking about the little I know of Zen practice. Famous Japanese culture interpreter to the west, Donald Richie writes, "It is an extraordinary vision -- a stone garden is a contradiction in terms. But this is because it is a vision, and it demands attention." Of all the Japanese garden styles, the dry landscape garden is undoubtedly the most widely known. Research says this style traces its genealogy back to the Heian period (794-1185). It is a symbolic representation of mountains and water using rocks, sand, gravel and moss. Cardoza's installation somewhat mirrors the 11th century Sakuteiki (a record of garden making) karasenzui, which translates as "withered mountains and water."

Single rock and patterns punctuate the design of the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1). | Photo: Christopher Langley.

Cardoza worked in Japan for several years, which indeed influenced the way he designed this space. "The three years I lived in Japan most certainly opened my eyes to the art of garden design," he said. "I was able to experience first-hand the power of meditative landscapes. I feel that this space has the opportunity to become a meditative oasis, all one has to do is look around to the distant mountains, experience the dramatic ever-changing cloud formations to be at peace. I would have to say my inspiration came from patterns I noticed from the adjacent sand dunes. The poetic wave patterns that are created by the wind almost look karesansui."

Photo: Christopher Langley.

I have visited the plaza many times now as it is taking shape. I find it both a tantalizing and seductive landscape, one that always is somewhat new, yet something that is actively ancient in stance. It is a truly unique conundrum of a piece of landscape architecture for a dry desert lake. Now this altered landscape can have whitecaps again, those which were once embedded in this desert lake, but now stand in iconic memorial thanks to Cardoza's artistic vision.

"My hope is that visitors will feel the emotion of this magical place and experience the whitecap land sculptures floating across the land and ponds. Simple in form but memorable of what once was Owens Lake."

Photo: Christopher Langley.
Conceptual drawing showing a montage of features planned for the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1).

Top image by Christopher Langley.

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