Cristopher Cichocki's art ponders the desert's ancient oceans and the slow death of the Salt

Environmental artist Cristopher Cichocki stands near the Anza Ditch in Salton City, Calif. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

When Cristopher Cichocki was a kid in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., he’d brave minus 70 degree wind-chill temperatures to explore nearby forests for natural material like sticks and leaves so he could make things out of them. When he moved to Southern California's Palm Desert at age 10, he found himself doing the same — only with plants that thrived in temperatures nearly 200 degrees hotter. For Cichocki, there were striking similarities between underwater life and the curious flora that continues to occupy the yawning swath of seemingly barren California desert. Cichocki's observation evolved into an investigation that formed the basis of his art practice, bringing him from the receding shorelines of the Salton Sea in his own backyard to Lancaster’s Museum of Art and History (MOAH), where the artist's latest solo show, "Divisions of Land and Sea," serves as a culmination of his exploration into the connectedness between earth and water.

After studying at CalArts and living in Los Angeles, Cichocki moved back to the desert in 2005. He currently resides in the Coachella Valley, where he often makes art out of found materials like old irrigation hosing, which he discovered at an abandoned citrus orchard in Indio Hills. That hosing appears at the museum as part of an evolving installation called “Sea Change (2016-2018).” The tumbleweed-like mass is perched atop a glittering wood-composite foundation. It is connected with a piping conduit to a living aloe vera plant, which is covered with marking paint and surrounded by sea salt, nestled in a found oil canister atop a palm stump. The work of art is meant to reference what Cichocki describes as "the surviving seeds of an ancient ocean," but the gnarled ball of irrigation hosing at the center could just as easily be symbolic of the snarled bureaucratic mess surrounding the Salton Sea itself, whose future remains as murky as its shrinking water supply.

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when water from the Colorado River flowed into a dry lake bed for two years following the breach of an irrigation canal. About a century later, the Salton Sea is shrinking. In 2003, California lawmakers implemented a 15-year plan to address the environmental concerns caused by the Salton Sea drying up. As the deadline passed, locals realized that more water was diverted from the lake’s source, the Colorado River, to surrounding communities, leaving the shores of the Salton Sea to recede further. It still is a public health hazard as toxic dust kicks up and asthma rates in Imperial County rise.

But the water in the Salton basin has been flooding and drying up repeatedly over the course of millennia, ever since the Cahuilla Native Americans first settled in the area roughly 10,000 years ago. In the 19th century alone, the Colorado River flooded the basin at least half a dozen times. It only threatened to become a problem in 1928, when Congress designated part of the Salton basin as a repository for agricultural wastewater.

"The issue with the Salton Sea is really the particulate matter that's coming from it, because it's surrounded by so much agriculture,” Cichocki explains. “When you have particulate matter, it's not just the sand that's blowing in the lot next door to you. It's literally going into your bloodstream and it's altering your DNA. It's inescapable from your body at that point.”

Installation photo, "Divisions of Land and Sea' by Cristopher Cichocki. (Lance Gerber Studio)