[November 14 2018]
In 1943, JEAN PAUL SARTRE infamously declared that ‘God is Dead.’ But when WWII was brought to an end with a cataclysmic display of atomic force, and the hidden horrors of the previous years were revealed to the world via film and photograph, humanity’s need for higher meaning rebounded like a shockwave. As PAUL VIRILIO explained in Pure War (Semiotext(e),1983): “God has come back into history through the door of terror.”
And so it is in this dark post-war moral void that we can find the origin of a strange and unusual monument in the California High Desert. Created as a direct reaction to the hovering nuclear threat of the era, sculptor ANTONE MARTIN’s life-defining pacifist work Desert Christ Park was built solely by his own hand from 1951 to 1961 in the sweltering heat of the Yucca Valley.
No matter your religious affiliation or lack thereof, whether you regard Him as a myth, a legend or a 2000-year-old-conspiracy theory, finding Jesus in the desert is a head-trip. It was through a wrong turn somewhere on the road towards Twentynine Palms that I first encountered this bizarre convention of towering statues atop their Joshua-Tree-spiked hill, glowing stark white against a sunbeam-weeping cerulean blue sky. The Jesuses (yes there are a few of him) and his disciples who preach and pray seem modelled after museum marbles of Zeus and Poseidon, while the more contemporary supporting characters could be pasted in from a comic-strip frame. Alongside Greco-Roman pillared temples, the semi-Classical/semi-cartoon forms act out various scenes from the ‘Life of Christ’ in their desolate and very appropriately biblical landscape.
The whole thing might seem kitsch today, but it was built to embody a serious message. Artist MARTIN had been an aerospace designer, (who created extinct creatures like dinosaurs and sabre-tooth tigers on the side), and he knew his materials. A scientist friend had told him that reinforced concrete would be the only thing to withstand an A-Bomb. So he devised a method of sculpting figures with wet cement layered over steel rebar, coated with a mix of plaster and silica and topped with white paint. This guarantees that these guys would be the designated survivors in a fallout-future where flesh and paper are insta-incinerated and fancy cathedral stained glass windows shatter and melt.
The first Jesus – over 10 feet tall and weighing three tons – was born in the artist’s Inglewood backyard workshop, and when his proposal to place it in the Grand Canyon was rejected, media attention led to the figure being offered a permanent home out here; the journey from L.A. was covered in a photo story in LIFE magazine, April 1951. MARTIN came too; and from the moment he touched the dry, dusty earth of the mount, he was caught in the throes of a decade-long monomania.
I wonder whether, as MARTIN sweated over his work, he knew that not far away, just north in the Nevada wastes, nuclear ‘tests’ were taking place that would eventually deposit the equivalent of 29,000x worth of Hiroshima-level radiation on US soil? That while Americans were being told to fear the Russians, their own government was repeatedly, deliberately, nuking themselves? It breaks your mind to contemplate, but like to think he did, and that’s why he worked so hard day in and day out to complete his self-appointed task. The indomitable artist – born in 1887! – did not let himself rest until he had finished his truly monumental version of ‘The Last Supper’ in 1958. A massive 125 ton panoramic relief, it features a cut-out picture window so that you can stand by His shoulder and gaze down, like a god, upon the valley below.
The expansion of the park ended upon MARTIN’s passing in 1961. After suffering through a severe local earthquake in 1992, some of the sculptures are now morbidly eerie, with metal skeletons showing through. Repairs have been attempted, but without MARTIN’s monomaniacal fervour, full restoration is unlikely. But to me, this superficial damage does not damage his intent; rather, the disrepair enhances their disturbing effect. These Concrete Christs are Cold War sentinels, like ready-made Pompeii plastercasts, both warning against and waiting to face the apocalypse, whichever moment it may come, whether it is from within or without. Let Jesus take the wheel, and go find Him for yourself.
A TRIP TO DESERT CHRIST PARK Playlist: Hell is Round the Corner, Tricky. Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, The Vaselines. Personal Jesus, Depeche Mode. Black Hole Sun, Soundgarden. Jesus Christ, Superstar 1973 Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Album. Spirit in the Sky, Norman Greenbaum.
Text and photo Hannah Bhuiya
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