Slab City’s Builder Bill told me to go to East Jesus.
I had vaguely researched East Jesus, but the dryness and heat of the desert were already taking their toll on me and I had forgotten what it was when Builder Bill told me to go. (This is why I started writing everything down.)
Getting to East Jesus
East Jesus, it turns out was visible from The Range, but I had to drive to the end of Slab City and make a left in order to arrive there. (A right would have taken me to the Slab City hostel and library, which also sounded interesting.)
If you’re anywhere else in Slab City, you’ll need to get to the community’s main drag. Once you’re there, (if coming from Niland/Salvation Mountain, you’ll pass The Range on the right—go say hi) continue straight to the tip of the T. Make a left and follow the road. It’ll take you right there. (There’s a road that branches off of this new road you’ll be on after you take your left—this is a backroad. Don’t take it.)
There is a dirt space in the front of East Jesus which functions as a parking lot. I parked my car there and hopped out to see what it was all about.
I had not known that East Jesus is an outdoor art museum—the only one in Imperial County. Admittance into East Jesus is free of charge, although, like at Salvation Mountain, the museum encourages you to make a donation.
Before you Go to East Jesus
Man, this was an experience.
As creative and rule-breaking as most artists seem to be, the museums I’ve visited all seem to be organized in the same way, which is the kind of boring nonsense I’d expect the hardware store to pull, but not the stewards of the world’s finest art.
This was not that kind of museum. First, everything was just kind of there. There were no clear signs telling you who made the piece or how you might interpret it. And there wasn’t much of a clear schema of how the pieces were organized. But they were all delightfully weird.
And no, I would skip this one with your kids. Not just for the material, but also because of the housekeeping—some of the pieces had shards of broken glass sticking out of the sand around them, and Slab City doesn’t exactly have a hospital.
Interpreting the Art in East Jesus
In order to understand the wacky art that you’ll find at East Jesus, it helps to understand the culture of the greater Slab City. NPR called the community a place for the “down and out” to “escape” to. Builder Bill’s comment about artists being unemployable gives us some more support to this line of thinking.
That is, that many of the pieces you’ll find at East Jesus deal with rejecting popular culture. When I say “culture”, I don’t mean “culture” in the typical American sense—entertainment—I mean it in the sense of “customs” or “community rules”.
You see, many people move to Slab City because they feel rejected by popular American culture. (I’m sure the inverse is also true—that people move to Slab City because they reject popular culture.) They reject the compromise we make between modern conveniences and privacy. (Builder Bill confessed to being a bit of a Luddite.) They reject our politics, wanting to live in a place without landlords or having to pay taxes to a bureaucratic system that doesn’t serve them.
You could say that Slab City takes the liberal value of inclusion in a different direction. Instead of trying to force the existing culture to become so inclusive that anarchy ensures (Re: occupy wall street), they understand that the community they want to create cannot exist within the community that they left.
This is almost a century after it’s time. Utopian experiments are super common in American history. Many of those have failed (I suppose Ohio’s Shaker Heights is an exception), were incorporated into their larger areas (San Diego’s Point Loma), or morphed into something else (Connecticut’s New Haven). Time will tell what will happen to Slab City.
East Jesus as Social Criticism
Walking through East Jesus, I see structures made from recycled (or intentionally mutilated?) mechanical parts—wires, car bumpers, tires—and pieces like the one above, which are little more than paint on wood (an organic canvas?).
The piece suggests that if we continue on our path of industrializing and neglecting the environment, we’ll soon see elephants with hose trunks and other mechanical creatures that will have thrived on our waste products.
(And yes, I acknowledge the irony of taking a selfie with an art piece that criticizes the pace of modernization.)
Some of the pieces made direct reference to popular culture (like the Eat | Pray | Put Birds on Things piece above) and others directly criticized it.
This piece was near the piece with the eyes. While I’m not sure if the placement was intentional, it reminds me a lot of 1984’s Big Brother.
Others poked fun at the less egalitarian pieces of our democracy:
This piece made me think about the recent national conversation we’ve been having about fake news. (This, I’m told, is what art is supposed to make us do.) It also strikes me as such an American thing to criticize—we’re the culture that throws money around and expects things to go our way. PACs (Political Action Committees, for the uninitiated) are just this: throwing money at Congress to influence legislation.
The piece is also so obviously fake. Dolphins killed Kennedy and Jesus—yeah, right. But don’t we believe in so many things that are obviously fake? (I, for one, still cannot believe that people bought into Pizzagate.)
Why Call It East Jesus?
I’ve been wondering the same thing, and I really have no idea.
My first thought was that is was a reference to the Bible, since God placed the Cheribum and the flaming sword at the east side of Eden, but this isn’t really related to Jesus.
My next thought was that the East could refer to eastern religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. So East Jesus could be Buddha, let’s say. I think I recall seeing a Buddha head at East Jesus.
My third thought was: why not call it East Jesus?
East Jesus, like Salvation Mountain, is still being created and added to. The artists who work on it live behind the site, and they have several signs posted around the area asking you to not intrude on their living space.
Since East Jesus is constantly being added to, I’d like to return in a few years and see what’s new.
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Have you been to East Jesus, or do you want to go? What do you think about the art pieces? Let me know in the comments below.