The Owens River Valley is located in the eastern part of California, where snowmelt from the high mountains collects to form the Owens River. Beginning in the late 19th century, businessmen from Los Angeles gradually took control of the entire Owens Valley water supply by purchasing land. Then, the aqueduct was built, and the river turned westward into a booming Los Angeles. This was followed by the collective bankruptcy of the indigenous farming and ranching communities in the lower watershed. Protests and conflicts arose, and the deliberate overfilling of St. Francis Dam by developers concerned about the stability of the water supply resulted in a dam failure that claimed the lives of thousands of people. By the 1970s, the long-dried-up lower lakes had become the largest source of dust storm sand in California, and environmental management struggled in an endless battle of competing interests. Today, similar to many such stories, the downstream farming and ranching population has long since relocated, and the farms and towns downstream have become tourist attractions, attracting curious backpackers from the city of Los Angeles who yearn for the scenery of the American West.
Yaozhi was once one of these backpackers, but he saw more than just the desolate landscapes of the California desert and sought more than just healing in the valley to escape the shadows of the city and breathe natural air. Since 2019, he has continued to photograph this region while also embarking on extensive historical collection and research, culminating in this series of works. In his work, his physical photographic expeditions and extensive historical research go hand in hand, and his sombre photographs and aged archives resurrect a Western past in the desolate desert, woven together by desire and plunder. Through five chapters comprising over fifty photographs and archival materials, the exhibition presents the century-long struggle for resources that surrounded the Owens Valley: from the annual winter snowfall surveys conducted by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to the construction of the Aqueduct and its current state, the ongoing struggle over water and land ownership, the collapse of St. Francis Dam, the exploitation driven by capital and power, and the current state of Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.
In Los Angeles, where Yaozhi used to live, few could have imagined a city surrounded by desert, with upscale residential areas encompassed by man-made rivers, sprayed lawns, and gardens, where using resources at will seemed to be the prevailing paradigm for living. Through Yaozhi's lens, we see beyond the showers and faucets, the massive pipes resembling superfluous creatures, the concrete-tamed rivers, the towering dams, and the pumping stations protected by fences and barbed wire, labelled as private property and off-limits. Yaozhi's shots avoid people, presenting inanimate objects that stand silently in the wilderness, forming a vast system symbolizing desire. And behind this immense system, the ghosts of history continue to hover: the abandoned farms in the river valley, the sites of raucous protest rallies in the past, and the ruins of the dam break in the valley. They serve as a constant reminder that these wounds have not yet been truly acknowledged and healed and that they resurface with every dust storm disaster and water crisis.
On November 5th, 1913, at the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, chief engineer William Mulholland shouted the famous slogan, "There it is, take it." This phrase, proclaiming victory, seems to speak of the inevitable bloodshed and greed in the primitive accumulation of capital and the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. It echoed countless times in the Owens Valley over the next hundred years.