Protests against the San Joaquin Hills tollway project turned macabre Monday when two artists dug deep "graves" for themselves in Laguna Canyon and then spent the day lying mute in the handmade holes.
Planted 50 yards apart, Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield lay motionless as a handful of "witnesses," draped in black, took turns peering into the narrow holes. As the sun rose higher and tiny flies swarmed above them, friend Ed DeMerlier fretted.
"That sun is . . . whew," DeMerlier said. "And once it gets right over them, it's gonna be a problem."
The bizarre performance was the latest in a series of protests that has taken place alongside Laguna Canyon Road, where the toll road is planned.
Last month, both bulldozers and protesters descended upon the site north of El Toro Road in response to a court order allowing work to begin.
That drama ended the following week when road opponents won an injunction blocking further grading until at least September, when a court hearing is scheduled. But tollway foes have vowed to crank up the pressure.
Chamberlain and Burchfield--a Laguna Beach gallery owner and a Cypress College instructor, respectively--are longtime opponents of development in Laguna Canyon. In 1989, they concocted a massive photographic mural dubbed "The Tell" to draw attention to the scenic canyon's vulnerability.
"This is just a continuation of a long effort on their part to keep the canyon what it was," said DeMerlier.
The 17-mile San Joaquin Hills tollway, which some motorists welcome as a remedy for overcrowded freeways, would cut through Laguna Canyon as it links Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano.
Monday's protest was billed as a "performance piece" of art and began at about 6 a.m. when Burchfield and Chamberlain tackled the earth with shovels. When their respective ditches were about five feet deep and barely the length of their bodies, they took their positions.
Posted nearby was a sign describing the point they hoped to make: "Just as political prisoners throughout history have been forced to dig their own graves to silence their voices, we are compelled to do so now."
The men were expected to exit their sunken hideaways at 7 p.m. and plant trees in the holes.
As Burchfield and Chamberlain lay prone, the "witnesses" went about their duties, snapping photographs or just gazing forlornly into the makeshift graves.
Tom Drake, dressed in a suit and tie, said he was on his way to work at a foreign currency exchange and "stopped by to pay my respects."
"I think it's profound, spiritual," he said, "something that's going to attract some attention."
The spokesman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which is building the toll road, declined to comment.