Every year, the world turns its attention to the Coachella Valley in California, where the music festival of the same name attracts desert-chic celebrities and voracious media coverage in equal measure.
But this year, the inaugural Desert X art exhibition landed in the same surroundings, with 16 specially-commissioned site specific pieces. Curator Neville Wakefield explained how the artists were invited to “project their vision” through their pieces, using the canvas of the desert to “reflect upon the matchless spectacle of the geologic epic, the radical abstraction of the surroundings and the singular incursions of man into the seemingly barren landscape.”
One of the most-eye catching installations came from Jennifer Bolande, who took over a series of billboards along the Gene Autry Trail with photos of the landscapes that are usually blocked out by adverts.
“Gene Autry Trail is a busy road that bisects the Coachella valley on a north-south axis,” Jennifer explains. “The road travels between wilderness to the north, and civilization, (the city of Palm Springs) to the south.
“It’s a very flat, desolate area with nothing but sand and scrub to the east and west, with numerous billboards lined up in a row competing for attention with the beckoning views of the mountains.”
Jennifer’s project plays with the idea of distraction. Usually, these billboards have big, bold commercials trying to barge into drivers’ thoughts. In her hands though, the billboards become quiet, contemplative and respectful. Once noticed, they immediately redirect attention to the surroundings. In that sense, they are anti-adverts.
“I have an abiding interest in transitional zones and things on the periphery of attention,” she explains. “This project draws attention to the transition between the built and natural environment, between direct and mediated experience, between here and there, expectation and memory.”
Visible Distance/Second Sight has captured the imaginations of both locals and the international media. Intrigued by the premise and bowled over by the execution, it has become something of a break-out star of the exhibition. But, shown as stills, with the photographs perfectly aligned with the horizon, the project takes on a different set of characteristics compared to the experience Jennifer designed. The billboards are meant to be viewed from a moving car driving along the highway.
“The site I chose with its evenly spaced billboards, creates a rhythm and a sense of expectation,” Jennifer explains. “It is essentially cinematic, as it is animated by point of view and the movement of the car. I wanted to use the expectation that was already there, to attune viewers to the relationship between the image and the actual landscape beyond.
“I love the still photos as well, but it’s a quite different experience. In the still photos you see a picture within a picture with the horizons in perfect alignment. It’s the ‘decisive moment,’ of Cartier-Bresson, however this is only a momentary experience for the person driving past.”
The still images are undoubtedly stunning, but seeing the billboards in situ, and having the interaction with Jennifer’s piece build up as you drive must be extra special.
“For the driver there is a kind of oscillation of attention between the pictured and the actual which is really interesting to me,” Jennifer says. “I think most of us are more accustomed to looking at images of nature than nature itself.
“I like how the project draws attention to framing of reality and also provides a kind of escape from the frame. You may only glimpse the first billboard out of the corner of your eye, the second one you see in relation to the landscape, and the third one you are looking forward to and may see the horizons align. But because you can’t stop, you have to let it go by. Then it’s just a memory, but the unframed landscape is still there, just ahead of you.”
This spooling sense of understanding and appreciation has long been a hallmark of Jennifer’s work. As with this project, it’s often quick to grasp, but the layers reveal themselves over time.