Whether they’re sprouting leafy greens or providing temporary shelter to the homeless, one of modern society’s most ubiquitous forms of visual pollution, the roadside billboard, has sure been turned on its head as of late.
More subtle yet no less profound is “Visible Distance/Second Sight,” a new site-specific installation from artist Jennifer Bolande that strips a trio of typical — read: highly intrusive — highway-side adverts found along the west side of the Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs, California, of all references to car dealerships, casinos, fast-food restaurants, weight-loss schemes, clothing-optional resorts (hey, it’s Palm Springs) and consumer products. Instead, the three billboards display photographic imagery of the very same dramatic arid mountain landscape that they're rudely blocking.
Reads an official description of the ephemeral “cinematic experience,” which come April 30 will be converted back to the business of consumerism as normal (in a perfect world, the billboards in their entirety would go):
Each photograph is unique to its position along this route and at a certain point as one approaches each billboard, perfect alignment with the horizon will occur thus reconnecting the space that the rectangle of the billboard has interrupted.
Within the desert empire of roadside signs, Bolande chooses to advertise the very thing so often overlooked. Looking up at the billboards our attention is drawn to the landscape itself, pictured here as a stuttering kinesthetic of real and artificial horizons.
It’s a neat visual trick for sure, one that nods to the popular — and highly distracting — advertising methods first employed by now-defunct brushless shaving cream band Burma-Shave in the late 1920s that involved a series of roadside billboards designed and installed for sequential reading. As captivated motorists continued to drive down a lonely stretch of highway, the brand’s cheeky (and sometimes safety-oriented) promotional messaging would continue to unfold sign by sign until concluding with a punch line or a direct sales pitch: Keep well / To the right / Of the oncoming car / Get your close shaves / From the half pound jar / Burma-Shave.
Referred to as Burma-Shaving, this form of roadside advertising remained popular through the 1960s. Bolande’s 21st century take, of course, isn’t selling anything save for the oft-overlooked natural beauty of the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains, rising to the south and north, respectively. (The three billboards are double-sided so that motorists traveling in both directions can witness Bolande’s nifty, nature-saluting trick.)
As Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, writes:
While the mountain contours match up precisely, the clarity, color and light inevitably do not. The quick drive-by sequence of three billboard moments is so brief that you can’t quite be certain of what you have just witnessed. It’s like a flash-cut in a motion picture, subliminal in effect. A disjunction between image and reality is lodged in a path named for a half-forgotten cowboy star of movies and TV. The seamless fabric of experience gets torn.
In a recent interview with Co.Exist, Bolande, a professor of art at the University of California, Los Angeles, goes on to explain: “It's a pretty fast road. People drive people quickly on it. The first [billboard] might go by, although you notice that it's not shouting at you to buy something. I think by the second one you're paying more attention. By the third, you're hopefully noticing that alignment.”
In fact, visitors to the Coachella Valley over the next several weeks may want to keep their eyes peeled everywhere they go, not just along a brief stretch of the Gene Autry Trail north of Palm Springs Airport. Through the end of the April, this sprawling Sonoran Desert valley famous for its wind farms, considerable senior and LGBT populations, eponymous music festival and delicious date milkshakes (trust me on this one) will serve as a single, colossal canvas for Desert X. And what a canvas it is.
Running for two months, this inaugural, free-to-the-public exhibition of site-specific art installations — a sort of open-air gallery/treasure hunt centered in Palm Spring but fanning out across the Coachella Valley —pulls together 16 different established and emerging artists, many of them based in Southern California, including Bolande, Richard Prince, Matthew Barney, Claudia Comte, Rob Pruitt and Doug Aitken.
As the Desert X website explains, the participating artworks, most but not all located outdoors, aim to “amplify and articulate global and local issues that may range from climate change to starry skies, from tribal culture and immigration to tourism, gaming and golf."
In addition to Bolande’s “Visable Distance/Second Sight,” another Desert X installation that’s drawn significant attention is Aitken’s “Mirage.” Taking the form of a low-slung ranch house inspired by the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, “Mirage” is completely clad in mirror so that it “both absorbs and reflects the landscape around in such ways that the exterior will seemingly disappear just as the interior draws the viewer into a never-ending kaleidoscope of light and reflection.”
Like Bolande’s billboards, Aitken’s highly Instagramable mirror-covered desert abode (also located on the outskirts of Palm Springs in the under construction Desert Palisades development) is delightfully disorienting. Pity those who, unaware of what exactly they’re stumbling upon, might assume that someone slipped something into their drink.
Also pity local bird populations that have a really confusing — and hopefully not at all lethal — few weeks ahead of them.