Jesse Reding Fleming earns his living as a photographer and videographer in Los Angeles; those media also drive his artwork. He thrives on the stimuli and connections abundant in the big city. For a long time, he had no interest in the desert; he thought of it as a “dead place.”
Then he visited friends in the Sahara in northern Africa. “I was floored by the sand dunes; they continued into the horizon in all directions,” Fleming said in a published interview earlier this year. “It was a slow-moving and evolving sea blown by wind, alive and in flux, but under different terms than I was used to. The guide told me, ‘The secret is in the silence.’ That stuck with me. It left me wanting to find out what that meant.”
In 2009, Fleming earned an artist’s residency in Joshua Tree National Park. For one month, he stayed in a cabin at the end of a dirt road, about 20 miles into the park. He had access to tank water and limited solar and battery power, but no means of communication with the outside world. He arose at dawn each day to immerse himself in his environment and record its sensations in photographs and video.
The result was Desert, an exhibition last spring at The Company, the Chinatown gallery in downtown Los Angeles. Desert included an eponymous video work — a 14-minute edit of Fleming’s daily shoots — and still photographs. With abstracted images culled from the same source material, he created an additional video work, IT.
Desert, filled with Fleming’s variegated explorations and extended hours and days of seeing, encapsulates one man’s sensory perceptions in the wild. There are long, lingering shots of dry landscape interspersed with close-ups of plants or stark images of the sky’s colors and jarring interludes when motorized vehicles interrupt the scenery. Different lighting conditions and times of day stirred together, as do clear and hazy images. By contrast, IT is a more hermetic experience, in which we watch a set of shapes do a mysterious dance in an abstraction of light, texture, and sound.
The installation negotiated nature’s expanse and the traces of humanity, whether remnant, extracted, or composed.
Fleming likes to tell a story of how he discovered an off-road vehicle area in the park that bore circular tire tracks. He hired an airplane to take aerial shots and showed one of the images to a Joshua Tree botanist. She marveled at how closely it resembled particle physics and sent him an image from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. “It was interesting because particle physics deals with cosmology and the origin of life,” Fleming mused in the exhibition catalog interview. “I appreciated the coincidence and subsequently decided to build the project around the idea of landscape, the language of the landscape, and its subconscious effects on the people who inhabited it. …
“I went to the desert to understand ‘the secret in the silence,’ but found it unintelligible,” he continues. “So I drew connections to the parts of the place that seemed related, such as the people, the evidence of people, and the patterns or cycles of the place. In this way, I could map the ‘silence’ without knowing what it was. It occurred to me that ‘the secret in the silence’ could be interpreted as letting go of the desire to understand in order to arrive closer to it.”