The title Floating Island-which is the name of the exhibition, the book, and the first photograph in the show-refers to a small mountain located at the heart of the Bonneville Salt Flats, several miles east of Wendover. Due to an optical phenomenon known as an inferior mirage, the mountain appears to hover perpetually above the horizon line: a real illusion.
Throughout Floating Island, Osborne plays with the boundaries of narrative, truth, and artifice. While material artifacts such as The High Desert Advocate provide a reference point for the photographs and anchor them to a specific context, the newspapers obscure the fact that not all of the images were shot in Wendover. Among the prints in the exhibition, he includes a new photograph, White Plane, Port San Antonio, shot at a local airplane finishing firm, Gore Design Completions. Though geographically disparate, this new work fits seamlessly into Floating Island’slarger constructed narrative by evoking Wendover’s history of aviation as well as connecting to the project’s more fantastical, otherworldly elements.
Floating Island’s fantastical aspects reflect the landscape’s inherent cinematic allure. The site’s otherworldly roles have ranged from an apocalyptic Area 51 stand-in (Independence Day, 1996) to quasi-Heaven (Tree of Life, 2011). For photographs such as Vertellus (Valley II), which portrays the remnants of a mining operation as though they were the surface of the moon, Osborne also studied depictions of space and celestial bodies in NASA photographs and science fiction films. Werner Herzog’s film Fata Morgana (1971) -in which the director reportedly traveled to the North African desert with the intention of shooting a science fiction movie only to return with a lyrical document of a stunning landscape-was another important inspiration. In its own way, Floating Island attempts to reckon with a landscape by exploring its realities and illusions, and the myths and fantasies they inspire.
At Artpace, Osborne continued work on Floating Island, a project he began during a recent residency provided by the Center for Land Use Interpretation. He chose a remote town as the heart of the project because of a visceral attraction to its landscape and an interest in its unique cultural, military, and economic history. Located in the sprawling Great Basin Desert and straddling the Utah/Nevada border, Wendover (Utah) and West Wendover (Nevada) are home to the remnants of a major military installation, several casinos, and a community of roughly 6,000 people. In the late 20th century, Wendover’s livelihood shifted from dependency on the military (many World War II pilots, including those who dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, trained at Wendover Airfield) to a casino-based economy by the 1980s.
Artpace’s residency provided an opportunity for Osborne to develop a multifaceted installation for this new project. Inspired by land artists Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson and their encounters with this same desert landscape as a site for executing and presenting their work, Osborne treated his Artpace studio/gallery as a “non-site” (to use Smithson’s term) or container for the pictorial and material artifacts of his experience working in Wendover.
From his first day at Artpace, Osborne requested delivery of Wendover’s two weekly newspapers,The High Desert Advocate and the Wendover Times, to enact a dialogue between the sites depicted in the photographs and his studio here. Throughout the course of the exhibition, updated issues of the journals were added on a weekly basis in order to maintain a real-time dialogue between Wendover and San Antonio. In addition to the newspapers, his exhibition integrated both large and small framed photographs and a publication, Floating Island, which consists of 96 photographs grouped in 13 chapters. The book’s editing, sequencing, design, and printing were finalized during Osborne’s Artpace residency.