Late in January, 10 billboards by artist Daniel Small went up around the border town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Each showed a different line of strange lettering resembling Greek and Paleo-Hebrew characters, along with modern red proofreading marks, against an unruly desert landscape. They were part of “Manifest Destiny,” a year-and-a-half-long initiative organized by the nonprofit Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) in which 100 billboards by 10 artists run alongside the 10 freeway, from Florida to Santa Monica.
The installation of one of Small's images had been difficult. Workers had been up on their ladders when locals surrounded them, saying they didn't want Satanic or Islamic messages in their neighborhood.
Then, in February, after all 10 of Small's images had been up for a while, the Las Cruces Sun published a story about the “strange-looking billboards on I-10.” It quoted local Craig Melton, who said, “We're close to the border and you think that ISIS or some other subversive might be trying to get at us.” That sentiment likely spurred the antagonistic line of comments that appeared on the Sun's Facebook page.
The text for Small's billboards is actually a mangled rewriting of the Ten Commandments from inscriptions on the purportedly ancient Los Lunas Decalogue Stone. Dubious archeologist Frank Hibben, bent on proving early Americans could have been Hebrew, “discovered” it near Albuquerque in the 1930s.
The landscape in the background is a photograph Small took after a windstorm at a site he's been working at, near Santa Barbara, where Cecil B. DeMille buried the set for his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments.
It doesn't get more Judeo-Christian than that. “It's the darkest irony ever,” Small says.
Other billboards in the series, such as Sanford Biggers' glowing call for justice or Eve Fowler's poetic musings, have been political or cryptic. But reactions to them have been mostly positive. “One thing I've learned is that it's very, very difficult to anticipate what people will think,” Shamim Momin, LAND's director, says of public projects.
Momin co-curated “Manifest Destiny” with artist Zoe Crosher, who initially proposed the idea to LAND. The project began in October 2013, with L.A. artist Shana Lutker's “Onward and Upward” project, in which idealized images of skies contrasted with actual Florida sky.
The Arizona leg launches March 7, with a film screening in Tucson of work by artist Bobbi Woods, whose billboards transition from hazy, black-and-white depictions of skies borrowed from iconic Western photographer Alfred Stieglitz's Equivalence series into pseudo-advertisements for pearls and then into movie posters.
By March 30, “Manifest Destiny” will reach the California desert, with a series of billboards by Crosher of seductively lush flora and fauna that decays gradually enough that someone in a fast-moving car may just barely notice. Her launch will coincide with a concert in the desert of music composed by artist Scott Benzel to approximate the freeway's sound and feel.
In June or July, a dense weekend of events across Los Angeles, including a scavenger hunt, will mark its termination.
The concept of “Manifest Destiny,” used in history books to frame the conquest mentality that accompanied westward expansion, has “always existed on this epic scale,” Crosher says. But the project is more interested in the personal dimensions, about being on your own journey West and experiencing “all the possibility and disappointment of the arrival.”
Seeing all the billboards isn't the point of the project. It's as much about knowing they're there and hearing about them secondhand. Last week, Small decided to post the translations of his billboard text, made with the help of epigrapher Donald Buchanan, on LAND's website.
The translations are awkward. One reads: “YOUR GOD, HAS TAKEN YOU IN VAIN/NOT OUT OF THE LAND/REMEMBER?”
“It's such a perplexing site,” Small says of the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone. Buchanan told him a story about a time that archeologists had planned to take a samples from the stone's surface to carbon date it, but local supporters of Hibben, who died in 2002, snuck out and power-washed the stone.
“They didn't want the truth to come out,” observes Small, which fits this project well, given that so much “Manifest Destiny” mythos has been about wanting to make your own version of reality come true. “It seems to me, you believe what you want.”
Catherine Wagley on Twitter
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter: