Jaclyn Wright’s new work explores the contentious space of the Utah desert and how the ideology of “rugged individualism” has visually manifested itself.
Photographer Jaclyn Wright’s studio doubles as her office in the art building on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. On her desk lie stacks of objects—metal plates, plywood boards, a piece of driftwood, a plastic tote lid—each gathered from the Utah desert, each one riddled with bullet holes. In Target Praxis, a two-channel video from 2021, a stationary camera captures Wright collecting litter from around a rocky desert landscape and piling it into a massive heap. She then holds up each object, echoing Martha Rosler in a kind of semiotics of the wasteland: a vacuum cleaner, a fifty-gallon drum, a laundry basket, a football helmet, a plastic bucket, sheet metal, boxes, tires, cans—each thing completely annihilated by gunfire.
I’ve known Jaclyn since she was in graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington, from which she graduated in 2013. She grew up near Peoria, Illinois and lived in Chicago, where she taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and DePaul University. She joined the faculty of U of U in 2018, where she is an assistant professor of photography and digital imaging.
“Having grown up in the Midwest, I think when I got here, I was just like, what is this weird place?” she says about moving to Utah and experiencing the West in an intimate way for the first time, along with the extreme effects of climate change, which are especially tangible here. But Utah contained something even more surreal.
“Being in the desert, with this outsider perspective of this beautiful, magical, pristine, and extreme place and then happening upon this site where people are just shooting guns—I was just like, why are they doing this? But it’s just the most Utah thing ever,” Wright says. “People do this all the time.”
Wright is currently preparing for a solo exhibition in March 2022 at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City. The show will incorporate an installation with found objects arranged on a large-scale desert landscape photograph on vinyl that sweeps the floor, along with archival images, collages made in-camera with 4 x 5 film and cut and damaged dark slides, and video works of performances in the studio and on location in the desert. In this body of work, Wright shifts between the studio simulation of the desert and the actual desert, collapsing the two spaces while critically exploring the culture of land use and legacies of settler colonialism in the deserts around the Great Salt Lake.
“These particular locations that I’m visiting have all these intersections of complicated presents and histories,” she says. “There’s the history of settler colonialism on what is mostly Goshute ancestral lands, whose people were pushed off of it, and now this land [around the Great Salt Lake] is being crazy exploited.” She mentions the new state prison being constructed near the Salt Lake1, the toxic magnesium operations in the area2, the imposing thousand-foot-tall smelter visible from the interstate3, the military operations and testing range4, and the notorious biological and chemical weapons testing site known as the Dugway Proving Ground5.
“The Great Salt Lake is drying up, and we have no water, and it just goes on and on,” she says. Those who go out to shoot guns, with disregard to fire conditions, not to mention the extreme amounts of refuse they leave behind, exemplify an attitude of entitlement and exploitation of the land that stretches back to the ideology of Manifest Destiny, Wright contends.
Wright is interested in the work as a “visualization of violence” and in “how this ‘rugged individualist’ ideology has visually manifested itself.” A repeated motif is the high-visibility color called “blaze orange.”
“They are making a ‘blaze pink’ for women,” she laughs. “The absurdity of it all is kind of mind-blowing, so I’m trying to use some of that absurdity in the visualization of this.” In her video performances, Wright wears a nude body suit, gloves, and a blaze orange bikini made of found clay pigeons.
“I’m obviously not ‘pro-gun,’ but I’m also thinking of it as symbolic of this feeling of ‘freedom’ and the desire to ‘act out freedom,’” Wright remarks. “Even if they are not shooting at live things, there is so much destruction against the actual rock, shards of lead and other materials embedded in it that no one can actually clean up.” And there are the endless piles of garbage.
“They are straight-up dump sites,” she says, listing off some of the toxic items she has found out there: “televisions, screens, computers… doors and tops of RVs, refrigerators, household appliances.”
In looking deeply at the landscape, Wright’s work also engages with the history of film and photography and the role they have played in propagating the image of the Utah desert as something pure and pristine, a blank canvas for everything from Western films to car commercials.
“I think the desert is often viewed, by outsiders, as this blank slate, pristine, virgin landscape, but in fact behind that veil or screen are all these pretty insidious things that are happening. And you have to peel back the layers to get to that, and spend time with that,” she says. “This place is very contentious and complicated.”
See Bob Evans, “Inside the New Utah State Prison,” Fox 13 Salt Lake City, May 5, 2021.
See “U.S. settles with U.S. Magnesium, the largest producer of magnesium metal in the Northern Hemisphere, for alleged illegal disposal of hazardous waste at Rowley, Utah facility,” Environmental Protection Agency, January 18, 2021.
See “Kennecott Garfield Smelter Stack,” Wikipedia, last modified April 5, 2016.
See “Utah Test and Training Range, UTTR, Utah,” The Center for Land Use Interpretation.
See “Dugway Proving Ground,” Wikipedia, last modified August 12, 2021.