Tuesday, April 10, 2007

David Maisel: Black Maps Tour Blueprint

The exhibition David Maisel: Black Maps consists of aerial landscape photographs of three separate but related projects (he refers to them as “chapters”) by Maisel: The Lake Project, Terminal Mirage, and Oblivion. Each chapter contains images of landscapes deeply impacted by human hands, the images’ beauty belying the environmental degradation they depict. The Lake Project (2001) contains images of the desiccated bed of Owens Lake in east-central California; Terminal Mirage (2003) consists of images made of The Great Salt Lake and Tooele Army Depot munitions storage facilities; finally, Oblivion (2006) depicts the urban-suburban interface of Los Angeles, the fabric of an urban environment that is desecrated and yet also somehow alive.
Maisel studied architecture, landscape architecture, and photography at both Princeton University and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design before embarking on his professional career as a photographer. He studied photography with Emmet Gowin, an artist whose work is held in The Altered Landscape Collection. His studio is located in the Bay Area.
Artist’s Statement, from Lens Culture
The Black Maps project is comprised of aerial photographs of environmentally impacted landscapes. These images have as their subject matter the undoing of the natural world by the wide-scaled intervention of man’s actions. Looking down on these damaged wastelands, where man’s efforts have eradicated the natural order, the views through my camera are both spectacular and horrifying. Although these photographs evidence the devastation before me, they also transcribe an interior psychic landscape that is profoundly disturbing. As otherworldly as the images seem, they depict a shattered reality of our own making.
The Black Maps project has unfolded in chapters, focusing on such subjects as strip-mines, clear-cuts, cyanide leaching fields, tailings ponds, firestorms, the drainage remnants of Owens Lake, and other manipulations of the natural world.
The most recent chapter of my work is Terminal Mirage. Inspired by Robert Smithson’s apocalyptic writings on the Great Salt Lake, I have embarked upon an aerial survey of this surreal and brutal region, including site of evaporation ponds covering some 40,000 acres along the eastern and southern shores of the lake, and the blood red color of the lake itself.The photographs in this series are presented as either 30”-x-30” or 48”-x-48” color C-prints. The large-scaled prints begin to encompass the viewer’s peripheral vision, and their lushness and strange beauty are psychologically demanding as well as visually exhilarating. They convey something of the sublime, seemingly limitless aspect of the sites from which they are made. In these photographs, the forms of environmental disquiet and degradation function on both a documentary and metaphorical level, and the aerial perspective enables one to experience the landscape like a vast map of its undoing. These images are meant neither to vilify nor glorify their content, but rather to expand our notions of what constitutes landscape and landscape art. Engaged as I may be in the immediate political issues, I am not attempting to make literal records of environmental destruction. Rather, I seek to reveal the landscape in something other than purely visual terms, the photograph transcribing it as an archetypal space of destruction and ruin that mirrors the darker corners of our consciousness. Maps, like photographs, are designed to offer an objective overview, a means to comprehend our location; they are both place and concept, figurative and abstract. But a map that is black, as the title of this work suggests, is a kind of negation. Black maps are indeed unknowable and unnamable; they are ciphers. Perhaps these are the only kinds of pictures, with their compelling ambiguities, with which we can mark the demise of these landscapes.
The photographs are largely organized chronologically by “chapter,” to use Maisel’s vocabulary, and are laid out counterclockwise—you’ll find images from the earliest “chapter,” The Lake Project, along the title wall; they stretch down the right-hand-side (east) wall of the Hawkins Contemporary Gallery. Proceeding along to the right (east) and around the gallery, the images on the north and west walls of the main area of the gallery are from Terminal Mirage, and the final area in the gallery, on the west and south walls of the space, you’ll find the black and white images of Oblivion, Maisel’s most recent project. (Note: Some of the Oblivion images are positive, while others are negative).
Tour Framework
Explain that David Maisel: Black Maps are aerial landscape photographs created by photographer David Maisel, who is based in San Francisco, and who was trained in architecture, landscape architecture, and photography at both Princeton University and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
Ask guests to consider how the photographs are different from other landscape photographs they have seen.
Explain that as landscape photographs, and even as aerial landscape photographs, the images are unique because of the way that they abstract the landscape, removing any kind of instantly recognizable reference points, including, most importantly, horizon lines.
Ask guests to consider what they think they might be looking at in the photographs.
Explain that the images from The Lake Project (2001) are photographs Maisel made while flying over the desiccated bed of Owens Lake in eastern California, about five miles south of Lone Pine, California, on Highway 395. The images show the alkaline, dried bed of the lake, with what remains of the Owens River leading into and away from the lake itself—the blood-red ribbon seen in the images from The Lake Project.
Explain that beginning in 1913, the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting the water from Owens Lake and the Owens River to feed the Los Angeles Aquaduct, a project begun to help slake the thirst of the growing population and development of the Los Angeles Basin in the early decades of the twentieth century.
If people ask you why the water, or what remains of the water, is red, explain that the alkaline levels in the lakebed are at levels high enough to accommodate some forms of bacteria and algae, including the pink halophilic (salt-loving) bacteria recorded in the images: they are among the few kinds of living organisms that can tolerate the toxicity of the now-drained lake.
Explain that after 2002, the City of Los Angeles began purposely re-flooding the lake bed because of increasing environmental health hazards caused by alkali dust storms that drop up to four million tons of toxic particulate matter on communities downwind of the lake.
Explain that the Terminal Mirage portfolio consists of images made largely in 2003, when Maisel conducted another aerial survey, this time of the Great Salt Lake, the Tooele Army Depot, in Tooele County, Utah, near the Great Salt Lake. Maisel identifies the apocalyptic writings on the Great Salt Lake of the land artist Robert Smithson, who created the now-famous Spiral Jetty, as inspiration for the Terminal Mirage photographs.
Explain that Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was created during a drought in 1970, but that for twenty-five years, between about 1975 and 1999, the jetty was covered by the waters of the lake. Since 1999, it has been exposed again, and though it’s made of black basaltic rocks, the rocks are now encrusted with salt from the lake, and appear white.
Ask viewers why they think the colors of the water are so different in each image. Explain that the Great Salt Lake is rich in a number of key minerals, including magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfate, among others. Each mineral suspended in the waters of the lake has its own color, and the richness of the colors says something about the densities of the minerals at a given time in the water.
Explain that the images of the Oblivion portfolio were taken by Maisel beginning shortly after September 11, 2001, and as a result, Maisel experienced some difficulty in his efforts to fly in the airspace of the city.
Explain that some of the images are presented as negative images, while others are positives.
Ask viewers what their thoughts are about the effects of Maisel’s choice to present the images in negative form. What does the negative image convey that a positive image might not?