David Maisel is a provocative and versatile photographer who lies to blur the line between ethics and art. He has done several projects that feature landscapes that have been damaged or destroyed by human processes and influence. “His large-scaled photographs show the physical impact on the land from industrial efforts such as mining, logging, water reclamation, and military testing. Because these sites are often remote and inaccessible, Maisel frequently works from an aerial perspective, thereby permitting images and photographic evidence that would be otherwise unattainable.”
The most beautiful and bizarre of these projects is called Terminal Mirage. It features aerial photographs of the great salt lake, in Utah, an incredibly mineral rich area. The minerals from the soil, and more toxic chemicals and materials from human waste dumping, leach into the water, tinting it remarkably vibrant colors.
Some of the photos contain roads or other features that give some reference point, but more often than not the landscape composition gives only an abstract image, devoid of scale or interpretive signposts. This creates a dichotomy of perspective, where the viewer is pulled between viewing the photograph as a beautiful, artistic image, and viewing it as a deeply unhealthy and damaged landscape.
Maisel’s latest project is called Library of Dust, and maintains the same ethical-artistic approach to photography while taking a darker path. “The series depicts individual copper canisters, each containing the cremated remains of patients from a state-run psychiatric hospital, whose bodies have been unclaimed by their families. The canisters are now blooming with colorful secondary minerals as the copper undergoes physical and chemical transformations. Sublimely beautiful, yet disquieting, the enigmatic photographs are meditations on issues of matter and spirit.”
These corroded, colorful canisters with their original copper peeking through reminds me of the work of Dennis Evans. They have tactile and almost arcane elements, and would fit perfectly alongside Evans’ mysterious, fantastical multimedia paintings.
Maisel’s work, like Chris Jordan’s, is compelling because of the way it contains disquieting truths about the world within a superficially beautiful photograph; it is pleasing to the eye, but troubling to the mind. Art doesn’t have to be just about aesthetics. Great art can change the world.