The Contemporary Frontier: Old Spaces Made New Again

Discourse concerning awareness of the detrimental environmental effects of human activity is gaining international momentum. In an age where every political power resides with in a claustrophobic grid, closely tailing awareness is a definitively contemporary sense of urgency.  As population increases and open space decreases, a new aesthetic is emerging. With limited room for expansion and discovery, spaces once recognized for their natural beauty and subliminal power are being revisited. These spaces are still very much sublime, but they are much different than before. Sites once beautiful and untouched are overfarmed, overprocessed, overproduced, and existing in a state of deterioration. Naturally occurring beauty, balance, and order has become a rarity.  This phenomenon has influenced artist David Maisel to examine the old and exhausted spaces of post-industrialism from a new vantage point. By using aerial photography Maisel has discovered a way to see things yet unseen as an alarming duality of beauty and devastation. Unfortunately many people wish they did not have to see it.

David Maisel was born in New York City in 1961. He received his Bachelor’s of Arts from Princeton University, and his Masters of Fine Arts from California College of Arts. Additionally, he studied at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Holzer and Bill Viola can be credited as some of his primary influences as they each deal with poetic interpretations of human disaster, conflict and mourning.

David Maisel’s chosen medium is photography, and primarily large-scale aerial photography. By choosing to display his works on such a large-scale the photographs become undeniably assertive, no matter how graceful the images presented may be. With some prints beings as large as 48”x48” it is hard as a viewer to not experience their transcendent power. Maisel’s technique of mindful maximizing and minimizing paired with careful cropping can be disorienting; often times sublime.  Author of Tapping Topographies John K. Grande states, “The scale of Maisel’s photography serves to convey the seemingly limitless aspect of the sites from which they are made. The forms of environmental disquiet and degradation function on a metaphorical level, and the aerial perspective enable one to experience the landscapes like a vast map of its undoing” (Grande 14.) When viewing Maisel’s photographs one is frequently challenged to determine exactly what has been photographed. This mystifying effect creates a sense of wonder concerning the landscapes that would be otherwise disregarded. Because of the perspective and scale of the images new intricacies are unveiled, details that would be other secret are made public by his unapologetic and piercing gaze. Maisel views this technique as “…a way to see the otherwise unusable and unimaginable….time and space can get strung together” (Grande 14.) By choosing this viewpoint, he continuously obscures the function, location, scale and condition of his subject. When he first began his work with aerial photography Maisel was working in black and white, but eventually moved on to color photos. Some of the colors found in these images are high seductive, even more so once their sources are recognized.  The projects to be examined in this essay are Oblivion, Terminal Mirage, The Mining Project, The Lake Project, and the larger all-inclusive work in progress, Black Maps.

It is important to understand the historical background and ecological conditions of the particular environments related to David Maisel’s works. In his project titled Oblivion Maisel examines the sprawling cityscape of Los Angeles from an aerial point of view.  Upon first glance it is hard not to relate the interconnectedness of the city’s highways and housing projects to a functioning living organism. The secrets unveiled from the aerial view are strikingly similar to the secrets only surgeons and biologists know about primary functions of humans or animals bodies, everything is connected; everything is vital. These photographs present a cold, factual representation of human progress. No one ever asked to make this much progress. We have reached progress edging on regression. As David Maisel so brilliantly states in his corresponding essay Oblivion, “Surely the earth is dead beneath the sheer weight and breadth of this built form.”  The images are heavy with nervous energy, and it impossible to imagine the claustrophobic mass having a living foundation of grass and earth.  The aerial view allows a viewer to see things that aren’t meant to see, the pictures highlights human progress as well as human vulnerability. In his essay Oblivion Maisel questions: “Where is home? Where is our safe haven? How can we move toward such a place?” Although Los Angeles has almost 10 million residents, city dwelling is presented as a severe, detrimental and extremely unnatural home.  Anthony Vider accurately describes the city as a “paranoiac space of modernism mutated into a realm of panic” (Oblivion.) The idea of claustrophobic, no-exit spaces continues to appear throughout Maisel’s work.  

In his project, Terminal Mirage, Maisel investigates the Great Salt Lake in northwestern Utah and the lake’s commercially operated evaporation ponds that are used to extract salts and minerals for industrial use, as well as the igloos that house aging chemical weapons at the Tooele Army Depot (a high-priority superfund site), and the dioxin contaminated land and wastewater ponds of the Magnesium Corporation of America, the site of a recent EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) lawsuit. The Great Salt Lake has existed for millions of years, and is one of the largest terminal lakes in the world. ‘Terminal lake’ implies that the lake possesses no natural outlets. The lake is exceptionally rich in sodium, magnesium, potassium, chloride, and sulfate. This elemental make up accounts for the vibrant colors found at the lake site. Each mineral has its own color, and the varying densities at different locations inside the lake provide captivating visual contrasts.  The name of the project provides some guidance for analysis. The lake itself is terminal, meaning no outlets. This can imply themes of claustrophobic environments, a no-way-out sensibility. It is hard to disregard the existentialist mood at hand. The artist admits that Terminal Mirage was strongly influenced by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty – which Maisel calls “a sort of existential landscape….[it has] a sense of being threatened, but also of being more alive.” Maisel, like Smithson, encourages an awareness of the effect of human activity on the environment.  But at no time is the environment presented as completely defeated, only exhaustingly challenged.

In the early 1900s, Los Angeles governing officials and investors began diverting water from Owens Valley into the city to provide water for its residents. Over the short course of fifteen years Owens River and Owens Lake were almost completely drained. This ecological atrocity left the once flourishing waters with nothing but concentrated levels of salt and minerals, and dangerously loose topsoil. Eighty years later, nearby residents are at high risk for disease and other health hazards brought on by wind-carried carcinogens. Currently, the EPA is extending efforts to decrease these airborne toxins. David Maisel has captured this embarrassing disaster from above ground, and produced photographs that characterize the sublime of the present. Although the subject matter is disturbingly realistic, the artist abstracts the view so aggressively and attractively it distracts from the ecological horror. But not for long enough.  From the air, Owen’s Lake is still delivered as an organic form, but hardly a specific one. The land possesses geometric order, a methodological system stuck in its tracks. The patterned pools of copper and salt generate seductive colors and sinister stagnancy. Both terrifying and exalted; the photographs radiate Maisel’s quintessential objective.

Again influenced by artist Robert Smithson, David Maisel became intrigued by abandoned mines near Smithson’s signature work, Spiral Jetty. Using aerial photography Maisel captured images of strip mines throughout the United States. Reiterating the theme of beautiful landscapes undone into a strangely beautiful ruin, the pictures include cyanide-filled tailing ponds and leaching fields.  Once again, due to a skillful eye, formal beauty victoriously emerges from the destruction. Calling these forms the “contemplative gardens of our time,” Maisel sought to associate the ecological disasters with the human psyche that made them ( The mining fields can be seen as a form of reverse industrialism, a failed progress.  Notions of manifest destiny are upturned. Maisel elaborates on this idea in an interview with John K. Grande, stating that he is “motivated by the notion of discovering and revealing sites that might otherwise remain unseen. In this way, there is continuity between 19th century photographers and my work” (Grande 16.) David Maisel photographs a new frontier. His images are literally never-before-seen by nature, and highlight the often ignored unseen ecological effects of industrial decay.

Selections from the above projects combine to create a culminating unofficial retrospective of David Maisel’s work title Black Maps. By compiling images from varying sites, the fundamental connections are emphasized. With the goal to document the undoing of an environmental space, David Maisel gracefully explores themes a of loss, elegy, memorialization, aesthetic dualities and the apocalyptic sublime.  

Perhaps the most captivating factor of David Maisel’s work is its ability to initiate a mesmerizing dichotomy of beauty and repulsion. His photographs generally feature landscapes irreparably damaged by humans or mechanization, captured in a way that showcases the unfortunate beauty of each individual image and situation. When viewing these images, one is immediately enchanted and seduced by their rich colors and intriguing composition. With a delayed introduction, the unsettling truth is revealed. The deconstructed landscapes of strip mines, cyanide leaching fields, tailing ponds, and drained lake beds are horrific documents of human carelessness. These images should not be beautiful at all, correct? A viewer could never look at a crime scene or human tragedy and call it ‘beautiful,’ could they? Of course they could. This disquieting realization calls to order a redefinition of beauty.

When questioned about his perplexing aesthetic, David Maisel replies “I wouldn’t call it beauty, exactly, but rather a senses of delocation – the unfamiliar, the threatening, the sense of beauty and terror combined – I suppose it is ‘the sublime,’ really,” (Grande 14.) Aesthetically, the sublime can be defined the simultaneity of awe and fear – and to possess a quality of greatness or vast magnitude. Certainly these images fit into this category. Maisel’s artistic eye has captured the failures of human endeavors, our desecration of natural order. Human activity has replaced, or at least dramatically impacted the natural succession of ecological events. Damage of this kind can easily be found in front of any Westernized individual at any given time. It is ubiquitous. It is unyielding.

This unrelenting disservice to nature calls into question: is destruction towards the environment intrinsic in the human mind? The theme of man versus nature can be found in numerous fundamental texts such as The Koran and The Bible. In Genesis 1:28 it reads, “And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  This God-granted idea of man’s power over his environment is ever present in Western culture, and has transcended into political decisions regarding conservation, pollution, and waste. Maisel says he “seeks to reveal the landscape as an archetypal space of destruction and ruin that mirrors the darker corners of our consciousness,” (Grande 16.) Surely the artist believes that humans do in fact have an inherent superiority complex over nature.

Currently, man controls environmental politics – and America is the unapologetic dictator. Due to the hysterical and infectious state of contemporary terrorism, America has for the first time in its short history, began to feel vulnerable. The urgency associated with vulnerability has caused a shift in the minds of the American people. A decreasing reliance on religion and an increasing trust in science is fostering some intelligent environmental decisions. Comparatively, America shamefully ranks first in rates of human waste, carbon dioxide emissions, and food consumption. Finally, and somewhat embarrassingly, effort rooted in fear of the ‘what if’ is being made to ‘go green,’ with an emphasis on recycling, gas efficiency, and sustainability. To compare this with the work David Maisel, the colors found in some of his photographs are highly seductive. This reflects themes of the seduction of consumption, something many Americans struggle with. By succumbing to the seduction of advertisements and trends, we are simultaneously betraying the environment by further depleting its resources. The overwhelming trend of presenting environmental problems with inconvenient solutions parallels with the quiet urgency so often found in the work of David Maisel.

David Maisel’s work in aerial photography has brought to attention an unsettling truth. Human activity has and continues to destroy the environment, one open space at a time. As these spaces become more and more rare, the urgency and claustrophobia will take hold. Maisel’s examinations of man-made ecological disasters have done more than just document the problem.  The images entertain themes of existentialism, human progress, elegy, regret and regression. Until ideals of conservation and sustainability replace those of selfishness and consumer carelessness, the problem presented by David Maisel will progress with vicious momentum.