Friday, May 23, 2008

David Maisel interview [2006]

The commenter on the previous post (and the Headlands event) made me want to dig up this excellent interview from 2 years ago on Archinect. Geoff Managh of BLDBLG is the interviewer and I really consider this one of the best artist interviews I have ever read. If you don't know the artist this is a great place to start, if you are familiar this will enhance what you already know and like.
from the interview:

David Maisel (b. 1961) studied architecture, landscape architecture, and photography at both Princeton University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design - before leaving the latter to pursue his photographic career full-time. He now lives in the Bay Area, and exhibits internationally.

In his own words, David has a “fascination with the undoing of the landscape.”� He has become most widely known for his aerial work, which includes extended studies of North American mines, clear-cut forests, urban sprawl, evaporation ponds and other peripheral industries of the Great Salt Lake .

David has also produced a widely known photographic series of
Owens Lake, California, with images taken from nosebleed-inducing heights as great as 13,000-feet. As cinephiles will no doubt know, Owens Lake was drained in the early 20th century to water the lawns of suburban Los Angeles (a notorious act of hydrological theft that found its way into American mythology through Roman Polanski's Chinatown). Owens Lake is now a Dantean wasteland, one of the most toxic sites in North America.
some highlights -
It struck me while looking at your work, however, that even the word landscape is a bit inaccurate - the idea that you are a landscape photographer - because the sites you choose are more like events. Anthro-terrestrial events, so to speak. One could even argue that you are an event photographer, because you document abraded lake beds, forests being clear-cut, copper mines, and so on. What do you think of that? That a landscape itself could be an event, a process?

The word landscape is an interesting one - it implies a viewer who is making a judgment call. A landscape is bounded by our own set of interests and values. I mean, the land exists without us; the landscape involves our own discernment. So I suppose that you're actually very accurate. It's that sense of turmoil, or finding some... Really, it's the sublime, right? It's the dislocation of the viewer that interests me. It gets back to the same issue as Ansel Adams. I mean, I think that his work at a particular moment in time probably had a different meaning than it does now - but I want to make work that has meaning now. And I think you really have to be decisive about what that is - as an artist. You have an obligation, in a way, to choose subject matter that has meaning.

You say meaning, but your own writing tends to have a more poetic than political overtone. Not that your writing is apolitical but it doesn't seem to prescribe anything, or make judgments. Does your work have a specifically political - even ecological - message, or do you see it as purely aesthetic?

I think there is definitely an ecological message there. But the issues are actually quite complex. The more I learn the less I know. The more I see the less I know. I think these are issues in which finger-pointing is really an easy reaction. Yet what I do feel is that we are kind of at the edge of this abyss [laughter] - and I know I'm now falling back into poetic language - but that for me is the message that I want to tease out of these places. That's the continuity I think I bring from one area of subject matter to the next.

So we can drain as many lakes as we want, and we can pour cyanide solution over hundreds of thousands of acres of copper mine tailings - but we'll pay the price. I mean it's interesting, with The Lake Project, once the work was done and the book was out in the world, and there was a certain amount of attention paid to that work of mine, it was then that I met the head of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District who really appreciated what I was doing. And he is the scientist and, sort of, activist, who organized a local group of citizens in the area of Owens Lake and became the David who slew Goliath in court. They sued the city of Los Angeles - and won. They're the ones who helped the court mandate this whole shallow flooding of the lake to keep down toxic dust storms.

So I have incredible respect for his work, and for his understanding of the complexity of Owens Lake. But he has an understanding; I don't, and I'm willing to say that I don't. I mean I could - I don't think it's an insurmountable lack of knowledge, or comprehension - but there are people who are better trained than I am, and who can make those calls. And I think, in a way, that the pictures aren't even necessarily suited to help make those decisions. They're using, for example, aerial photography now to survey the surface of Owens Lake in order to assess whether or not this shallow flooding is actually helping - and that's a different kind of aerial photography than I'm engaged in, completely! [laughs]

Full interview here.

image: David Maisel

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