When the Whole is Indecipherable: David Maisel’s Terminal Mirage
By Anne Wilkes Tucker
(excerpted from David Maisel: Terminal Mirage catalogue; published 2005; ISBN 1-59005-120-3)
In his project Terminal Mirage, Maisel intentionally obscures the function, location, scale, and condition of his subject. No title names the Great Salt Lake or its environs as his subject. His images all share exquisite abstract colorations and design. A few pictures are obviously landscapes. Others are so lacking in items that identify scale they might be images of deteriorating walls or macro photographs of laboratory dishes. As he intends, we are first engaged by the beauty that dances across these large scale prints. Then myriad questions arise: Who or what created what we see in these views? The answers are neither easily explained nor universally confirmed, and the answers are less interesting to Maisel than the questions and discussions the pictures might evoke.
The Great Salt Lake in northwestern Utah has been the site of a lake for millions of years. At times, it is the fourth largest terminal lake in the world, with its status changing with the rise and fall of its depth and square acreage. The lake’s most distinctive aspect is, of course, its exceptional richness in five major elements (sodium, magnesium, potassium, chloride, and sulfate) as well as other elements in lesser quantities. The naturally occurring minerals in the soil, leach into the water, and are concentrated in varying strengths in the lake. As each mineral element has its own color, the density of the colors of the lake relate in part to the levels of concentrations present at any given time of specific elements. For instance, the lavender is possibly a concentration of molybdenum. Other sources of color are the numerous species of algae and bacteria. The greens are most commonly phytoplankton called Dunaliella viridis, a salt-loving, green pigmented variety of algae. Some of the reds, particularly those around Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty are salt tolerant bacteria. Also seen in Maisel’s images are the evaporation ponds that are commercially operated to extract salts and minerals for industrial use, as well as the igloos that store aging chemical weapons at the Tooele Army Depot (a high-priority superfund site), and the dioxin-laden grounds and wastewater ponds of the Magnesium Corporation of America, the site of a recent EPA lawsuit.
We cannot know without expert explanation which of these colors arises from naturally occurring elements or organic matter and which are deadly toxins created from man-made processes. Nor can we tell which of the naturally occurring concentrations would be toxic if ingested. We sense that this violent range of continuous colors is extra-ordinary and possibly dangerous. Nevertheless, we are drawn in by their formal beauty. These pictures are both visually and intellectually engaging, both seductive and disturbing.
While Maisel abhors mankind’s mismanagement of the environment, his driving interests are aesthetic and philosophical. A serious student of the ideas as well as the art works of Robert Smithson, Maisel, like Smithson, questions the process of perception and knowledge. His attraction to the Great Salt Lake is due in part to the presence of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which was created in 1970 and is currently visible again after years of being submerged. In his pictures, Maisel achieves an appealing visual coherence that dissolves as we analyze what we see – a process that depends completely on the viewer. For Maisel, his images of the Great Salt Lake are catalysts with which he hopes to induce a complex range of emotions, perceptions, and possibly, new awarenesses.