November 21, 2013
Washed up on the remote beaches of southern Alaska are plastics of every shape, size and color. There are detergent bottles, cigarette lighters, fishing nets and buoys, oil drums, fly swatters and Styrofoam balls in various states of decay. They come from around the world, adrift in rotating sea currents called gyres, and get snagged in the nooks and crannies of Alaska’s shoreline. Set against a backdrop of trees, grizzly bears and volcanic mountains, these plastics are eye-catching, almost pretty—and yet they are polluting the world’s oceans.
The garbage, dubbed “marine debris” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. It destroys habitats, transports nonnative species, entangles and suffocates wildlife. Animals mistake the garbage for food and, feeling full, starve to death with bellies full of junk. For humans, the problem is more than cosmetic; marine debris endangers our food supply.
In June 2013, a team of artists and scientists set out to see the blight firsthand. Expedition GYRE, a project of the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska SeaLife Center, traveled 450 nautical miles along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska to observe, collect and study marine debris. A companion exhibition, opening in February 2014 at the Anchorage Museum, will showcase artworks made using ocean debris.
For the artists on the GYRE expedition, each day in Alaska was filled with scientific briefings, trash reconnaissance and individual pursuits. All four artists—Mark Dion, Pam Longobardi, Andy Hughes and Karen Larsen—are known for work that explores environmental themes and, more or less explicitly, the pleasures and perils of plastic.
Mark Dion is, first and foremost, a collector. The New York-based artist often works in the mode of an antiquarian naturalist, arranging modern and historical objects in collections that resemble Renaissance curiosity cabinets. “This is kind of the way I know things,” says Dion, “by collecting, by having physical contact with actual material.”
On the black sand of an Alaskan beach, Dion created a collage of bottle caps, sorted by shape and color. It wasn’t a finished piece, by any means, but an effort to “learn by seeing.” He cast himself as the “proverbial Martian archaeologist,” trying to make sense of the detritus of human civilization based on its formal qualities.
“When stuff is strewn on the beach, it’s deposited by forces of nature [so that] it takes on almost a natural quality,” he says. “But there’s nothing natural to it. This is a way to restore it as a cultural artifact, an artifact which fits uncomfortably in these remarkably remote places.”
These places were remote even for Karen Larsen, the only Alaska-based artist on the trip. She viewed GYRE as a “fact-finding mission,” a chance to explore parts of the state that she hadn’t visited before. Larsen has created several environmental works such as “Latitude,” a large-scale installation made out of ice and snow, and “XGRN,” a graphic depicting the life cycle of a water bottle.
“Alaska is not as pristine as everyone thinks it is,” Larsen says. “No place is really that way anymore.” During the trip, she was particularly drawn to microplastics—colorful, beadlike particles measuring less than five millimeters in diameter. Stored in a jar, the artist’s collection of the plastic bits resembles confetti and, she says, evokes the “small changes in our plastic ways” that can have a big positive impact.
Dion noticed that the artists and scientists collected in a “parallel way.” Nick Mallos, a conservation biologist, collected bottle caps in order to trace their provenance, while Odile Madden, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, tested her plastic collection for toxicity. “Instead of becoming a science collection or an art collection, it just became one collection that we both [were] able to use for our different purposes,” Dion says.
Pam Longobardi collects, in part, to clean up. She feels compelled to remove as much trash as she possibly can. “Every single piece of plastic I pick up or roll or drag, that specific piece is not going to harm a wild creature,” she says. “It’s not going to be tangling a whale. It’s not going to be in a bird’s stomach or end up in fish or seals. That’s why I’ll do it, and I’ll bend over the millionth time and drag the material off the beach.”
As part of the expedition, the GYRE team assisted with the National Park Service’s clean-up, retrieving a full ship’s worth of marine debris. The top deck of the research vessel was piled six feet high with garbage—but there was still more, innumerably more, left on the beach.
Pam Longobardi is an artist, an educator and an unapologetic activist. Her “Drifters Project” employs marine debris as both medium and message. One piece called “March of Humanity,” for instance, is an array of 77 orphaned shoes, illustrating the wastefulness of human industry. In “Defective Flow Chart (House of Cards),” 1,300 pieces of Styrofoam, which Longobardi personally fished out of a cave in Greece, are stacked into a delicate shrine of seemingly ancient origin—though there is, of course, nothing ancient about it.
“I see the art as an arm of activism because it can activate,” Longobardi says. “I think art has work to do. It can motivate people, and it can be transformational.” She was the first artist to join the GYRE project and worked closely with Howard Ferren, conservation director at the Alaska SeaLife Center, to recruit other artists for the expedition and exhibition.
Her companions on the trip share her passion for conservation but nonetheless balk at the term “activist.” Andy Hughes, a photographer from Cornwall, England, supports environmental NGOs but describes his photography as “sitting on the fence” between art and activism. His 2006 book, Dominant Wave Theory, for example, features close-up portraits of forlorn pieces of beach trash. Mark Dion sees himself as an “artist aligned with environmentalism” and concedes the limitations of contemporary art in reaching the general public. Dion acknowledges that his work, exhibited in fine art galleries across the globe, tends to preach to a well-heeled and politically liberal choir.
Longobardi, on the other hand, regularly collaborates with advocacy groups, reads scientific papers, shares online petitions and otherwise pushes for environmental policy reform worldwide. Her work has brought her face-to-face with the violence done by marine debris, and she has studied the science extensively, albeit informally. “I don’t have any kind of censor or gag order on my thoughts and feelings about this,” she says. “I don’t have to wait until I prove it in a scientific paper to tell what I know.”
Ultimately, solving the problem of marine debris will require as much artistic conviction as it does scientific rigor. Art moves people in a way that even the most shocking statistics cannot. The GYRE expedition’s “stroke of brilliance,” according to lead scientist Carl Safina, was giving artists a platform to articulate the issue to a broad audience. “If the scientists alone had gone and said, ‘We saw so much trash and 30 percent of it was blue and 40 percent of it was green and 90 percent of it was plastic,’ it would be of no interest to anybody,” he says. “That’s the thing that I appreciate about the artists. Their work is instantly just much more accessible.”
Bringing it all back home
Somewhat ironically, the artists use beauty to call attention to the ugliness of marine debris. Plastics are attractive, arrayed in bright colors and shiny forms as irresistible in one instant as they are disposable the next. As Dion puts it, “these objects are meant to seduce.”
Longobardi’s art seduces too, using beauty as a “hook” as well as a dialectical “weapon”; viewers are drawn into her intricate creations, then unnerved to realize that they are made out of plastic trash. “What I’m talking about is so horrifying [that] to go straight to the horror of it, I would lose a lot of people,” she says. She is currently working on two pieces inspired by the GYRE expedition—one, a ghoulish plastic cornucopia that symbolizes the “squandered bounty of the planet,” and the other, a sculpture with a range of small to large plastics, including tiny toys and the lid of a BP barrel, all made from and representing petroleum.
Andy Hughes is creating what he calls “constructed photographs, more akin to painting.” His new work avoids metaphors of destruction and overconsumption, instead portraying plastic objects as “religious orbs, which float and inhabit sky, earth, beach and sea.”
For Hughes, the trip has lost none of its emotional potency. His memories come back to him, half a world away, whenever he puts on his Wellington boots. He had set out for Alaska expecting it to be “vast and empty,” but instead discovered that “it was completely alive,” teeming with millions of organisms. Hughes said that the beaches in Alaska actually reminded him of the ones back home in Cornwall.
Indeed, it felt strange to Mark Dion that they traveled so far to see a problem that hits every human so close to home. “The lesson of this trip is that there is no away,” says Dion. “There is no other place. Everything we try to get rid of, we find again.”
September 12, 2013
Throughout his career, photographer Edward Burtynsky has been on a quest to capture the impact humans have on the natural landscape. “Nature transformed through industry” is how he puts it. Burtynsky has photographed e-waste recycling facilities in China, nickel tailings in Ontario, railways cutting through the forests of British Columbia, quarries in Vermont and mines in Australia. He has also turned his lens to suburban sprawl, highways, tire piles, oil fields and refineries.
“I think it’s been a bit of an evolution,” says Burtynsky, about his body of work, “and it is always a challenge to kind of go to that next phase and try and solve a whole new set of problems.”
This fall, the acclaimed Canadian photographer is releasing a powerful trifecta: a new book, a documentary film and multiple exhibitions all on the theme of water.
From 2007 to 2013, Burtynsky journeyed across the United States, Mexico, Iceland, Europe and Asia documenting our dependency on the natural resource. The series of aerial photographs depicts the many ways humans literally reshape the Earth—from waterfront development in Florida to dryland farming in Spain, hydroelectric dams in China and ancient stepwells in India to desert shrimp farms in Mexico—in an effort to harness water for their own needs. In some of the images, most memorably those of Owens Lake and the Colorado River Delta, water is conspicuously absent, showing quite dramatically the consequences of our engineering.
The photographer’s new book, Burtynsky – Water, released by Steidl this month, features more than 100 of the photographs. Similarly, Watermark, a 92-minute documentary Burtynsky co-directed with Jennifer Baichwal, premiering at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival and showing in Canadian theaters this October, is chock full of footage from his travels.
There will be multiple opportunities to see the large-scale photographs on display as well. The Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery and Howard Greenberg Gallery, both in New York, are showing Burtynsky’s work from September 19 to November 2, 2013. Then, “Edward Burtynsky – Water,” a 60-plus piece exhibition organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art will make the first stop of a multi-site tour at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, from October 5 to January 19, 2014.
I had the opportunity to speak with Burtynsky about his motivations for Water, his thought process in choosing the locations he featured and some of the challenges he faced in the shoots. He also told me why he thinks this series is his most poetic to date.
You have photographed strip mines, tailing ponds and quarries. What made you turn to water as a subject?
At the Corcoran [Gallery of Art], I got the chance to work with Paul Roth, who is a curator, and we did a big show on oil. I had been working on oil on and off for 12 years. Finishing the oil project, I started to think about where to go next. Water seemed to be even more important than oil in terms of a vital resource. Without oil, it is going to be difficult, but we can do work-arounds. There are at least alternatives. But there really is no alternative to water.
Yes, there are the oceans. We can imagine a way to desalinate it, but industrial desalination, pumping water over great distances and the pipelines involved are very costly. We may have to resort to piping it to keep certain cities alive, but a far more clever idea would be to not expand into deserts very much and to be able to maintain and manage the existing water we have as best as possible to not be wasteful. Water is a finite resource like anything else. It can be over-used, abused and can disappear.
The locations you shot for Water span the globe. How did you decide on them? What criteria did you have?
Visually, it needs to have some substance. All of these images are representing a much larger human activity. The dam that represents all dams. The farm that represents all farms. It is really about representing these different themes of agriculture; aquaculture; the source of water; waterfront as real estate and waterfront as spiritual cleansing, like the Kumbh Mela festival in India; and water as a form of entertainment—beaches in Spain or the surfing derbies in Orange County at Huntington Beach.
Then, it is about looking at water where we’ve got it wrong, where something has happened, like Owens Lake, where the Los Angeles aquaduct was diverted back in 1913. [The diversion led to] the whole drying up of Owens Lake and a toxic lake bed that causes all kinds of dust storms that rain down on other towns in the area. The Salton Sea was another area under distress, because all of the pollutants coming in from the Imperial Valley and the Central Valley going into the Salton Sea were causing all kinds of algal blooms, where all the oxygen has been sucked out of it and all of the fish that swim into it die.
What was the greatest length you went to in order to perch yourself up in the air for a shot?
Probably the most complicated is putting my Hasselblad [camera] onto a remote helicopter that could carry the load and all of the technology we had to figure out to get a camera in the IP so that I could see what I was framing. To be able to remotely fly a helicopter, see what I am shooting and compose and shoot from about 1,000 feet away looking at a screen—to me, that was a bit nerve-wracking. I think the helicopter was insured for $150,000, and I had a $60,000 get-up on it. We had $210,000 hovering up there, above water [over a marine aquaculture site in China]. Nobody lost anything, but it was a pretty pricey little payload up there doing that work.
You stress the aerial perspective. Why is it important to lose the horizon within the frame?
Sometimes I keep it and sometimes I lose it. Usually, I only keep a thin amount of it. Most of the time I am looking at the ground or human systems on the ground. I am interested in how we change the land and turn land into things that we need, whether it is farmland, a quarry, a strip coal mine or an oil field. We take that area over and we do what we feel necessary to get what we need to get from it. I needed to get up to see the effect.
You can try and photograph a farm from the road, but you’ll see stalks of corn or stalks of a wheat and you don’t get the sense of scale of that operation. You can never get a feeling for how broad and how wide farming reaches. Getting up in a helicopter or getting up on tall lifts became an apparent way to tell the story of water. It calls for a large view and a greater distance—to understand what is actually happening, how water is being directed and what is changing that land, a desert into cropland.
In the book’s introduction, you say that “this project encompasses some of the most poetic and abstract work of my career.” How so?
In some of the Spanish dryland farming pictures, there is definitely a reference to [artist Jean] Dubuffet, even the colors of Picasso. There are some colors that I remember in Guernica. Even the way the space is broken up and used. [Richard] Diebenkorn had done a lot of what almost looked like aerial perspectives of landscape. I found them interesting works to look at.
There were a lot of moments when I felt the locations and the subject allowed me to kind of approach it with the eye of a painter. I have always kind of treated my film cameras, my 8 by 10 or 4 by 5 and now with a 16 megapixel, as a way to fill the canvas or that frame. What do I fill that frame with? I am constantly putting myself in that crucible. What do I make an image of next? That is always, to me, the great challenge of what I do. The actual making of the image is always quite fun—challenging, but fun. The heavy lifting has been done. I know where I want to go and what it is I want to shoot. Now, I have to nail it. Now, I have to find it. To me, it is deductive reasoning and a bit of detective work to get to the right spot, to maneuver yourself into that place with the right light and at the right time and the right equipment to get the shot that you really wanted.
I was at one point socked in China, when I was doing the rice terraces, for eight days and then left with nothing. It was just fog for eight days. The forseeable report was the next week all fog. I needed two kilometers of clear air to get the shot that I wanted. The time of the year and the place wasn’t going to give it to me. I had to leave. Then, I went back a year later and got one day when the light was great in a six day shoot. That was it.
The series surveys the many ways that humans control water—through marine aquaculture, pivot irrigation and geothermal power stations. What was the most interesting thing you learned?
I never before bothered to ask myself, where does water come from? And, an astrophysicist filled me in that it was from ice asteroids bombarding the Earth. Any ice that still hits our atmosphere gets drawn in by gravity, so water is still coming to the Earth. Small ice chunks and asteroids are still probably hitting our atmosphere and raining down as water.
I asked, why are the oceans salty? That was interesting, because the hydrological cycle and the water that hits the mountains and works down to the watersheds every time dissolves a little bit of salt. That salt stays in solution and ends up in the ocean. The ocean evaporates, and the water still comes back on land. So, the oceans are continually salinating, getting more and more salty over the billions of years.
The minute we humans take water away from a watershed, meaning redivert that water, there is a price being exacted somewhere downstream. It is either the flora and fauna; the life that lives downstream expects that water at a certain temperature and if you dam it, the water comes down warmer, which changes the whole ecosystem downstream. Every time we divert water there is a winner and a loser; the person who got the diversion wins and wherever the water was going and that part of the watershed loses. If you remove that obstruction, it goes right back to what it was very quickly. When you remediate it, it is almost immediate.
It was interesting finding out that 40 percent of the major rivers of the world don’t make it to the ocean. One of them became a very powerful metaphor in the book and the movie, which is the Colorado River Delta in Mexico. The Sea of Cortez hasn’t seen a drop of the Colorado now in over 40 years. I mention that to a lot of Americans and they don’t even know that. The delta used to be verdant with brackish water and all kinds of life in it. The whole delta, the massive, 1,000-square-mile Colorado Delta, is now a bone-dry desert.
What statement do you hope to make with the photographs?
It is not as much about a statement as it is a raising of consciousness. After seeing and delving into this body of work, whoever goes through that will in a way think differently about the role that water plays. Maybe we shouldn’t take it as much for granted as we tend to do as urban citizens who turn on a tap and it’s always there. It’s when that water is coming out of the tap, that there is a slightly elevated and more conscientious view of the importance of that liquid.
With the manufactured landscapes of my previous project in China, what I had hoped was that when someone sees the “Made in China” tag on anything that they are buying, that “Made in China” has a different impression. The series showed a lot of the manufacturing facilities in China and what that looks like. Now there is an image you can associate with “Made in China.”
I am hoping that these are images attached to the idea of water, so that next time you are experiencing it, whether swimming in a lake or a pool or drinking it, maybe the next time you are buying bottled water, you may ask yourself, is this a good idea, or should I just be refilling my water? The monetization of water is to me a very troubling and scary proposition. You have to have money to drink water, I think that’s wrong. I think water is a right to life. If you charge for water, then logically speaking you should be able to charge for air next.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
I consider myself an advocate for sustainability and a concerned citizen. We [as humans] now clearly have control of the planet, and this is the first time in the history of the planet that the fate of the planet is tied to what we do to it. We have never been there before. It is a question of whether we can act quickly enough and decisively in the right direction to avert the worst of what may be coming. That is a question that just remains to be seen.
An activist, not necessarily. I pull myself back. I prefer to address it more through stills and imagery, now motion picture, and through the writings in my book, to bring awareness and to raise consciousness that this is something that we need to pay attention to. This can come back and get us. For me to move freely through subjects and countries, I would be severely restricted as a card-carrying activist. I am better off as more the poet than the activist. I am going into sensitive places. If those countries or those corporations thought that I was interested in indicting their activities, then why would they let me in? It is pragmatic.
I also believe in the long run it [the imagery] is a very interesting way to bring people to their own conclusions, to understand what the problems are and to own those. I’m not telling them how to think about it. But, if they spend the time to understand what I’m doing, I think logically they will arrive at concern. In that way, if they arrive at it themselves, they will own it in a more powerful way.
“Water” is on display at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery and Howard Greenberg Gallery, both in New York, from September 19 to November 2, 2013. The traveling exhibition “Edward Burtynsky – Water” begins its tour at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, from October 5 to January 19, 2014.
July 24, 2013
When Guy Riefler pursued a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering at Cornell University in 1991, it was with the intention that he would spend his career cleaning up pollution. So, after earning advanced degrees and completing his post-doctoral work at University of Connecticut, he landed a position as a professor at Ohio University, and made acid mine drainage (pdf)—the environmental bane of the area in and around Athens, Ohio—a major focus of his research.
In the state of Ohio, Riefler explains, there are hundreds of square miles of underground coal mines, all abandoned sometime before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 was passed. Operators of the mines simply picked up and left, since, prior to the act, they had no legal obligation to restore the land to its previous condition. They turned off pumps and, as a result, the water table rose and flooded the underground passageways. The water became acidic, as the oxygen in it reacted with sulfide minerals in the rock, and picked up high concentrations of iron and aluminum.
“When this water hits streams, it lowers the pH and kills fish,” says Riefler. “The iron precipitates form an orange slimy sludge that coats the sediments and destroys habitat.”
To tackle this problem, Riefler, an associate professor of environmental engineering, and his students started to flesh out an idea: they would take this slimy, metal-laden runoff from coal mines and turn it into paint. Beginning in 2007, some undergraduate students explored the possibility. Then, in 2011, Riefler received funding to look into the process in greater detail and devote a group of graduate students to the effort.
Toxic runoff from coal mines and commercial red and yellow paints, you see, have a common ingredient—ferric oxyhydroxides. Once the acidic ground water hits the air, the metals in it oxidize and the once-clear water turns yellow, orange, red or brown. To make paints of these colors, international companies basically mimic this reaction, adding chemicals to water tanks containing scrap metals.
After more than half a decade of dabbling in making pigments, Riefler and his team have a practiced method for producing paints. They start by collecting water directly from the seep in the ground; the water sample is still fairly clear because it just barely has made contact with the air. The scientists then take the sample to their laboratory, where they raise its pH using sodium hydroxide and expose it to oxygen at a certain rate, bubbling air through the water to oxidize the iron. While this is going on, the metal components, invisible up until this point, blossom into rich colors.
The particles within the water settle, and the researchers collect the iron sludge. Riefler dries the sludge and then mills it into a fine powder. The powder can then be added to alkali refined linseed oil, a traditional binder, to create an oil paint.
Riefler acknowledges one rather critical shortfall. ”I understood the chemistry and the process engineering, but didn’t have a clue how to tell a good pigment from a bad pigment,” he says.
Luckily, Riefler didn’t have to look far to find an eager partner in the art world. John Sabraw, an associate professor of art at Ohio University, uses sustainable materials in his own artwork and encourages his students to think about how they too can be sustainable in their practice. In fact, one of his courses, which students have dubbed “The Save the World Class,” brings together undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines—business, political science and art majors, for example—and asks that they collaborate to design and execute a sustainable solution to an environmental issue in their local community.
Sabraw has also studied the history of pigments and taught classes on making paints from scratch. He was already familiar with acid mine drainage when Riefler approached him. On a visit to some effected streams nearby with a group from the university, he had actually been tempted to collect some of the colored sludge.
“They [Riefler and his crew] tapped me to see if I could be a tester for the pigments, to test whether they would be a viable paint product,” says Sabraw.
For a little over a year now, Sabraw has been using acrylic and oil paints made from the dried pigments in his paintings. He has been impressed with the range of colors that can be made with the iron oxides. “You can get anything from a mustardy yellow all the way to an incredibly rich, deep, deep almost-black brown out of it,” he says. Like any brand of paint, this one has a consistency and other qualities that any artist has to adjust to, but Sabraw says its comparable to other paints on the market, and he enjoys working with it.
Riefler’s plan is to continue tweaking different variables in the process—things like temperature and pH—to perfect his paint product over the next year. In this research and development phase, he is being mindful to create something that is economically viable and that meets industry standards. Sabraw reports that the paints are safe to both produce and use.
He will be sending the product to pigment vendors. Ultimately, the plan is to sell the paint commercially, with the proceeds going to cleaning up polluted streams in Ohio.
“Our latest estimate is that one highly productive AMD [acid mine drainage] seep near us would produce over 1 ton of dry pigment per day that could generate sales of $1,100 per day,” says Riefler. Costs are still being calculated, so it is unclear at this point whether or not the venture will turn a profit. “Even if we just break even, that would be a success, because we would be cleaning up a devastated stream for free and creating a few local jobs,” he adds.
The project is certainly a clever model for stream remediation, and both Riefler and Sabraw are driven to bring their product to the market, so that they can have a positive impact on the environment. Here, something that is nasty—acid mine drainage—is turned into something useful—paint—and beautiful—Sabraw’s paintings, with organic shapes reminiscent of trees, streams and landforms.
“What we are doing is trying to make the streams viable. We want life back in the streams,” says Sabraw. “It is certainly possible, and what we are doing is enabling that to happen.”
John Sabraw’s exhibition “Emanate” is on display at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts in Bridehampton, New York, from July 27 to August 10, 2013. He also has a show, “Luminous,” which opens at the Richard M. Ross Art Museum at Ohio Wesleyan University on August 22 and runs through October 6, 2013. Both exhibitions feature works made with the paints.
June 7, 2013
In 2011, Kate McLean, a designer and cartographer, was pretty new to the Scottish city of Edinburgh. As a graduate student studying fine art, she sought to use design to probe people’s emotional connections to a place, and had the novel idea of charting the surfaces and textures people encountered throughout the city—in essence, creating a tactile map of her adopted home.
Soon afterward, she was tasked with an unexpected assignment. “I was told that I needed to do a solo exhibition, and I had eight days to get it all made and set it up,” she says. “I wanted to do something new, so I said I was going to make a smell map. And everyone just looked at me, like, ‘what?’”
McLean’s smell map of Edinburgh, historically nicknamed “Auld Reekie” due to its pungent aromas, included everything from the malt fumes emanating from breweries, to fish and chip shops, to the scent of “boys toilets in primary schools,” as she quaintly lists in her map’s legend. In the years since, McLean, now a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, has created smell maps for a total of 6 different cities, charting the scents of fast food, wet moss, sunscreen and diesel fuel.
In 2011, she even created a special ultra-detailed map of an area on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (at top) after it was named “The Smelliest Block in New York” by New York Magazine (cheap perfume, stagnant water and dried fish apparently played an important role in earning the area the distinction).
Over time, the initial skepticism she encountered has been largely replaced by fascination. “People have told me that they’ll never be able to go outside and experience their city in quite the same way,” she says. “It’s not that they’ll be looking for those smells, but they’ll just be aware of the fact that they’re smelling all the time.”
Her method is admittedly more in the realm of art than science. “It’s not a large data set. It’s not about asking 50,000 people to define the ’Paris smell,’” she says. “What I’m really interested in are the stories and emotional connections that people use when describing smells.”
In pursuit of this goal, when creating a map for each city, she individually interviews a range of people—longtime residents, new arrivals and tourists—and sometimes even walks with them across their neighborhoods as they describe the smells they encounter. For her most recent smell map, of Amsterdam, she walked with “trained noses” provided by a fragrance company to gain another perspective on the scents of the city. She tracks the source of the smell down, and depending on the map, draws contours or plots points that describe the range and intensity of smells as they waft from their sources.
Oftentimes, a deeper examination is required to fully understand the smells people report. “Someone once told me, ‘Paris smells like honey,’” she says. “Eventually, I figured it out. It’s the number of parquet floors, and honey smell of the wax polish that they use on them.”
Asking people about the smells they associate with their home city has frequently yielded the sorts of emotional connections McLean started out looking for. “Smell is remarkably evocative of place,” she says. “When I was mapping Newport last summer, a lot of people said ‘The smell of the ocean is the smell of home. As soon as I cross the bridge, I know where I am.’”
For installations, she’s experimented with actually including the smells described on the maps for visitors to experience—on her Paris smell map (above), she attached bottles of perfume and other substances for viewers to spray. She’s even thinking of adding a scratch-n-sniff component to her maps in the future to simulate the olfactory sensation of walking through the cities.
For McLean, watching visitors enjoy both looking at and smelling her installations has become its own pleasure. “There’s something very meditative about smelling. It’s a long, slow process, very thoughtful and reflective,” she says. “And it’s beautiful to witness people enjoying the experience of smelling and consciously thinking about it.”
April 26, 2013
For almost 30 years, David Maisel has been photographing areas of environmental degradation. He hires a local pilot to take him up in a four-seater Cessna, a type of plane he likens to an old Volkswagen beetle with wings, and then, anywhere from 500 to 11,000 feet in altitude, he cues the pilot to bank the plane. With a window propped open, Maisel snaps photographs of the clear-cut forests, strip mines or evaporation ponds below.
The resulting images are beautiful and, at the same, absolutely unnerving. What exactly are those blood-red stains? As a nod to the confusing state they place viewers in, Maisel calls his photographs black maps, borrowing from a poem of the same title by contemporary American poet Mark Strand. “Nothing will tell you / where you are,” writes Strand. “Each moment is a place / you’ve never been.”
Maisel’s latest book, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, is a retrospective of his career. It features more than 100 photographs from seven aerial projects he has worked on since 1985. Maisel began with what Julian Cox, the founding curator of photography at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, calls in the book an “extensive investigation” of Bingham Canyon outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. His photographs capture the dramatic layers, gouges and textures of the open-pit mine, which holds the distinction of being the largest in the world.
This series expanded to include other mining sites in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Montana, until eventually Maisel made the leap from black and white to color photography, capturing the bright chemical hues of cyanide-leaching fields in The Mining Project (a selection shown above). He also turned his lens to log flows in Maine’s rivers and lakes in a project called The Forest and the dried bed of California’s Owens Lake, drained to supply Los Angeles with water, in The Lake Project.
Oblivion, as the photographer describes on his personal Web site, was a “coda” to The Lake Project; for this series of black and white photographs, reversed like x-rays, Maisel made the tight network of streets and highways in Los Angeles his subject—see an example below. Then, in one of his most recent aerial endeavors, titled Terminal Mirage (top), he photographed the Mondrian-like evaporation ponds around Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
All combined, Maisel’s body of work is what Cox calls “a medley of terrains transformed by humankind to serve its needs and desires.” The narrative thread, he adds in the introduction to Black Maps, is the photographer’s aim to convey humans’ “uneasy and conflicted relationship with nature.”
I wrote about Maisel’s photography for Smithsonian in 2008, when his “Black Maps” exhibition was touring the country, and at that time, the Long Island, New York-native hedged from being called an “environmental activist.” As Cox astutely notes, “The photographs do not tell a happy story,” and yet they also “do not assign any blame.” Maisel is attracted to these landscapes because of their brilliant colors, eye-catching compositions and the way they emote both beauty and danger.
Maisel’s photographs are disorienting; it is a mental exercise just trying to orient oneself within the frame. Without providing solid ground for viewers to stand on, the images inevitably spark more questions than they do answers.
Each one is like a Rorschach test, in that the subject is, to some extent, what viewers make it to be. Blood vessels. Polished marble. Stained-glass windows. What is it that you see?
An exhibition of Maisel’s large-scale photographs, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, is on view at the CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder, through May 11, 2013. From there, the show will travel to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Arizona, where it will be on display from June 1 to September 1, 2013.