David Maisel San Francisco, CA, United States
I was drawn to photograph Los Angeles in order to consider what the destruction of Owens Lake over the past century has enabled to come into being; Oblivion began as a coda to The Lake Project. In Oblivion, the images underscore the cyborg nature of the city. Themes of development as a self-generating, self-replicating force that exists outside of nature are encoded in these photographs, which view Los Angeles as both a specific site and as a more generalized condition. The inversion of tonalities in these works is a simple act that defamiliarizes the images. It also subtly refers to other ways of imaging- like the x-ray, which sees within the structure of an organism or body — or other modes of seeing — like the flickering negative images in an atomic blast, when the shadow world is revealed and released.
The invention of radical concepts of urban space was a theme central to the early twentieth century avant-garde, who called for modernity to escape from the constraints of history. We now know, in ways once thought unimaginable, that history cannot be escaped. The aerial images in Oblivion describe a potentially desecrated urban fabric, even as they transcribe the commonplace; they cannot help but serve as portent of some future conflagration. Indeed, in the post-9/11 age we now occupy, chaos and catastrophe seem implicit in the urban aerial view. To surveil the city from the air can be considered to nearly approach an act of civil disobedience.
Is this the reason for the unease, the hint of claustrophobia and synesthetic terror that these pictures elicit? Or is it the endlessness of the expanse, the multiplying nothingness that fills the city, metastasizing ceaselessly, which causes a sense of rising dread? As Mike Davis notes in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, “social anxiety…is just the maladjustment to change. But who has anticipated, or adjusted to, the scale of change in Southern California in the last fifteen years?” The urban dweller of Southern California exists in the fastest growing metropolis in the western world, “with a built-up surface area nearly the size of Ireland, and a GNP bigger than India’s.”
Left to navigate this terrain of anxiety and estrangement, with a pattern of urbanization the critic Peter Plagens calls “the ecology of evil,” the citizens of this landscape may begin to ponder some of the elemental design questions of our time…Where is home? Where is our safe haven? How can we move towards such a place? Perhaps by forming such questions, we can begin to imagine the process of creating their answers. In the interim, these images imply an incessant search for sanctuary that never ends.