- From History’s Shadow
David Maisel received his BA from Princeton University, and his MFA from California College of the Arts. He has been the recipient of an Individual Artist’s Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was short-listed for the Prix Pictet in 2008. He lives and works in the San Francisco area.
Maisel’s photographs, multimedia projects, and public installations have been exhibited internationally, and are included in many public collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Victoria and Albert Museum; the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the Yale University Art Gallery; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others. His work has been the subject of four monographs: The Lake Project (Nazraeli Press, 2004), Oblivion (Nazraeli Press, 2006), Library of Dust (Chronicle Books, 2008), and History’s Shadow (Nazraeli Press, 2011).
My work in photography has been a long-term investigation into the aesthetics of entropy, and a parallel consideration of the dual processes of memory and excavation. The History’s Shadow project provides for the continuation and expansion of these intertwined themes. During a residency at the Getty Research Institute in 2007, I began to explore the idea of images that were created in the processes of art preservation, where the realms of art and scientific research overlap each other. In the Getty Museum’s conservation departments, I became captivated by x-rays of art objects from the museum’s permanent collections. The ghostly images of these x-rays seem to surpass the potency of the original objects of art. These spectral renderings seemed like transmissions from the distant past, conveying messages across time, and connecting the contemporary viewer to the art impulse at the core of these ancient works.
Through the x-ray process, the artworks of origin become de-familiarized and decontextualized, yet acutely alive and renewed. The shadow-worlds they occupy are informed by the black space surrounding the images, which in some instances becomes a vast netherworld, and in others becomes the velvety ground of some kind of brain scan/portrait. [End Page 1]
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The project’s title of History’s Shadow refers both to the literal images that the x-rays create as they are re-photographed, and to the metaphorical content formed by the past from which these objects derive.
All of the x-rays I have photographed were elements of previously existing archives made for the distinct purpose of art conservation. It was the process of culling through many thousands of them, of uncovering and bringing selected x-rays to light, that gave them their charge. To re-photograph these records, each was laid on a light box in a darkened room where the emanations of light were transmitted by long exposures onto color film. Rendering three dimensions into two is at the heart of the photographic process. With the x-ray, this sense is compounded, since it maps both the inner and outer surfaces of its subject. The mysterious images that result seem to encompass both an inner and an outer world, as the two-dimensional photograph brings us into a realm of indeterminate space, depth, and scale.
The resulting images are both trace and index, as well as physical manifestations of chance, of subjectivity informed by the layering of different technologies and time frames onto each other—the x-ray, the photograph, the scan; the filmic, the analog, the digitized.
As with all photographs, these images are fragments; the x-ray, which in History’s Shadow seems to slice through both material and time itself, furthers that connotation. The x-ray has historically been used for the structural examination of art and artifacts much as physicians examine bones and internal organs; it reveals losses, replacements, methods of construction, and internal trauma that may not be visible to the naked eye. The prints of these x-rays are thus encrypted...