Art Books Review: Proving Ground

Throughout 2015 and 2016, the US Army set off multiple clouds of deadly chlorine gas, not in some secret location in the Middle East or Afghanistan, but about an hour’s drive south of Salt Lake City. The Dugway Proving Ground, established during World War II, occupies a swath of desert larger than Rhode Island. During the war, the military built villages that resembled German and Japanese towns in order to try out weapons, including poison gas. This activity continues to the present day. In Proving Ground, David Maisel’s aerial and ground-level photos of Dugway—he reports that gaining access to the site took nearly a decade—lack the drama of detonations and destruction. Unlike, say, Richard Misrach’s photos of a Navy bomb site in Nevada known as Bravo 20, Maisel’s images do not present us with burned vehicles or spent shells. His black-and-white aerial images are decidedly abstract; each occupies a full page and shows a geometric landscape of roads and grid markers. Interspersed among these maplike images are equally clinical color photos of gleaming laboratory equipment used for biological and toxic-gas experiments. But Maisel does share with Misrach, and another artist who has photographed test sites, Emmet Gowin, an investigatory impulse. All three have revealed the long-standing and ongoing disaster the military has wreaked on the American West. The mythic stature of that region as a place of heroic doings amid majestic landscapes is undone by their chronicle of the war our military has waged against our own country. (There were one hundred aboveground nuclear detonations at the infamous Nevada Test Site alone; hundreds more were conducted belowground.) Maisel, Misrach, and Gowin offer a disturbing counterpoint to the iconic figure of John Wayne riding tall in a pristine Monument Valley.