David Maisel and the Art of War, in Proving Ground

A photographer who captures unique landscapes and creates breathtaking abstractions out of them, David Maisel looks to a strip of Utah desert with a martial purpose.

Fear of a new global war — a war with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons — has almost never been higher. The bellicosity and threats emanating from Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have already created a noxious environment of dread and anxiety. What does that fear look like? And sound like? Like KYDOIMOS: The Din of Battle, a hypnotic and beautifully surreal 30-minute film that synchronizes aerial photographs of a U.S. military testing ground in Utah. Composer Chris Kallmyer created the music that accompanies David Maisel’s tsunami of curated images — all 50,000 of them, racing across the screen like microbiology slides or spotlight grids where military personnel detonate biological and chemical agents indoors (and simulated chemicals outdoors) on the earth below.

KYDOIMOS: The Din of Battle anchors “Proving Ground,” Maisel’s new Haines Gallery exhibit that also includes framed photographs that testify to the Utah site’s ultimate purpose. It exists to save lives in the event — or rather the likelihood — of a biological or chemical attack in the near future. The site, named the Dugway Proving Ground, is in the desert about an hour-and-a-half southwest of Salt Lake City.

At 800,000 acres, Dugway Proving Ground is the size of Rhode Island. When visitors approach its long stretches of barbed-wire fence, they see warning signs that shout out, “Use of Deadly Force Authorized” and threaten, “This area has been declared a Restricted Area by authority of the Commanding Officer. … Photography, or making notes, drawings, maps, or graphic representations of this area, or its activities, is prohibited unless specifically authorized by the Commander.”

Maisel, a longtime San Francisco photographer, got the Commander’s permission — although he had a personal connection and had to make requests for a decade until the military finally agreed to let him enter the facility in 2014. The agreement came with a big caveat. At least one Dugway representative — a handler, basically — would accompany Maisel wherever he went on the test site. As Maisel toured around, he encountered facilities and terrain that seemed from a strange, desert-based film set — as if Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove met Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Exhibit A: The mostly windowless, four-tiered structure that looks like an ultra-modern grain silo and which sat in the middle of nowhere. The structure, it turns out, acts as a geographical guide to pilots speeding overhead.

“That building was not on the itinerary — we were just driving from point A to point B — and I was completely fascinated by it,” Maisel tells SF Weekly as he stood in Haines Gallery on a recent day. “It’s a marker for Air Force pilots who are going to the bombing range just beyond those hills.”

Maisel has a history of photographing stretches of Earth from airplanes and helicopters — vantage points that, under Maisel’s lenses, turn the views of mountain ranges, farmland, forests, mines, lakes, and urban centers into visceral abstractions and dreamscapes. Maisel has also done X-ray projects with old sculpture and canvases that reveal layers of existence that have never been “seen.” Art-goers were never supposed to consider the micro-surfaces that Maisel photographed.

The Dugway Proving Ground was another chance to dig into normally hidden areas and — by implication — raise complicated issues about the encroachment of human activity on land that is being scarred and rendered something otherworldly. At the Utah facility, U.S. military tests for dispersal rates to determine whether equipment like masks are deployable to use in biological or chemical warfare. The government simulates the use of anthrax, sarin, and other agents that rogue states like Syria have already used on frightened and unprepared civilian populations.

The Dugway Proving Ground is not an absolute “secret” site. The military runs a Dugway Proving Ground website, dugway.army.mil, and it allowed other photographers to roam around in 2017 — leading to stories and photo montages at such media outlets as The Atlantic. The threat of war with North Korea has apparently jolted U.S. brass into publicizing the government’s ability to manage a chemical or biological attack.

But war is never that “manageable.” If there’s an artful antecedent to KYDOIMOS: The Din of Battle, it’s The Fog of War, Errol Morris’ 2003 documentary about former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that incorporated music by Philip Glass. McNamara orchestrated the Vietnam War under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Glass’ dissonant soundtrack provided a perfectly moody layer to McNamara’s reminiscences and philosophical musings, which included this chilling calculus: “Any military commander who’s honest with himself … will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred or thousands or tens of thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands.”

McNamara said there is “no learning curve” with nuclear weapons — whole nations can be destroyed. In an interview for a 2004 article, McNamara, who died in 2009, told me he wanted the film and his writings to “try to draw lessons that are applicable to today and the future. The risk of destruction of nations as a result of nuclear weapons should be debated, and it isn’t.”

It is now, though. “Nuclear” is not in the purview of the Dugway Proving Ground’s mission, but war’s slippery slope means there’s an increasingly thinner line between a nuclear war and a biological one, especially given Kim Jong-un’s ability to launch chemical weapons. By default then, Maisel’s exhibit has a political edge to it. Maisel knows that — especially because Haines Gallery has paired “Proving Ground” with an exhibit of paintings by the Iranian-American painter Taha Heydari.

The canvases in “Running Rabbits” are lavish, layered, and dazzling — almost like visual jewels — but they’re also anguished and dissonant as they get into the complicated crevices of history and memory. The List, for example, is effectively a new funeral procession for the 290 people on Iranian flight 655, the civilian jetliner a U.S. Navy ship mistakenly shot down in 1988, believing the flight to be an attacking military jet. The plane was in Iranian air space when the USS Vincennes fired two missiles, one of which hit it directly. Heydari paints head shots of men and women from Flight 655, but they’re almost pixelated — more remnants of their faces than full-fledged portraits. Heydari also paints a large hand in The List that seems to be navigating the surface of images, which symbolizes the USS Vincennes radar technology that failed to identify the airplane’s civilian origins.

Wedged amid the painting’s many quadrants are the TV screen color bars that would typically show up in the middle of the night, when a channel would have no programming. The July 1988 incident was one of the most horrendous in aviation history — and came at a time of heightened, war-like tensions between Iran and the United States. How should the incident be remembered now? How do countries like Iran represent war to their citizens through media — or block access to media that undermines their chosen narrative? 

Heydari, who grew up in Iran and now lives in Baltimore, told a gathering of people on the exhibit’s opening night that, “I always question the relationship between pictures and the narrative that media try to connect, and I feel like I’m an archeologist sometimes — I want to dig through the surface to see if there is something there.”

Heydari and Maisel have that in common. On opening night, an art-goer who’d served in the Israeli army told Maisel that Kallmyer’s music from KYDOIMOS: The Din of Battle resembled what she heard in her head while on military duty. There is a dread — a dronish dread — in Kallmyer’s sounds, and it sustains Maisel’s film from start to finish.

“War is hell,” the U.S. General William Sherman reportedly said in 1879, upon reflecting on the Civil War deaths he had witnessed firsthand in the American South. With “Proving Ground” and “Running Rabbits,” Haines Gallery has turned itself into a kind of artful hell — the kind that Dante wrote about but at Haines is a visually sumptuous spectacle. KYDOIMOS: The Din of Battle speeds up the military’s target practice. But it speeds it up so much that it becomes meditative and almost cleansing — like a sauna that drenches you with sweat until you feel relieved or just plain tired.

“The video piece,” Maisel tells SF Weekly, “is its own language.”

CORRECTION (1/11, 5 p.m.): This article has been updated to reflect what the U.S. military tests at Dugway Proving Ground.

“David Maisel: Proving Ground” & “Taha Heydari: Running Rabbits,” through Feb. 24 at Haines Gallery, 49 Geary St. Free; 397-8114 or hainesgallery.com.

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