New York

Carla Liss

The Kitchen; Stefanotti Gallery

Carla Liss, in her “Secrets of Three Mile Island” installation at the Kitchen, used photography as the medium—and the metaphor—for a political work based on a well-known recent event. In April of 1979, shortly after the “accident,” Liss (whose previous work in sculpture and film was concerned with landscape and environment) decided to use this incident as the focus of her next project. The artist felt that she should make her statement with X-rays, though she had no experience with this type of photography. “I wanted to use radiation photography to photograph a place with radiation,” she explained to me.

The background work necessary for the piece was extensive. Liss had to first learn how to use an X-ray machine, and then had to gain access to one. She made a preliminary trip to Harrisburg and spent four months contacting scientists, radiologists and doctors who had been working in the area surrounding the plant. She arrived in Pennsylvania for the final shooting with limited time and limited film, and obtained the 42 prints on exhibit in six days of intensive photographing.

These prints, divided into six series of seven, were displayed in rows on a light box ten feet wide and eight feet high. The grand scale of the piece contrasted with the familiarity of the subject matter. Liss chose to focus on mundane and immediately recognizable aspects of domestic and social environment. Reading from bottom to top, the series depicted varied views of a landscape, silverware, a door, a window, a fence and a TV: next to each series, hung on the wall, was a “caption” including the location and the words DAMAGE INVISIBLE. These words took on eerie associations when juxtaposed with the illuminated black-and-white images, for it was clear that Liss’ X-rays had penetrated objects without visibly disturbing their structure (in much the same way that the low-level radiation around Harrisburg invisibly penetrated the environment around the nuclear plant). In addition, Liss’ arrangement of the series allowed viewers to go on a visual journey from “pure” nature through culture to advanced technology, and thus to realize how far we’ve come—and how very close we might be to destruction.

The conceptual aspects of this project—especially Liss’ choice of medium—were intriguing, and “Secrets” was also a visually pleasing work. The prints, both individually and together, created black-and-white patterns that could almost be considered decorative. In fact, it was dangerously easy to see this political statement as a purely esthetic exercise. Only the captions overtly anchored it to its declared social content.

This ambiguity indicated to me that in executing the piece the artist was straddling the fence between politics and art. I think that it prevented Liss from exploring the fullest implications of her original and interesting idea. Although the work was timely, and although I admire the artist’s courage in choosing this subject matter, I don’t think that this installation went far enough. “The Secrets of Three Mile Island,” though controversial in theme, remained within fairly safe boundaries in its execution. I couldn’t help feeling that it was a well-intentioned, liberal gesture that could easily be accepted and thereby co-opted.

The small exhibition of prints from the installation on view simultaneously at Stefanotti Gallery unfortunately confirmed my feelings. The two photographs on exhibit were, of course, for sale, and Stefanotti was careful to choose images—one depicting a plant on a window, the other a row of silverware—that were quite beautiful, and that need not be seen as “political” once out of context.

Shelley Rice