the archival document as art

by madeleine wagner
The August 2009 issue of Scientific American features a silhouette of a Neandertal man–skull highlighted against bushy hair and beard. It’s an elegant solution to depicting evidence and idea. It is scientific and elegant, lending humanity to enigma, precision to hypothesis.
But what if the imaginary was given credence and weight? What if the dry tones of academic discourse turned themselves toward the realm of the deliberately crafted? Logan Zawacki, a professor of photography at UNF, has taken an academic and pseudo-archeological approach to excavating the imaginary Mario world.
Created in 1981 by video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario first appeared in Donkey Kong as an ancillary character, but has since gone on to his won success and cult status. The Mario storyline has been one of the most commercially and creatively viable video games ever created (as a whole, Mario games have sold over 201million units). And for a certain set of late-twenty, early-thirty something Mario and his assorted crew of Yoshis, Koopa Troopas, and Toads define an awkward but poignant period in their lives.
Zawacki has taken a kind of obsessive compulsive’s approach to documenting the key characters in the Mario realm. The Excavation of Mushroom Island is the book Zawacki has assembled to illustrate the results of his {ahem} archeological dig on the island. The reality is the book is designed as a tongue-in-cheek look at the game world, but with the attention to detail and formula used in real processes.
“I wanted it to look like a document used in an actual excavation,” explains the artist. “All of my work is rooted in Pop culture, so in creating these characters, I did a ton of research in finding the right bones for the characters…I wanted them to be believable, but I also wanted to present them in a way they’d never been seen before.”
Looking at the familiar silhouettes of Bowser, Mario, and their coterie is delightful, humorous and unexpectedly (reassuringly) familiar. Because Zawacki used a salt process and printed them on watercolor paper, the images are rendered in soft browns with an uneven border, revealing the artist’s hand at work. It’s an idea that Paul Karabinis (an UNF collegue) himself works with-the ways in which light can be manipulated and fooled, made to reveal its own secrets in a dark room.
Historically, there is an interesting parallel to the early works by Man Ray. As Jean Cocteau said of Man Ray’s rayographs, “You have again freed painting. But in the opposite way. Your mysterious arrangements are superior to all the still ilfes that seek to overcome the flat canvas and prestigious mix of colors.” Though it’d be a stretch to say Zawacki is freeing photography from its formal constraints, his work with lighthearted humor and a synthesis of archaic techniques and contemporary technology. As such, perhaps it points the way to the next step in photography. And it is interesting to see fragments of ideas from the Dadas and Surrealists manifesting themselves almost a century later, in a place as far removed from Paris as Starke is from the Lorentian Sheild.
Mushroom Island the book itself grew out of a class Zawacki audited, taught by Karabinis. Karabinis is recognized as a master of alternative photographic processes. “I was taking found images from the Internet and creating digital montages…after I did about five of them, Paul told me to do twenty of them to have a body of work,” said the photographer.
Next, Zawacki took a book making class with Karabinis and the idea for the book was born. Working on it since July 2008, Zawacki launched The Excavation of Mushroom Island in June 2009. The presales have been brisk and satisfying. Plus it’s fun to look at. For more information: