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'Phantoms in the Dirt' offers more than meets the eye

The Museum of Contemporary Photography group show looks at the elusive that lies in the elemental.

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Twenty-two miles southwest of the Loop, the world's first nuclear reactor lies entombed in concrete beneath a tract of Cook County Forest Preserve known as Site A. About 2,000 feet north is Plot M, a dump for 1940s radioactive waste, marked by the Department of Energy with a monument that reads caution—do not dig. Disregarding the warning, Jeremy Bolen buried film there at various times in 2012; after two weeks, he excavated the rolls, printed photos that display ghostly fields of purple—the apparent result of exposure to radioactivity—and sprinkled the prints with dirt and grass from the site before framing.

Bolen's pieces are certainly the most literal manifestation of a major theme of "Phantoms in the Dirt": that artistic practice can expose elusive immaterial properties that lie unseen in the most elemental things. "Dirt is this stuff that's everywhere—it's the most ordinary matter, but there might be this other presence within it," curator Karsten Lund says.

Among the 16 exhibiting artists, Alison Rossiter uses darkroom processing to bring out mold splotches on long-expired photo paper that become clouds in her chemically composed black-and-white landscapes. Chicago artist Greg Stimac attached Plexiglas to the front of his car while driving across the country to create photographs of celestial insect smears. Richard Mosse applies infrared film in documenting war-torn eastern Congo. By registering a normally invisible light spectrum, the technique once helped the military locate camouflaged enemy bands from the air—but in Mosse's surreal, bubblegum-pink vistas, there's no discernible trace of the atrocities happening on the ground. "The camera can show us things the eye can't see," Lund says, "but it only gets you so far." In this case at least, it appears the phantoms remain in the dirt.

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