After 9/11, some artists explored their disillusionment with the world. Richard Misrach is one such artist, and his 9/11-inspired images of the beach are on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through August 16.
After 9/11, Misrach explains, “paradise has become an uneasy dwelling place; the sea frames our vulnerability.” But you will neither find the ghost of the towers nor the hellish planes in Misrach’s exhibit. This L.A.-born photographer wants to evoke the hell of 9/11 by mounting his camera in heaven: his beachfront hotel, in Hawaii.
The exhibit, named On the Beach, features a series of photographs taken from a hotel balcony between 2001 and 2005. The camera lens turns on a crowd of swimmers and sunbathers. Misrach, god-like, resides on the balcony above it all. From his promethean height, he sees what the vacationers don’t see: horror and peace all at once, both breaking on a matted shoreline. “My thinking about this work was influenced by the events of 9/11, particularly by the images of individuals and couples falling from the World Trade Towers,” he explains.
Even conceding a fair bit of artistic license, though, it’s rather unclear how 9/11 intrudes into the leisure of Hawaiian surfers and sun-worshipers. More likely, it’s a political gimmick masquerading as artistic creation. Misrach has compared his own work to Shakespeare’s, and Shakespeare is not the only author he so abuses. He has named his exhibit after Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach, which was written during the Cold War and dwells on the gloomy aftermath of nuclear apocalypse: The lone survivors, who are situated in Australia, await their deaths as mushroom clouds swell and billow in the west.
Misrach’s exhibit, clearly, has a lot to live up to in positioning itself against the drama of Shute’s novel (let’s leave Shakespeare out of it entirely). Misrach tries — and fails–to create an existential crisis out of the banal combo of tourist, sand, and sea. It’s the beach, after all, and who doesn’t love the beach (except, of course, the tortured artist)?
However, the images, in spite of themselves, do succeed in summoning up the majesty and transcendence of the sea, especially against the vulnerability of the wandering bather. It’s not all gloom-and-doom, as Misrach intended. But it’s awe-inspiring and that might be enough for the crowds who opted to forgo the calm of their favorite beach for the great walls of the National Gallery.
These crowds, should they come, will see a vacationer’s idyll, first imagined, then executed. It’s doomsday on holiday.
The first images to be seen are sea, and just sea, with no reference to horizon, sky, or land. The viewer is immersed in blue.
There’s one marvelous image in which a bulbous woman floats on her back. Hers is the only body on the massive canvas, and she might as well be a corpse, limp and lifeless, with limbs stretched out. Against the still water, and occasional crackle of ripples, she seems to be in the clear eye of a perfect storm. Darker waters loom, but she lies there, oblivious to the peril.
There are images suggestive of death. One frame captures a couple asleep on the sand. The two lie in fetal position, away from each other, as mirror images. The reference is certain and macabre: Towels cover faces that may no longer breathe.
There has been a good deal of talk about how foreboding Misrach’s images are. But there is not only fear, but peace and calm in them too. You can sense the religious impulse at work, but think Poseidon, not the God of Noah. In one image, a man has dug himself a nook in the sand in which to sleep. He is the lone human on the coast, and the shoreline, which he nearly edges into, is haltingly safe. The water merely recedes, folding back onto itself to give him his peace.
The last image in the exhibit is similar. You can barely see the hem line of the shore at the bottom of the canvas. The entire canvas is seascape, with cavities rippling throughout the glittering blue. But the ripples stop, and there is a still circle around the only living being in the frame. That sole person in the empty sea is lying on his back, his head about to emerge from the clear pool for air.
It is fitting that this image comes last — this unidentified man is a modern Odysseus, finally washed to shore by a sea that’s come to terms with him. Man and nature coexist, you see, and this can even be beautiful, despite the tortuous efforts of some of our artists.
– Emily Esfahani-Smith is an intern with The American Spectator and a senior at Dartmouth.