Monday, August 20, 2012

Atlanta: Richard Misrach at the High Museum

A few weeks ago, having reached a point of constant irritation and general stagnation, I decided to stop haunting the comments sections of blogs and leave town for a bit. I went to the most metropolitan place around here-- Atlanta-- in order to stay with my sister for a few days and see some freaking art.

So I went to the High Museum of Art and spent about six hours shuffling around with poor posture on solid concrete, concentrating so hard I felt a little psychotic by the time I left-- but it was certainly worth it. I'm pretty sure the reason no one really suggests the High is that it's $19 damn dollars to get in, because they're surely not scoffing at the collection itself.

Writing about what I saw would be just as grueling as seeing it if I didn't break it into separate posts, so today I'm going to write the first in a series, about Richard Misrach's photographs. From the High's website:

"In 1998, the High commissioned California-based photographer Richard Misrach to create a body of work as part of the Museum’s Picturing the South series.

Misrach studied the ecological degradation of a passage of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This is an area where a number of petro-chemical industries are based and which is sometimes referred to as Cancer Alley.  Like the Western landscapes for which Misrach is best known, these photographs challenge viewers with environmental and political concerns while seducing them with evocative and lyrically beautiful large scale prints.  In focusing on the delicate state of the Mississippi River, Misrach’s work signals not just the environmental challenges facing the South but also the larger costs of our modern world at the dawn of the twenty first century. 

To mark the culmination and publication of this body of work in 2012, more than a decade after the project was initiated, a group of twenty-one large scale prints are presented here.  This is the first time that many of these important photographs have been shown to a broad public."

I am prohibited from reproducing the images here, unfortunately, but you can also see many of the images at the link above (though be advised that seeing them smaller and online is nothing like seeing them in person). I was able to find this image of a similar Misrach exhibit that will give you a feel for the size and presence of the photos:

A similar Misrach exhibit showing two people in a room with a large photo on each wall.
There were 19 about this size, 2 large ones (maybe 10 x 12 ft.) and 10-12 small contact prints (maybe 11 x 14 or 8 x 10 in.). Misrach left the black edge of the film showing neatly in his prints, revealing  through the markings a type of Kodak negative so large that even as an image decomposed into mist, the mechanics of the camera remain utterly crisp-- I couldn't see any film grain at all.

The prints themselves were seamless, richly colored ink-jets on gargantuan paper; the largest images were made of 2 mended together with a nearly undetectable seam. Each was framed in plain thin ebony behind glass which, because of its size, acted as a mirror that overlaid a reflection of the viewer and the gallery, making the viewer acutely aware that he or she is viewing images of heinous environmental destruction and the devastating impotence of poverty in the face of inhumane governmental and corporate disregard-- all from the safety and comfort of a pristine air-conditioned museum to which one has just forked over $19.

Far from appearing crowded, as the images do in small format online, the details were engaging and enveloping. Each photo had a presence that confronted the viewer with a quiet, mythic gravity.

The first room one enters features depictions of cities and communities-- some inhabited, some pathetic abandoned shells-- dominated by the overbearing presence of the petrochemical industry. The second room shows scenes of wilderness-- or what should be wilderness but is instead a series of obvious environmental disasters-in-progress that leave a sick feeling in the pit of one's stomach. The second room also features the double row of small contact prints.

The cover of Richard Misrach and Kate Orff's book Petrochemical America, which features one of the images from the High Museum of an oil pipeline running through a devastated body of water in LA. [Image: Horizontal color photograph of a dreary grey-green swamp or wetland with an oil pipe forming a perfect horizontal line across the bottom quadrant and an empty grey sky forming the top half. Leafless trees, many of them broken stumps, stand in grimy opaque slate-colored water.]

Race is a major theme that surprisingly goes unmentioned in the Museum's main wall text. However the only two people pictured are Black and several of Misrach's wall text that accompany the photos tell stories of African American communities that have been bullied, poisoned, abandoned or destroyed by Shell, Dow and other Cancer Alley companies and their government backing:

"Community Remains, Former Morrisonville Settlement, Dow Chemical Corporation, Plaquemine, Louisiana, negative 1998, print 2012

A rural African American community established since 1870 at a riverside settlement called Australia Point was displaced by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1932 in order to build a levee and relocated to Morrisonville. In the 1950s Dow Chemical expanded into the area, bringing widespread pollution in its wake. Later, the company installed special radios in homes so that the plant could inform people of highway evacuation routes in the event of a spill or accident. By 1989 Dow had decided to buy out most of the residents in the area, dispersing what was left of the original community in order to establish a ‘green’ buffer zone.” —Richard Misrach"
Though racism is certainly a national and international problem, Misrach's insistence on examining the issue situates the series explicitly and inextricably in Southern culture and its particularly substantial history of racial injustice. As the Mississippi River flows south it travels through a more typically stifled interracial culture that is similar to the rural area around The High's own Atlanta; then it flows south into coastal Louisiana where nearly every major war and massacre of the 18th and 19th centuries left its mark on the obviously complex culture and ethnic mix; and finally it empties into the Gulf of Mexico where the Caribbean islands lay bare the brutality of capitalism and white oppression, a stark and barbaric foundation of slave trade upon which US racial history is built. As one travels through the exhibit the nightmarish impact of social exploitation becomes increasingly clear until one enters the second room featuring the environmental devastation and a deeper foundation is exposed, that of the human nature of exploitation itself, the stripping of natural resources which enables the entire system to function. Though only two people are pictured in the entire exhibit, the echo of society and the human race in Misrach's work is deafening.

In fact the photos explicitly show the structure of society and nature of Southern culture through the conglomerate we've built to serve them. The work, such as Home, Destrehan, Louisiana, and Holy Rosary Cemetery and Dow Chemical Corporation (Union Carbide Complex), Taft, Louisiana, gives the distinct visual representation of exploitative industry as solid, orderly, huge, Godly and impenetrable, while what we would recognize as "humanity"-- schools, cemeteries, homes, basketball courts, front yards with ridiculous cast concrete decorations-- as tiny disorganized trash strewn around it, eking by and barely able to exist at all.

Illustrative of the poor in capitalist consumer culture is a photo of an abandoned shopping cart in an empty parking lot under hazy halogen lights that obliterate the background or any sense of location. The cart appears as a pathetic dot lost on a massive Cartesian Coordinate System, a symbol both of procuring the stuff people need to survive and of retail as a much-advertised but ultimately empty pastime.

Still other photos show roads that lead from petrochemical plants, quite literally to oblivion.

Misrach giving a lecture in front of his work. I'm not sure if these were the photos at the High or different work, but this is how the back wall of the second room appeared, with two rows of contact prints. [Image: Man who appears Caucasian and middle aged speaks into a microphone in front of his images, smiling]

The ugliness of the subject-matter and lack of people suggests an objective or perfunctory approach similar to some photojournalism. The visible Kodak markings also evoke a photojournalist's raw work. However Misrach also captures a lyrical haziness that turns Cancer Alley into some dark enchanted fairy tale. Also, unlike most photojournalism, the photos are obviously meant to be enormous and viewed behind glass. The sheer size lends itself particularly well to the rural photos in the second room, as it suggests the unknowable size and ultimate reach of each pictured catastrophe.

The very lack of people that makes the photos seem objective also creates a chilling narrative of the lack of humanity. It also makes the viewer focus on the incomprehensibly huge scale of the industrial situation. Misrach is toying with something I heard discussed in relation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: people psychologically cannot handle large scale empathy and concern. After becoming aware of more than a handful of individuals who are suffering, empathy begins to shut down as a person becomes overwhelmed. For exactly this reason most non-profits ask for donations by portraying two or three very personalized victims, yet the nonprofit itself must shift its focus away from individual stories and toward the entirety of the situation and begin crunching the numbers to make any large-scale difference. What action can make the most amount of difference to the largest amount of people?

In this work Misrach successfully evokes a concern that is about the entire scale of the situation, about enormous populations of residents and vast regions of the environment. He presents viewers with problems they definitely do not want to see by easing them in with a physically beautiful narrative that works slowly but unflinchingly, refusing to play down the horror or the blame. He's based in California, so being an outsider might be helpful in portraying this particular situation. Like Louisiana, South Carolina has an impoverished racially divided population and a few festering environmental disasters of our own due to large scale industry, and a part of having to live with it is, well, living with it. We're both red states whose populations are staggeringly unwilling to direct their outrage at those who are directly harming them and whose politicians are too busy golfing with CEOs to care. Unfortunately for us the very situation that demands an outraged response necessitates the complacency which allows it to continue. The outrage of poor whites is instead directed in a million subtle ways toward punishing poor blacks and immigrants, and the very poverty and voicelessness of African American communities is in turn used by large industries to pocket billions and leave behind an unlivable world for everyone. This is precisely the type of work I'd love to see more of.

1 comment:

Ariel said...

Just reading about this exhibit puts a huge knot in my stomach. Wish I could have seen it too, but am pretty sure I would be depressed for weeks. Looking forward to the next installment.