After you look at the Massimo Vitali photographs at galerie du jour agnès b in Paris, you might think twice before dismissing something by saying it was no day at the beach.
Vitali's large-scale images of beaches — and beachgoers — make it seem as if sun-worshipping is hard work. And more, that it's ultimately as pointless – or as rigidly hierarchical – as toiling within the fluorescent confines of a corporate prison.
But Vitali doesn't make the beaches and the crowds of people wading and sunning and standing gawping at the sea seem like an inferno (even if a few of his photographs are of people lazing in pools of water in the shadowless shadow of a dormant volcano). He creates an illusory horizontal society in thrall to the sun, the water, a society inured to the crowds, accustomed to an escape where there isn't any: bronzing masses yearning to be free but never really so. There's only an expanse of water, a shallow pool, or a makeshift deck, and the far horizon is ever receding; there's only us, them, and the other person. Just as there is in the city or the suburb or the office, only with less clothing.
We're all equal under the sun. Except that some of us are better looking, fitter, younger. Some even look richer with less clothing. So even as the waves wash over the sand, as the water erodes, as the sun bleaches – humans will still gather in little groups and talk about each other and create rules and try to exclude.
And yet, these photographs — of scenes from the coast of Sicily, or Turkey or even a watery enclave in Austria — are spectacular. As you look at them, you're dazzled by Vitali's ability to capture the brilliance of the light; the colors are almost washed out – as if you yourself are looking — minus a squint -- at the scene right next to the photographer on a day when the sun burns white in the white-blue sky.
The photos are funny, too. You move in to see what these folks are looking at, and mostly they're gazing at the distance, to see what isn't there, or adjusting their bathing suits, to the same effect. Or even swimming. Yet occasionally there's a telling Breughelesque detail, such as the small airplane flying over the unnoticing bathers lolling in the glistening clear waters around the semi-submerged ruin of a citadel or tower of some sort, in "Torre Pali." The white plane, almost erased in the white sky, is reminiscent of the falling Icarus in the distance in Breughel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus": the folly of man flying too close to the sun.
But Vitali doesn't moralize; he observes, even with an amused eye, such as in the aptly titled "Viareggio Tits," showing a grand beach scene and, in the front right corner, standing in the crystalline shallows, a topless woman – with a spectacular physique – adjusting her hair as her perky breasts wink at the sun.
On a gray November afternoon, Vitali's bright and brilliant photographs look like shocking reminders of what we missed in summer: good times and long cloudless days. But as you observe the stasis of the people, of their gathering together simply to gather together under an unforgiving sun and unyielding sea, you realize the futility of ever really getting away from it all. And yet, those beaches sure look nice.
Just off the main galleries where the dazzling Vitali photographs are mounted is a room with the eerie and unsettling landscapes of the young Parisian photographer Nicolas Dhervillers. His photographs, unlike the populated seaside scenes of Vitali, are generally empty of human life, except for a solitary figure, incongruously attired as if for a hiking tour or a day of shopping, traipsing or standing or stunned into reverie in what appears to be a still-luxurious yet apocalyptic world, with lurid shadows and looming mortality hovering over the landscape. They are darkness visible next to the sun-blindness of Vitali's works. And they're beautiful, haunting and troubling.
Dhervillers' works seem to be a combination of staging, special effects, a painterly use of saturated color and anthropomorphized vegetation, like a haunted Caspar David Friedrich canvas. They have the same strangeness as Gregory Crewdson's suburban nightmares, images of everyday photographed like fever dreams of movies of horror or alien invasion, the stuff of our overwrought yet primal mythologies.
Dhervillers' pieces go even further. They don't force us to rethink our suburban lives as images from cinematic imaginations. But rather, they place us in the middle of the landscape just before or just after a destruction, rather than the solitary wanderer of a Friedrich, we have a person plucked out of his milieu and dropped into an almost-familiar obscurity.
When did we replace annihilation by UFOs with overall devastation? We've moved from thinking we're the target of alien invaders to the threat of apocalypse. And yet, rather than leaving us with the narcissistic joy many of us have at the prospect of our doom, Dhervillers places a solitary figure there as a way of tethering us to the incongruity of it all: the image of the tourist decontextualized, taken away from his natural habitat and placed into an utterly strange landscape. It's: where am I, and where do I go now? It's a groping alienation rather than victimization.
(Images: Massimo Vitali, Vulcano Mud-cettina Capricci, Sicily, Italy, 2008, 180 x 220 cm; Massimo Vitali, Poesia 1, 2010, 180 x 220 cm; Nicolas Dhervillers, « Anonyme 16 », Tourists 2, 2010 ,Tirage C-print ,110 x 90 cm; Courtesy of the artists and Galerie du Jour agnes b., Paris)