Gary Emrich: Splashdown
In the second installation of his “Apollo” trilogy, Gary Emrich’s Splashdown video marks an auspicious moment in American history by focusing on the profound events of July 18, 1969. The most-reported event of the day marked the midpoint of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon; a journey symbolic of unparalleled American ingenuity and scientific superiority that ultimately fulfilled the soaring vision of America’s earlier beloved President John F. Kennedy. On this day while the nation’s populace sat mesmerized in front of their television sets receiving updates from space, presidential hopeful and famous brother Senator Edward Kennedy was involved in a suspicious automobile crash on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts that ignited scandal in myriad ways. Tragically, the crash took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne, an accomplished young woman who worked for Senator Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign prior to his assassination in 1968. With the backdrop of the anguished Kennedy family legacy, Emrich’s rich visual imagery posits searing questions about privilege, the quest for excellence and the value of individual lives. Through poetic abstraction, the artist examines an unsettled psychological mood prompted by a disparity of fairness and its unforeseen consequence. Offering deep introspection into a particular moment of American culture, Splashdown’s thoroughly relevant qualities amidst the tense 2016 Presidential election-year climate, echoes both the hopeful yearning and cynicism dividing many citizens.
With a haunting score and a title that invokes a shudder in contemplating whether the “splash” in Splashdown is the triumphant Apollo lunar module returning to earth or Kennedy’s 1967 Oldsmobile hitting the water, Emrich gives measured and equal weight to these events. By conflating one journey consisting of 238,000 miles which ended in world-wide acclaim with another infamous journey that covered a mere four miles that ended in disgrace and senseless death, the artist makes clear how unforeseen alterations of assumed life-trajectories can occur. The video’s recurrent figure of St. Christopher, a Catholic icon invoked for safe transport, is a talisman against the associated risks of travel. In agreeing to carry the Christ child across a river, St. Christopher also inadvertently agreed to carry the weight of the world since he could not know the heaviness that was the Christ child’s burden. Emrich’s use of this saint-like figure makes known that the risks and rewards of action are not always able to be fully calculated – just as sending men to the moon seemed far more perilous than a car ride with a wealthy notable politician. In utilizing acquired imagery and filming miniature objects scaled to monumental size coupled with keenly masterful observational interpretation, Emrich states that he creates metaphors for the dynamic of “unpredictable rewards and consequences;” scenarios that “redefine the notion of risk.” Of equal value to Emrich in exploring the past, such investigations also soundly resonate in the present.