On the surface, beaches are ideal examples of public space. They are places we dream about visiting; where we can wander, forget our troubles and soak up the sun. Beaches in California are guaranteed by law as public spaces, resulting in a range of effects on coastal culture and community. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego sits atop a spectacular cliff overlooking La Jolla Cove, a beach used by families, sunbathers, surfers, snorkelers, tourists, birds and seals. It is a public space where identities are created, negotiated and performed. In geography, the term “littoral” refers to the part of a body of water that is close to the shore—as such, it speaks of adjacencies and exchange. The term has also been used as a metaphor for collaborative art, in which an artist’s engagement and dialogue with a community shapes the work. The works in this show illuminate this notion and portray beaches as sites of social and cultural interaction. They also explore the presence of conflict in paradise. The innocent sounding term “On the Beach” is the title of a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by Nevil Shute and the name of one of Neil Young’s bleakest albums. In military parlance, the phrase means “retired from active duty.” Beachgoers in California must contend with jet planes, nuclear power plants, military bases, and an intimidating border fence. These images complicate the utopian nature of the beach, and suggest that this is a public space that consists of much more than sand, sun and surf.
This fall, MCASD’s curatorial team and UC San Diego’s Department of Visual Arts joined forces to offer a graduate seminar which considered the programmatic activities of a contemporary art museum. On the Beach, organized by Noni Brynjolson, a Ph.D student at UC San Diego, is an outcome of that seminar.