Ocean Calling

Blurred by time and compact in their composition, photographer Mark Kushimi’s postmodernist seascapes invite closer introspection.

Text by Noe Tanigawa
Images by Mark Kushimi

Because we are animals, we respond viscerally to landscapes and oceanscapes. At their best, these vistas seem to transcend time. We’re soothed by a horizon stretching from the periphery of one eye to the other. That is what happens in the Forever Drowning oceanscapes by Mark Kushimi. Rarely are images of nature as distilled as they are in this photographic series.

The oceanscapes stand apart in Kushimi’s oeuvre. Since his early days as a designer spearheading the ethic of Contrast magazine, his design sense has felt internationally informed, while his subject matter and attitude are tenaciously local. Visually, whether portraits or cityscapes, his images are connected by tight composition. See his sequences of building facades or outdoor staircases, for instance. Often, inside the tight composition, Kushimi’s urban images recall the relaxed modernism of Honolulu in the 1950s and ’60s.

Forever Drowning, however, subverts customary metrics of photography, like composition and even subject matter, with sheer directness. The oceanscapes catapult us into metaphysics. They seem, with their Zen-like reduction, to position us in the flow of time. How simple, these nearly centered horizon lines! Actually, no horizon is simple, because of who we are now.

This is why an unbroken horizon can say so much: We know there is history and we know there are limits. We recognize national boundaries as well as cultural and ethnic distinctions that introduce political, social, legal, ecological, and other considerations to natural spaces. We know as well that there are environmental limits.

We understand the fragility of natural systems we are a part of, and we accept our culpability in the disappearance of that world. Natural vistas inevitably, and they must, call out these considerations.

In 2020, we have deconstructed everything we can think of—the problems and the solutions—and often found the constituent parts reeking. Recycling, for example, we thought it was working, now that seems delusional. Veterans of postmodernism, we look at Kushimi’s glowing, starkly simple ocean images and wonder, Is this ironic? Where are the fast food wrappers? Is he trying to get away with something? Do you sense irony or cynicism in Kushimi’s work? No?

In that way, his viewpoint is essentially post-postmodern, or even meta-modern, and feels so right for this time in Honolulu. The 21st century’s meta-modernist project, after all, is to reboot in new ways toward a less fragmented future. Not prescriptive, Kushimi’s is a basically integrative aesthetic. In this series, reduction to the horizon, and a glow around the horizon, says so much. 

I like the idea of diminishing light. The darker it gets, the more I see.

Mark Kushimi

For the moment, the oceanscapes are sunsets, taken with a Hasselblad 120mm film camera. “I’ve taken sunrises before, but they have a different feel,” Kushimi says. “For now I like the idea of diminishing light. The darker it gets, the more I see.”

What could inform a sunrise picture, one could ask? What would make such an image appropriate? Maybe Kushimi has to feel it. Once we’re living a little closer to what we need daily, when we’re really feeling our place in the planet, maybe the sunrise idea will coalesce. Until then, Kushimi has pretty much captured our collective horizon heading into the third decade of the 21st century.