On the torrid morning of October 20, 1991, a brush fire fanned by Diablo wind gusts transformed the tinder-dry Oakland hills near the Caldecott Tunnel into what would be the country’s most devastating urban wildfire, killing 25 people, injuring 150, destroying thousands of homes and apartments, and charring fifteen hundred acres during its three-day rampage. Twenty years later, the area has been rebuilt to tougher fire-prevention standards, but such collective traumas are never completely forgotten, even by those relatively unaffected: The recent minor quakes in Berkeley no doubt revived many 1989 Loma Prieta jitters.
1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, Photographs by Richard Misrach, now at the Oakland Museum and the Berkeley Art Museum, tells the disturbing story, powerfully. Misrach, who lives in Berkeley, drove around after the fire with his view camera, taking two hundred pictures, and then shelved the work because of ethical considerations for two decades, going on to other projects — Graecism, Golden Gate, Desert Cantos, and Bravo 20 Bombing Range — that also examine the fraught relationship between people and land (as shown in a sampling downstairs in Berkeley). The forty Oakland fire photographs in this show are grim but strangely beautiful, serving both history and art. OMCA Photography Curator Drew Johnson sees them as factual documents (as Misrach does) that tell “the many stories of California and the people and events that shape our heritage.” BAM Chief Curator Lucinda Barnes sees them as “astounding works of art, which also serve as a provocative means of collective memory. As in much of [Misrach’s] work, the fire photographs explore man’s effects on the natural environment; in many cases, the result is decay and destruction but there is also profound beauty in them.”
That difference in interpretation is reflected in how the works are displayed: In Oakland, they fill a large, low-ceilinged gallery and are dramatically lit, suggesting shrines or grottos; in Berkeley, they hang in tall, light-filled rooms akin to white-cube art galleries. Both venues contain the “elegy books” that Misrach made so that viewers could share their memories and reflections. However displayed, Misrach’s fourteen large prints and 26 medium-size prints depicting landscapes of ash dotted with charred brick chimneys, desolate lawns and hillsides, scorched trees, and melted vehicles and appliances are understated and austerely beautiful. 1991: Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath runs through February 12 at Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St., Oakland; 510-318-8400 or MuseumCA.org) and through February 5 (with November 13 and December 4 events scheduled) at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley; 510-643-6494 or BAMPFA.berkeley.edu).