To the Most Remote Atoll in the Marshall Islands
Monopol Magazine, 3 January, 2017
In the final weeks of the US election, as the world chewed fingernails and the nights grew longer, Julian Charrière and I jumped ship. We travelled to the Marshall Islands, a constellation of atolls some four thousand kilometers south-west of Hawaii, spread over 37,000 square km of the remote Pacific. Upon arriving in Majuro, first town past the international date line, we boarded a refitted pearl-diving boat and set sail for Bikini Atoll. It would take three days of swell, on the beam – rolling seas and stomachs – before we would reach its lagoon.
Bikini lies at the outer fringes of collective imagination – on the horizon of military-industrial endeavor, colonial excess and contemporary infrastructure. For the last sixty years it has been a veritable ghostland. Between 1947 and 1958, 23 of the most powerful manmade explosions in history occurred there. During this period, American bombs delivering a combined fission yield of 42.2 megatons were detonated. The force of one of these, codenamed Castle Bravo, was enough to vaporize two islands and gouge a massive crater – measuring 2000 metres in diameter – out of the primordial reef. Another threw a fleet of 70 captured and decommissioned WW2 battleships – some of them up to 250 metres long – up into the air. A few were ripped to shreds. Others, like the USS Saratoga and the HIJMS Nagato – storied flagships of the US and Japanese navies – eventually sank to the bottom, where their rusting hulks remain today. During this period, obliterated geology would become radioactive particles, carried on the wind to then fall on nearby communities. Meanwhile, the people of Bikini, who had been ‘asked’ to temporarily leave their home to make way for a series of experiments ventured “for the good of mankind and to end all wars” began to learn the meaning of an exile that continues until present. Today their physical ungrounding is further paralleled in the realm of linguistic identification. MS Word’s autocorrect allows ‘Bikini’ but not ‘Bikinian’. Rather than a place, a culture, or a people, the designation has – as we all know – become most associated with a swimsuit, created by French designer Louis Réard, who named it with an eye to explosive allusion.
The aim of our expedition was to explore Bikini’s atomic landscape while Charrière developed a new body of work. Over the course of four weeks, spent accessing abandoned sites, above and below water – from muggy jungle to the rusting Pacific Ghost Fleet, submerged deep below sea-level – we shot material for his new video piece entitled Iroojrilik. Daily, at dawn and sunset, Charrière also worked on a photo series documenting the crumbling command, control and observation bunkers that ring the lagoon. In addition to time behind the camera, there were deformed coconuts and other abnormal biological specimens to collect, as well as Geiger counter readings to attend to – keeping us tuned in to the unseen, and critical, radioactive dimension.
Every morning we shot the wrecks, diving with double tanks and a smaller third containing 84 percent oxygen for use during decompression procedures. The 50 metre descent, with camera and lights in tow, would invariably deliver the bow of a warship with hydrodynamic lines as big as buildings; rust, guns, and huge propellors emerging out of brackish plankton soup. These were groggy visions – the dark sleep of modernism, the height of 20th Century engineering, overturned, sometimes torn up, by the explosive force of atomic technological achievement. From midday onwards we would put ashore at one of the remaining islands of the atoll. Here we were seeking angular concrete bunkers, situated on sandy shores like lost pyramids – rebar poking out through their rotting walls – or hidden beneath thick palm fronds.
One day, Julian and I are out on a sandbar as the day begins to wane. By the time we are set up a cloud of rain sets in and our gear becomes hopelessly exposed. I grab the video camera and run to the island’s bushline for shelter. Julian stays put to shoot stills. I take in the scene of pink and blue sky, and an empty beach, but for us, in the middle of the Pacific. I find my first conch shell. It is big and ancient – a token for a natural world that I have often imagined but rarely known. It is sitting in white coral sand, next to a weather-beaten a plastic toy gun and a disintegrating MDF office table. The moon rises above the water like sixties celluloid. Somewhere, someone has won.
The next day we are up before dawn to capture its break, but the sun is hidden, instead, behind a grey lump of cloud. The boat is already in motion and we are steaming towards the Bravo Crater; once the epicenter of the biggest nuclear explosion in history. As we draw closer, our geiger counter increasingly vocal, I climb the stairs to the bridge. Immediately, the Captain – mid satellite-phone call to his mother – blurts out the election result. Down. We drop into the crater left by the bomb and are immediately surrounded by four grey reef sharks. I turn around and another is right behind me. I take pains to look it in the eyes, show it the full length of my body and blow intimidating bubbles. My BCD keeps inflating, involuntarily, and I cannot keep my depth steady. The dive is unsettling. I tell Julian as much once we are back onboard but he has a different take. There, at ground-zero, in a man-made crater brought into being by a paradoxical combination of too much cunning, willful ignorance, adventurism and imperious greatness, was something worth noticing: A few heads of coral, even schools of colored reef fish. All this, growing in the veritable depths of hubris.