Aquatopia finds the imaginary rules under the sea at Nottingham Contemporary

By Mark Sheerin | 24 July 2013

Exhibition review: Aquatopia – the imaginary of the ocean deep, Nottingham Contemporary, until September 22 2013

Film still in near sepia tones showing a rocky bay with an island out to sea
The Otolith Group, Hydra Decapita (2010). Film still© Courtesy of The Otolith Group
More than 60 miles to the nearest beach, at a time when Nottingham Station has closed, it might be assumed that visitors to this show are confirmed landlubbers. And in a stimulating intro for new show Aquatopia, curator Alex Farquarson gives this landlubbing a name: terracentrism.

Spend an hour or two at Nottingham Contemporary (and you could spend much longer) and you will have gone a small way to redress the balance. Thanks in part to low and watery lighting, plus a generous amount of video, the show offers a good chance to immerse yourself in the imaginary realms of the deep.

You will come across real life monsters. Jean Painlevé, a French cross between David Attenborough and Serge Gainsbourg, narrates the Love Life of the Octopi. His lecherous drawl does little to dispel the stark horror of the cephalopods mating and giving birth in early black and white cinema.

Colour photo of singer Bjork eating black spaghetti, messily
Juergen Teller Bjork, Spaghetti Nero, Venice (2007)© Courtesy of Juergen Teller
Octopi are something of a touchstone in the current show. Hokusai’s famous print in which two of these sea beasts pleasure a woman with all 16 tentacles features. Then so does a reconstructive performance by Spartacus Chetwynd. Visitors may find both erotic, but that takes some explaining.

The inky nature of cephalopods is celebrated in both a painting by Lucien Freud and a photograph by Juergen Teller. Freud paints a still life leaking squid; Teller shoots singer Bjork as she stuffs herself with Spaghetti Nero. You feel you could dip a quill into either striking work, and indeed it is writers rather than artists who have perhaps gone further out to sea and deeper under the surface.

And what have writers found? Well, more monsters in fact. Odysseus came across the sirens, Melville his great white whale. The fearsome Kraken was meanwhile encountered by no less a roll call of scribes than Alfred Lord Tennyson, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, HP Lovecraft and HG Wells.

Photo of a Japanese print in a book which shows two octopi making love to a woman
Katsushika Hokusai, Tako to ama: Pearl Diver and Two Octopi (1814). Illustration from Kinoe no Komatsu: Young Pine Saplings© Courtesy Durham University
Of particular note are the etchings by Gustave Doré based on the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. His prints, which glow with eerie moonlight, capture the roiling depths with exquisitely sharp detail. This series exudes an air of mystery and mayhem; it is a masterclass in suspending disbelief.

His rough contemporary Francis Danby also lets his fancy take flight with paintings of both a deluge and a shipwreck. And in both cases the sea looks like a dark green living entity only too keen to get human victims in its grip. Disaster at sea has never looked so romantic.

But it is horror rather than romance which characterises the voyages of Senegalese mirgants in Mati Diop’s film Atlantiques. A new life in Europe is so desired that death becomes an acceptable risk. The only young man to make it is discovered to be a ghost. Monstrous waves face any who set sail in flat-bottomed pirogues.

And so a fascinating trawl of the depths becomes, in the final analysis, also a show about race. The same impulse which privileges land over sea also puts white above black. So the Atlantic, in particular, will forever be the dystopia of the slave boats who undertook the atrocious “middle passage”.

Thousands of pregnant women were tossed overboard and, in a gesture of hope and wistful thinking, it is suggested by many that the black race found a new home beneath the waves. The Otolith Group explore this notion with a 30-minute film, Hydra Decapita.

Given that babies really can breathe underwater, this must be the most tantalising of all the ideas on display in this fantastical show. But the filmic treatment here is cerebral, dry and oblique. Perhaps this is a strategy to throw a white bourgeoisie off the scent and ensure the ocean retains some of its secrets.

And it surely has many. What this show ably demonstrates is that the oceans have been thoroughly imagined and if there was a race to claim the depths, culture would be well ahead of science. It is our unconscious relation to the waters which makes us what we are, not our relation to the planets.

There is a quote in the 2010 film about Anselm Kiefer (Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow) which sums it up: “We are essentially water. We come from the sea. We are sea creatures.”

So speaks the most earthy and methodical of painters. Whatever your interest in art, you will find something compelling about this show.

  • Open 10am-7pm (6pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @Nottm_Contemp.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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