Ken and Julia Yonetani, Sweet Barrier Reef, 2009/17, sugar, vegetable gum, polystyrene foam. Installation view, Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art. Photo: Sam Noonan. Courtesy the artists and Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo

Countercurrents | The Ocean After Nature

Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art
 

Alex Seton, Someone Else’s Problem, 2015, marble epoxy, Tasmanian oak, stainless steel. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney
Alex Seton, Someone Else’s Problem, 2015, marble epoxy, Tasmanian oak, stainless steel. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney. Installation view, Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia. Photo: Sam Noonan

2016 closed as the most recent hottest year on record globally.  In its wake continents and islands continue to surrender to rising tides as dusty bodies to a warming salty bath. The Ocean After Nature, curated by Alaina Claire Feldman (ICI, New York), delves ambitiously into the task of exploring life in the Anthropocene. Feldman agrees that humans have superseded nature and the exhibition provides an intricate and expansive collection of critically contemporary presentations on the ocean that yet manage to retain the qualities of wonder and incommensurability intrinsic to its amorphous fluid history.

The Ocean After Nature presents content of seemingly unfathomable depth. The combined running time for sound and video works exceeds eight hours. Excess seems to be a deliberate curatorial strategy and the exhibition demands navigation skills, repeated visits, food and water, a jumper and a folding chair. Despite the overcrowding, Feldman’s curation is adventurous, difficult and refreshing. The Ocean After Nature is a porous non-traditional exhibition, incorporating documentary film, activist projects, collaborative groups, music and performance, inviting local work from every city it stops in. She takes her starting place from Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s documentary The Forgotten Space, which engages in a critique of capitalism by following global trading systems across oceans and through communities.

Countercurrents, curated by Gillian Brown and Erica Green from the Samstag Museum, provides a Pacific Ocean oriented response, installed in the downstairs galleries. This exhibition provides a powerful connection to The Ocean After Nature through the overwhelming impact of Leviathan by Fiona Tan. Leviathan propels archival whaling footage into current discourses on human–animal relations and their economic contexts. The large-scale video projection shows mountainous creatures impersonally sliced and butchered. I squint through the scratched film surface into the steam rising from the cuts and watch entrails uncoil under their own weight as workers go about their grim daily business. One young man rests a moment to smile at the camera, casually leaning on a whale and tilting his cap towards a future that recoils in horror. This momentous pause provides fleeting contact with an individual worker within a mighty and growing capitalist system. The whale blubber we watch spilling on the deck will be scooped up to fuel the expansion of empires.

Fiona Tan, Leviathan, 2015, single-channel HD video still. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery
Fiona Tan, Leviathan, 2015, single-channel HD video still. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery 

Art critic Boris Groys raises questions as to the relationship of aesthetics to art activism, observing that the yardstick of real world effect can cause politically engaged art to fail traditional measures of artistic quality.[1] Counter to this tendency, Tan activates aesthetic affect and in doing so calls up feeling that might lead toward change.  Curating the political, affective and immersive aesthetic at the 2015 Venice Biennale, curator Okwui Enwezor’s positioning of the work currently touring Australia and New Zealand that would have worked well here was Vertigo Sea (2015) by John Akomfrah, which brings footage of the ocean from BBC archives into conversation with romantic paintings, global industry and the legend of Moby Dick.[2] The regional relevance of this work to postcolonial dialogue is clear.

That aside, taking an eco-feminist position in her curatorial essay for Ocean After Nature, Feldman asserts that “Many of our current problems were developed by capitalist patriarchy built on the foundation of governing women, others and nature”.[3] Appropriate then is her inclusion of Subatlantic by Swiss video essayist Ursula Biemann, who presents a potential future in human–ocean interactions. Biemann’s envisioned world is structured around the story of a female scientist who undertakes close observational research at the edge of a sea. Delicate footage (devoid of humans) witnesses watery communities. On- screen statements tend towards the educational, informing us that “intense co-habitation can only unhinge new thought processes”. The work provides a post-human approach to the oceanic sublime, situating the immense mystery of the ocean in the minutiae of its lively and constantly shifting connections. Biemann creates an optimistic future where humans no longer dominate environments and have evolved ways of living in close attunement with the world.

Ursula Biemann, Subatlantic, 2015, video, colour, sound. 11:24 min. Courtesy and © the artist
Ursula Biemann, Subatlantic, 2015, video, colour, sound. 11:24 min. Courtesy and © the artist

Meanwhile, in space, another animate ocean waits to know humans.  Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris (based on Stanisław Lem's 1961 novel) and its wonderfully strange living ocean provides context and content for Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius’s video work. Fans of Solaris will appreciate the care and joy taken to achieve a similar tone to the film. The video is multilayered, containing traces of dialogue from the film and drawing on unused parts of the original novel. Performing the work, Donatas Banionis (Kris Kelvin in the film) and the artist wander through disconnected 1970s-designed Soviet industrial spaces while voicing words from the texts and personal reflections. The future has become the past, and Solaris’s intelligent ocean is notionally relocated to earth by grainy photos older than the original texts.

Revisiting Solaris is one of many works in the exhibition that use archives, pull events and other times into conversation with contemporary actions. In this sense, the willingness of The Ocean After Nature to leak into political economy and artifacts beyond the gallery allows it to act as both witness and protagonist, offering a compelling thesis on the potential of curation and politically engaged art.

Deimantas Narkevičius, Revisiting Solaris, 2007, video, colour, sound. 18 min.  Courtesy the the artist and LUX, London
Deimantas Narkevičius, Revisiting Solaris, 2007, video, colour, sound. 18 min.  Courtesy the the artist and LUX, London 

An arresting echo of Tan’s work occurs in At Sea by the recently deceased filmmaker Peter Hutton.  Also projected at large scale this silent one-hour film observes the life and journey of a colossal container ship. Like the vast whale bodies located in the gallery below, Hutton’s ship dwarfs those that work on it and dominates each frame with dark impenetrable metal.  The most powerful images document the ship’s slow deconstruction by many hands in a Bangladesh shipyard. Reading Hutton’s work in parallel to Tan’s Leviathan leaves me wondering whether future generations will watch our relationship to material resources with anything but derision.  This filmmaker’s long career was augmented by stints working on ships. He said that “when you spend a long time at sea, your eyes get activated in a really interesting way ... you feel like you’re almost an astronaut, you’re out there looking at things most people haven’t had the pleasure of seeing”.

Ocean-attuned vision can be found in Mati Diop’s Atlantiques (2009) in which a mysterious sea gently mixes with human desire and contemporary migration politics. Boys leave home and tell tales of men who become fish and swim to new lands. Diop’s fifteen-minute video hovers between documentary and fiction. It centres on a young man’s treacherous sea migration aboard an overcrowded pirogue from Senegal to Spain. Diop’s low-definition camera produces flickering footage that exudes dreamlike fragility. I’m not sure whether the young men have arrived or are still travelling. And more disquieting still is the suggestion that the central character Serigne Seck (appearing as himself) may now be dead. The film moves in circles without resolution, concluding ambiguously with text that reveals a man’s burning desire to flow into the ocean.

Mati Diop, Atlantiques, 2009, video, colour, sound (Wolof and French with English subtitles), 15 min. Courtesy the artist and Le Fresnoy Studio
Mati Diop, Atlantiques, 2009, video, colour, sound (Wolof and French with English subtitles), 15 min. Courtesy the artist and Le Fresnoy Studio

The Samstag Museum has an architectural void through its centre allowing a visual connection between the upstairs and downstairs galleries. Just over the drop from Diop’s gritty, sensitive document hangs Alex Seton’s Someone Else’s Problem, as part of Countercurrents. The static cluster of Tasmanian oak and cast marble oars hang like a chandelier in a well-heeled first world home, while evoking the frantic struggle to reach land. Next to Diop’s warm and individualised imagining of migration Seton seems to raise a situation without entering its complexity.  Missing the emotional punch of Seton’s previous works, Someone Else’s Problem risks aestheticised labour filling in for content. So much more is here at stake for Australian audiences.

Similarly, but perhaps more effectively realised, Ken and Julia Yonetani’s Sweet Barrier Reef echoes the ridges on Tan’s whale bodies through surfaces of raked sugar that invite the consumption of fragile environments. Created as a site-specific work for the Samstag Museum, the work relies heavily on the spectacular, perfectly detailed sugar forms. Here Boris Groys’s observations about aesthetics and politics are played out in the delightfully detailed material objects and dappled light which undermine (by overshadowing) the environmental politics that the work references.

Angela Tiatia’s performance video Holding On (2015) achieves more by positioning her vulnerable body in solidarity with those Pacific island people already facing the rising ocean. In a video performance she lies impassive on a coffin-scale concrete block as the ocean washes over her. Crabs bother her and waves become rougher and she is forced to grip the ground. Her simple performance of holding on is patient, determined and captivating to watch.

Angela Tiatia, Holding On, 2015, still from digital moving image, single-channel HD video, 169, colour, sound. Courtesy the artist and Alcaston Gallery, Narrm Melbourne
Angela Tiatia, Holding On, 2015, still from digital moving image, single-channel HD video, 169, colour, sound. Courtesy the artist and Alcaston Gallery, Narrm Melbourne

Bringing a much-needed moment of humour, Baden Pailthorpe’s ultra-slick, game-like and quasi-military instructional animation demonstrates how to refuel (or perhaps be refueled by) a dolphin. What exactly is going on between the creatures is unclear, but the advertisement-like video seems to give assurances that both the animal and human are happy, clean and unharmed. Darkly funny and deeply uncomfortable, the work is driven by an electronic beat that suggests that something awesome is always just about to happen. Given the militarisation of sea borders, this is likely to be something terrible.  

Countercurrents and The Ocean After Nature join a raft of creative projects and exhibitions across the globe turning their attention to the watery world. John Akomfrah, speaking with art historian Anthony Downey, discusses Turner’s Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on.[4] He positions the work as part of a tendency to assume that the sea washes clean the sins of the land – an attitude that continues as chemical wash from the harbours of the world’s cities. In this new epoch the oceans are becoming warmer, plastic collects to form new islands and the bodies are starting to wash back up. 

Baden Pailthorpe, BP F–35 (Seaquest), 2015, HD video. Courtesy and © the artist
Baden Pailthorpe, BP F–35 (Seaquest), 2015, HD video. Courtesy and © the artist
Ken + Julia Yonetani, Sweet Barrier Reef (detail), 2009/17, sugar, vegetable gum, polystyrene foam. Installation view, Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art.  Courtesy the artists and Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo
Ken and Julia Yonetani, Sweet Barrier Reef (detail), 2009/17, sugar, vegetable gum, polystyrene foam. Installation view, Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art. Photo: Sam Noonan. Courtesy the artists and Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo

Footnotes

  1. ^ Boris Groys, On Art Activism, e-flux journal, issue 56, June 2014.  
  2. ^ Vertigo Sea was included in the exhibition, Troubled Waters, at UNSW Galleries, presented in partnership with Toi Moroki, the Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA), Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2016, and was also recently on view at the John Curtin Gallery as part of the Perth International Arts Festival, 2017. 
  3. ^ Quotes from Alaina Feldman and exhibiting artists are drawn from The Ocean After Nature Catalogue published by ICI New York.  
  4. ^ John Akomfrah in Conversation with Anthony Downey at the Arnolfini, Bristol, 2016: https://vimeo.com/154862309.

Sasha Gribch is a visual artist and a lecturer at the Adelaide Central School of Art.

Crosscurrents (3 March – 13 April 2017), curated by Gillian Brown and Erica Green, includes works by Daniel Boyd, Baden Pailthorpe, Alex Seton, Fiona Tan, Angela Tiatia, James Tylor, Ken and Julia Yonetani.

The Ocean After Nature (3 March – 9 June 2017), curated by Alaina Claire Feldman, Independent Curators International (ICI), New York, features works by Ursula Biemann, CAMP, Yonatan Cohen & Rafi Segal, Mati Diop, Drexciya, Peter Fend, Renée Green, Peter Hutton, Hyung S. Kim, Manny Montelibano, Deimantas Narkevičius, The Otolith Group, Maria D. Rapicavoli, Supersudaca, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch and the UNITED BROTHERS.