Art and the oceanic world: A review of Pandora Syperek and Sarah Wade’s (eds.) Oceans: Documents of Contemporary Art

by Julia Biggs

“The sea is veritably a great artist.”

Jules Michelet, The Milky Sea, 1861

In their new and important anthology, Oceans: Documents of Contemporary Art (London/Cambridge, Massachusetts: Whitechapel Gallery/The MIT Press, 2023), art historians Pandora Syperek and Sarah Wade set out to foreground the unique contribution made by art and visual culture to the oceanic turn (referencing parallel developments in the Blue Humanities and critical ocean studies).  Bringing together diverse voices (artists, curators and writers) across five coherently organised sections, Syperek and Wade explore how contemporary creative practices, with their capacity for interdisciplinarity and multimodality, defy dominant models of visualising the sea, and offer instead radical, compelling modes of aquatic thought. 

Cover image for the book 'Oceans'

As the introduction notes, the texts in this volume (spanning painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, collage, photography, installation, performance, multimedia, model making, contemporary craft, electronic music, video, feature-length film, photo essay, performative lecture and children’s animation) negotiate “oceanic otherness on the one hand, and the experience of immersion and interconnectedness on the other”(p.13), pointing towards watery, microbial, gelatinous, frozen and geological oceanic materialities.  Section 1, Bodies (In and Out) of Water, examines the sea’s paradoxical potential to both “uphold and dissolve restraints on colonised and gendered bodies” (p.15) via artists such as Nadia Huggins (who queers the Caribbean Sea in her 2014 photographic series Circa No Future), writers including Luce Irigaray (whose 1980 text Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche interrogates the dichotomy between dry land, the terrain of the Übermensch, and the feminised sea), and influential theories (like Kamau Braithwaite’s ‘tidalectics’). 

Section 2, Aquatic Imaginaries, focuses on artists’ mythic and psychical associations with the ocean, covering everything from Guy Ben-Ner’s playful video work, in which he restages Moby Dick in his kitchen, recasting the sublime terror of Herman Melville’s novel in the domestic setting of twenty-first century fatherhood, to Drexciya’s Afrofuturist visions.  Reference is also made to artists such as Brian Jungen, who addresses marine life by drawing on methods of display often seen in natural history museums.  (Jungen’s sculpture Shapeshifter [2000] represents a giant whale skeleton, articulated from white plastic garden chairs, suspended from the ceiling.) 

Increasingly, as the collection maps, contemporary art and exhibitions have responded to the call to reflect on the nonhuman Otherness of the sea and its interspecies encounters.  Translating perceived difference is something present in a number of the artworks highlighted in Section 3, Alien Seas?. These pieces play with the boundaries between human and marine life, but also consider the ocean from a less anthropocentric perspective.  Consequently, the reader is taken from hard-to-classify coral to Ant Farm’s 1974 multispecies Dolphin Embassy concept via Eva Hayward’s incredibly evocative analysis of the immersive Drifters jellyfish display at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California (which, as a simulated dive, attempts to integrate visitors in both the exhibit and the water, diluting the separation humans feel from the sea).  The latter ties in with Shimabuku’s various octopus-centred projects, beginning with Exhibition in a Refrigerator (1990), that draws attention in a comical way to the spectacle of Otherness that is often associated with the aquarium.  

Section 4, Crossings, turns to those artists engaging with, complicating and destabilising the masculinist and colonial narrative of ocean conquest.  Key examples include Jan Verwoert’s account of Bas Jan Ader’s tragic romantic-conceptual work In Search of the Miraculous (1975), and Chris Dobrowolski’s humorous early piece Seascape Escape (2014), which saw him build a boat in an attempt to escape art college in Hull. (Rather than a heroic narrative of maritime exploration or triumph, his efforts were ultimately futile and anticlimactic.)  Another project of note, discussed by Bergit Arends, is Klara Hobza’s ongoing Diving Through Europe (2009-2039), in which the artist documents in ways that are both funny and poignant, her lived experience of the sea and European waterways. “I highly recommend breathing underwater” she says, “it changes your perspective on life altogether”. 

Section 5, Anthropocene Oceans, deals with the risks humans pose to marine environments, tracing ocean ecology’s entanglement with the infrastructures of capitalism and imperialism via texts that stress the need to attend to inequalities and eschew human exceptionalism. Here, the reader encounters Betty Beaumont’s Ocean Landmark (1978-1980), a public artwork that is underwater in the Atlantic Ocean and was created from recycling coal ash to create a sustainable marine ecosystem and fishery.  Moving beyond traditional concepts of the oceanic, we encounter a more liminal space in Sonia Levy’s video work, as the overlooked lifeforms in Britain’s muddy and murky canals (and the connection of these habitats to the histories of Empire) are explored.  Created together with anthropologist Heather Anne Swanson, this project demonstrates a growing tendency to work collaboratively.  Collective authorship is also central to pieces such as Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s Crochet Coral Reef (2005-ongoing), which involves a global community crocheting ever-evolving coral creations to add to elaborate woolly reef installations.  As Donna Haraway remarks, this is “palpable, polymorphous, terrifying and inspiring stitchery”.

This enlightening collection proffers a range of exciting oceanic models, harbouring fluid artistic, art historical and exhibition possibilities that are transdisciplinary, transhistorical, trans-geographical and trans-species.  In absorbing water-based imaginaries, critically reflecting on the sea’s sensuous connectivity and looking towards an aquatic form of posthumanism, this volume will undoubtedly serve as a valuable reference source for scholars and general readers alike.

Julia Biggs is an independent art historian, writer and lecturer. She has published introductory guides to Raphael and Renaissance Art and has contributed to catalogue texts including Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Her recent research explores haunting seascapes and sublime terror, the culinary uncanny and the delicious excesses of the Gothic mode. Her poetry and short fiction has featured in various journals and magazines in print and online.     

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