The Other Dark and Now Wakes the Sea had several points in common. Apart from running almost concurrently in the Cork area, Kirstie North curated the Sirius Arts Centre exhibition and co-curated the Glucksman show with Chris Clarke. Tacita Dean’s work featured in both exhibitions, as did Lucy Skaer’s (working in collaboration with Rosalind Nashashibi in The Other Dark). Both exhibitions were concerned with responding to a haunting resonance, the origins of which are submerged either in time or in the ocean’s depths. And, finally, there is the sea: it was the subject of Now Wakes the Sea but an inescapable presence outside the windows of the Sirius where The Other Dark held sway. Given that both shows trace links between distant objects and events, whether through space, history, or the subconscious, it was hard to escape the feeling of the ocean being a connecting medium between them.
The Other Dark brought together pieces by Dean, Skaer / Nashashibi and Jeremy Millar that revisit or reach back to particular works from art history. The two pieces featured by Jeremy Millar reference German art historian Aby Warburg. The Man Who Looked Back (2010) is based on Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1924-1929), a project described by Christopher D. Johnson as an ‘attempt to map the “afterlife of antiquity,” or how images of great symbolic, intellectual, and emotional power emerge in Western antiquity and then reappear and are reanimated in the art and cosmology of later times’. Millar’s panel ‘map’ of images, based on the format of Warburg’s Atlas, consists of representations of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice from throughout history. In this legend, Orpheus is allowed to reclaim Eurydice from the afterlife provided he does not look back at her, which he does with dire consequences. This citation problematizes the act of ‘looking back’ while granting ambiguous success to the Orphic journey of reclamation. In the context of this show, it could be read as saying that it is possible to approach objects and moments lost in the past, but it is the process of doing so and the distance covered that offer rewards. The original ‘look’ upon the work that inspired this process is impossible to replicate with the passage of time.
Rather than a direct ‘look back’ at any of the artworks they reference, the pieces in this exhibition did mainly approach them as beacons to navigate a journey through space (Dean) or time (Nashashibi / Skaer). Dean’s audio documentation of her search for the site of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, the narrative of a journey, even contains the suggestion that Smithson’s directions were simply a ruse to allow people to experience the beautiful landscape she passes through. Nashashibi / Skaer’s film Our Magnolia (2009) sees Paul Nash’s 1944 painting Flight of the Magnolia, created under the shadow of anticipated German invasion, through the filter of more recent contexts such as the Iraq War and Thatcherism. Yet it is filmed and projected on the increasingly rare medium of 16mm, which lends it a sense of operating outside of the contemporary moment, especially when it shows computer monitors shot on grainy celluloid in a reversal of the now usual sight of digitized celluloid images. Rather than speaking from one point in time or the other, this aesthetic decision allows the artists to gather and encompass multiple moments without quite belonging to any. Millar’s Melancholy Mobile (2017) sculptures translate a mysterious polyhedron that appears in an Albrecht Dürer engraving through Alexander Calder’s suspended shapes. The resulting forms reverse the ‘looking back’ found in the rest of the show to instead present an object that has travelled through art history and arrived with us reshaped by it along the way.
Now Wakes the Sea was to be found some miles inland from the Sirius, at a distance from the coast that turned out to be quite appropriate. This take on ‘contemporary art and the ocean’ borrowed its title from a J.G. Ballard story in which an ancient sea is now the site of a suburb. For one of its residents, however, this ocean returns every night and threatens to engulf the neighbourhood. This exhibition likewise addressed the sea as something distant and other, a haunting concept that readily acts as medium for ideas and sensations of submersion and salvage, as well as the seduction of oblivion.
Tacita Dean’s photographs concerning the disappearance of Donald Crowhurst effectively rely on the absence of the ocean for their power. Crowhurst was an amateur sailor who succumbed to insanity and suicide in 1969 while attempting to circumnavigate the world alone on a trimaran. Dean bookends this archetypal narrative with one archive shot of Crowhurst setting out on his voyage and two contemporary photographs of Berwick Lighthouse, as if still awaiting his safe arrival. Between these discreet documentary images, the ocean is a vast and chilling lacuna that has swallowed the man and his story whole. Andreas Kindler von Knobloch, by contrast, enacts the simple desire for sublime experience through photo-documenting his sailing excursions around Dublin Bay. These images resemble nothing so much as advertising for an outdoor pursuits line. He references another disappearance at sea, that of conceptual artist Bas Jan Adler, but does so as a sort of elusive experiential horizon to which his overbearingly emphasized presence can only provide an ironic counterpoint.
Marcel Dinahet approaches disappearance at sea from an arguably more poignant angle, although in this case the disappearance is of his art works in the ocean depths rather than of people. His two videos featured in the exhibition document sculptural pieces installed at the bottom of the sea. These stone objects have a deceptively functional appearance that makes them feel part of their marine surroundings in the way that old wreckage might, their texture blending well with the surrounding sands. The underwater camera in these looped videos repeatedly passes over the works, unable to find a fixed position in the current and thus giving the impression of an obsessively repeated final glance at objects that the artist can’t quite bring himself to definitively relinquish to the anonymity of the seabed. Sean Lynch’s photographs only seem to confirm Dinahet’s anxieties. The history behind his pictures of metal casts from a bankrupt Belfast DeLorean factory repurposed as anchors in Galway Bay is provided in print, but the testimony of his images is pure texture. The leveling power of the rusting seawater prevails and seems to erase any trace of prior histories.
Back on the water’s surface, an installation by Conrad Shawcross documents a rowing trip he took up the River Lea, a tributary of the Thames, with almost parodic literalness. Its centerpiece is a video emitting from a projector mounted in a boat. This rotates 360 degrees like an earnest little robot replicating the circular movement of Shawcross’ camcorder recording the journey in real time.
Lucy Skaer also presents us with a ‘boat’ but one that is still journeying. Her Good Ship Blank and Ballast (2010-2018) is part of an ongoing project based on Plato’s Ship of Fools that evolves as it moves from gallery to gallery. In this iteration, it is a small boat-shaped object with cloth sails, and concrete blocks around its base. The pattern in the sails is actually a reflection of the floor tile pattern featured in a previous installation of this project. Without that context, however, it immediately evokes a more general sense of the urban, domestic and manmade, as suggested by the materials she employs. Reshaped as a boat, these elements are set adrift by the sea as a subconscious image of instability. It was the first work that visitors encountered on entering the exhibition and perfectly encapsulated this uncanny Ballardian thematic that ran through the show. If drift underlies Skaer’s pieces, Maria McKinney’s troubling Abyssals (2014) are more suggestive of submergence. These are large net sculptures containing materials such as fruit and vegetables, false nails, expanding foam and concrete, as well as the artist’s breath. Large in scale and unsettlingly intimate in material, their shapes resemble organic undersea growths, as if supported and formed by water on all sides. Yet these cloying forms are composed of manmade detritus, combining edible, cosmetic, building and bodily elements in a way that suggests an oneiric and startling reconfiguring of discarded matter that is still invisibly clinging to us.
The seductive lure of the sea also flowed through the exhibition thanks to the presence of Janaina Tschäpe’s work. Not only were her paintings hung at intervals throughout the show, but the liltingly woozy Russian sailor’s song that accompanies her wonderful video He Drowned in Her Eyes as She Called Him to Follow (2000) also drifted across the whole gallery, a siren song drawing visitors towards this last piece in the show. It is a semi-narrative work that suggests mermaid legends as it follows the dazed wanderings of a woman apparently fished from the sea. Its infectious atmosphere of sea, sun and sensuousness effortlessly absorbs kitsch and nostalgia into a shimmering and fragile lo-fi visual texture which seems constantly on the point of dissolving everything in light and water. The joy of dissolving is, however, ultimately linked to loss and death. Tschäpe’s video is an appropriately celebratory summation of the ambivalent attraction of this watery oblivion that flowed throughout Now Wakes the Sea.
The Other Dark and Now Wakes the Sea approached their subjects obliquely, as reflections or echoes. The primary concerns relating to both the ocean and to art historical landmarks were presented not as isolated or discrete points of interest, but as having been fully absorbed by contemporary forms of artistic awareness, while remaining resonant within them. The way in which the vastness of the sea and the deep reservoir of art historical tradition haunt contemporary art and culture was subtly articulated by both of these exhibitions.
The Other Dark was on view 16 July – 26 August 2017. Now Wakes the Sea was on view 4 August – 5 November 2017.