Critique: ‘The Sea Around Us’

Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture, Mare Clausum – The Sea Watch vs Libyan Coast Guard Case, 2018, 28 min; all images courtesy of the artists and The Model

The Model, Sligo
23 July – 27 September 2020

During lockdown, I reviewed ‘The Sea around Us’ remotely for Perspective magazine. It was a challenging task, and I sought every material available – catalogue essays, artist statements, press release, exhibition layout, audio samples and other online resources – to ensure that my exhibition reading was as informed as possible. Reviewing remotely, however, is far from ideal and most exhibitions are not designed for virtual viewing. What happens when the analogue experience is removed or becomes inaccessible to the viewer? This is essentially a difference between the ‘perceived’ experience of the artworks in a remote viewing context, and the ‘received’ experience of the in-person encounter.

My real-life encounter with ‘The Sea Around Us’ began with two intimate works by Shaun Gladwell and Karen Power. Gladwell’s Storm Sequence in Gallery A is a remarkable piece of filmed performance, presented as an immersive installation. One viewer can experience this artwork at a time; the artist is featured performing a freestyle skateboarding routine on a concrete structure overlooking Bondi Beach. His moves are orchestrated, organic, flowing, liquid-like and combined with a beautiful soundtrack by Sydney-based composer, Kazumichi Grime. The artist has achieved a synergetic relationship with the sea, addressed by his performance. It is compelling, restful and almost mesmeric in its effect on the viewer. The adjoining space contains the sound installation, No man’s land (2020), by composer and sound artist, Karen Power. The composition is the fruit of six-months of field recordings in numerous locations, including Sligo, gathered while Power was artist-in-residence. The installation is experienced in a darkened room. Sound surrounds the listener and different elements of the composition emerge from various speakers. The sound of the sea is most dominant, and an increasing rumble reaches a crescendo. The work is experienced as a sensory journey, in which our sense of hearing is most acute. The wave-like motion of water enfolds the listener like a soothing audio blanket.

Karen Power field recording at the ‘green pond’; photograph by John Godrey

Similarly, Susanne Winterling employs a composer’s ear and artist’s eye in the creation of her remarkable works in Gallery D – planetary opera in three acts, divided by the currents (2018) and planetary loop of gravitation (2018). The viewer enters through a silk portal of hanging scarfs that feature images of microscopic dinoflagellates (marine plankton) that are the subject of this work. This is a sensual and intimate work that explores marine life, climate change and the artist’s personal experiences of the sea. Through our encounter with a huge, curved screen, we are enveloped in a three-dimensional experience, where the whirling and spinning forms progress rapidly towards the eye, akin to snowflakes falling on a windscreen. There is the sound of drops, the crackle of music and static; bells and chimes emerge and retreat, reverberating in the space. Likened to viewing a meteor shower, a bombardment of bright light plays on the eye. The lights slowly turn to lantern-like shapes that twirl and spin; little sea creatures or celestial baubles are caught in an unforgettable, mutable display.

These artworks, defined by intimacy and personal encounter, are contrasted with the more violent and inhumane dimension of the sea. Forensic Oceanography / Forensic Architecture occupy the exhibition’s centre in Gallery C. Through this documentary installation, we gain harrowing insights into the experience of migrants at sea. These videos and timeline act as a stark reminder of injustices that the dispossessed face. Through the headset we hear the real-life scenario of highly charged rescue operations by the Libyan Coastguard and NGO vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. Seemingly, ‘engine fishers’ are often present at these rescues, sometimes carrying Kalashnikovs, to take engines from the boats before the migrants are rescued. In what Forensic Oceanography refers to as “liquid violence”, more than 30,000 migrants have died at sea over the last 30 years.

Susan Winterling, planetary opera in three acts divided by the currents, 2018; photograph by Heike Thiele

In the East Gallery, Vertigo Sea (2015) by Ghanaian-born British filmmaker, John Akomfrah, is an epic, three-channel installation that explores the history, literature, nature and violence of the sea. This monumental artwork features a seemingly endless barrage of imagery across the three screens; whether interrelated or not, this montage of imagery prompts the viewer to make their own connections. The Northern Lights flicker across the screens before transforming to feature sea life. Footage of the seabed is juxtaposed with human portraits. A black man dressed in a British Redcoat uniform stands in a dramatic landscape. A cottage by the sea is shown. Whale hunting is juxtaposed against a mother whale and calf swimming in the sea; whale song comprises the audio, as a harpoon is driven into flesh and the sea becomes red with blood. People are pictured in costume, illustrating different eras. The melting icecaps, sunrise, sunset and climate change are all marshalled into a line of appearances. The imagery appears relentless and yet it is a compelling piece with sound and silences, full of beauty, mystery and horror.    

The intention of this exhibition is to invite audiences to consider the sea as the context for a range of predominantly unseen dramas that are considered through visual and sound works. This sense of journey and sensory response, as well as movement throughout the gallery spaces, constitutes the essence of this exhibition.

Marianne O’Kane Boal is a writer and curator based in County Donegal.