Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Underwater at the Spacex

The new exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter, Underwater, is all about submersion. All the works on display depict underwater worlds and their denizens, and the human incursions into and explorations of this alien environment. Several evoke the feeling of floating in this supportive medium, thicker than air, which becomes like the dream depths of the unconscious. The art reflects the responses of the imagination to this highly suggestive realm, which forms such a large part of our planet and yet is at a remove from our experience of it, a place where human presence can only ever be provisional and temporary. It is a reminder of the strangeness of the world, of the explosion of life-forms vented from its depths. There is a strong strain of the fantastic in these works, the undersea worlds being sufficiently alien to prompt visions of strange landscapes, mutations of recognisable forms and the broadcast of eerie sounds of obscure provenance. The association of oceanic depths with the subconscious has also led to some deep diving into the wide and murky sea of archetypal symbols, uncovering the embodiments of buried desires and dimly recollected illumination.

The first work you see is Janaina Tschape’s Moss, one of three videos which feature women floating in serene suspension just below the water’s surface, neither wholly of one world nor the other. All three are imbued with an air of languid and sensuous female sexuality. Tschape’s video has a slightly disconcerting, vertiginous effect in that the woman’s face which we look down upon never breaks the surface. The video is evidently, though not perceptibly, playing on a loop. We see her head, haloed in thick, mossy weeds, roll from side to side as if drifting with the rhythm of a tidal flow. Her features are relaxed in a look of pleasure and fulfilment. Rather than Millais’ passive Ophelia, waiting to sink beneath the surface into death, she is a nymph returned to her natural element. The impact of the video is slightly lessened by its proximity to the gallery windows, which let too much light onto the wall on which it is projected. We could have been more wholly immersed in its slowly rolling swell if the room had been a little darker.

Entering the main space of the gallery, you immediately become aware of the regular echoing blips of sonar, occasionally embedded in a diffuse cloud of diffuse, muffled rumbling. This extra dimension of sound, which in fact emanates from one particular piece, adds to the overall atmosphere of the exhibition, maintaining a feeling of having entered a zone separate from the world beyond the walls. In the corridor space between the main display areas, you come across the second of the three floating woman videos. This is Dorothy Cross’ Jellyfish Lake (you can see a bit here), and in this case, the film is shot from beneath the water’s surface, looking upward. The artist’s face is hidden, breathing the air as her body floats in the lake, half in one world, half in the other. It thus provides a reflective contrast with Tschape’s video, and the two works are a good introduction to the exhibition; submersion first observed from above and then experienced below at the borderlands between the worlds of air and water. Jellyfish float and pulse in a translucent dance about Cross’ head and upper torso, like thoughts made manifest. Her hair billows about her, once more resembling water weeds wafted by tidal flow, or by the currents of dreams. This sets off cinematic associations in my mind, and I recall the water weeds trailing beneath the flowing stream of his home which cosmonaut Kris attempts to replicate in the arid technological surroundings of the space station orbiting the oceanic planet of Solaris; and the corpse of Willa Harper in Night of the Hunter, rooted to her car at the bottom of the local lake with her long hair waving upwards, achieving an eerie beauty in death which her harsh life had denied her.

Turning to the right, we come across works on paper by two artists who conjure new forms to populate the Atlantics or Pacifics of an evolutionary future, or perhaps oceans elsewhere in the Universe. Ellen Gallagher’s strangely aestheticised creature is perhaps a part of some new, revivified post-human coral reef ecology, self-assembling itself from the detritus of the ocean floor; part living creature, part baroque fantasy architecture. Ed Pien covers a wall with his drawings of mutated forms. His pictures are like elaborations of doodles swiftly set down on paper as they are scooped from the unconscious. His half-formed, embryonic creatures seem either to be undergoing some violent birth or to be in the process of tearing themselves apart. They are like pages from the sketchbook of a Victorian travelling showman, recording the imaginary life of the specimens displayed in his cabinet of curiosities. The rank of sketches is best glanced over in sweeping fashion, leaving an impression of an aggressively teeming subaquatic environment, possibly contained within the confines of some laboratory tank which corresponds to the churning imaginative pool from which the artist draws.

On the other side of the room from Ed Pien’s drawings, we come across the object which is emitting the sounds that fill the rest of the gallery. This is Cut and Scrape’s Submarine II, a sculpture of a giant squid wrapping its tentacles around a submarine, which evidently takes its inspiration from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The submarine is mounted on what looks like an old telescope stand, with the telescope itself incorporated by the looks of it, and the whole tableau has the look of a magnified version of an old model kit of the kind produced by Airfix or Revell. The giant squid is fashioned from a plastic bottle and plastic tubing, the detritus of the human world, and pulses with bright, shifting LED colours, its tentacles thrashing with movement driven by a tiny motor. It drags the black, featureless vessel (a nuclear sub?), an intruder from the surface world of human rationality and empirical logic into the deeper waters of undifferentiated dream and imagination, a place where monsters dwell. This is the piece which emits the sounds which fill the gallery (from a speaker within its base plinth), and the precise definition of the sonar’s measuring blip set against the deep and billowing rumbles from the depths further delineate the divisions between these two worlds, which are also the twin halves of the human mind. If the women of Tschape and Cross’ videos take to the water with natural ease, the masculine form of the submarine has to be dragged down forcibly. The sculpture is also just enormously good fun and, in the way that any ingenious automata will, raises a gleeful smile.

The main room of the gallery houses the work of three artists. Shirley Kaneda’s paintings again have the feeling of elaborated doodles, although this is carried a little further than with Ed Pien’s sketches. Perhaps there’s something about the liquid forms of waves and bubbles which naturally flow from the unconsciously doodling hand (I know that tends to be what I produce when my mind wanders before the blank page). Kaneda’s paintings seem like frozen images, the shapes and bright, clearly defined colours waiting to be set into morphing, shifting patterns of motion once more, like the kind of liquid light shows projected behind the likes of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead in the 60s. Seunghyun Woo’s plaster sculptures, which take up the opposite corner of the room, are similarly bright and colourful, and have the feel of three dimensional doodles; forms suggested by the pouring of the plaster and then given further shape. The gloss paint with which they are dappled suggest a cheery children’s underwater world, and Octopus’ Garden, although the ill-defined shapes and their air of immobility suggest that they have accumulated many years of oceanic silt and deposit. This is a petrified garden. Daniel Gustav Cramer’s large framed photograph of a murky seabed landscape opposite has an almost three-dimensional quality, particularly in the late afternoon sunlight, and you can almost imagine that you are looking through a window at this underwater scene. The vista we look out on is bleak and arid, a post-catastrophe landscape lacking any trace of human presence, the colours of life bleached out. It provides a stark, monochrome counterpoint to the brightness of the other works in the room.

The enclosed room opposite houses the works of two artists. Klaus Osterwald’s Donatus Subaqua is a sound sculpture. Four long silver horns hang from the ceiling, their bells pointing inwards to create a sound arena within which the listener can stand. These look like fog horns, but rather than blasted warnings of treacherous conditions, they broadcast the amplified sounds dredged up from the waters of a forest lake, a barren environment created by human activity which nature has swiftly re-colonised. The clicks, wailings and chitterings conjure up pictures of all manner of creatures strange and bizarre in the imagination of the listener. These evocative noises, which could so easily be mistaken for electronic music, accompany the video which is projected onto the opposite wall, blended in with the ubiquitous soundings of the sonar. There was some concern expressed to the exhibition curator Angela Kingston following her introductory talk about this unintentional combination of separate works, with the rather painful phrase ‘sound bleed’ being used. To my ears, it was a chance meeting which worked like a dream, however. Bill Viola’s Becoming Light is a slowed down film of a man and a woman entwined in gently shifting underwater embrace involving only the lightest of contact. Light from an unseen source cast upon the shifting water and the revolving human bodies below creates shifting patterns of brightness and shadow, and the motion of the waters refracts the bodies into wavering shapes, distorting their outlines and creating an ever-changing form. This suggests an ongoing transformation affected by the medium, or emotional state, in which they are immersed. The digital clarity of the photography means that this video lacks the mystery of the murkier waters into which human forms were plunged in Viola’s Five Angels for the Millenium, which was on display in the Tate Modern for a while, and which did have its own rumbling, immersive soundtrack. Perhaps this is appropriate for a piece which casts its gaze nearer to the surface. Finally, the couple, having perhaps gained each other’s trust through their tender non-embrace, sink down into the obscurity beneath the surface waters, prepared for a deeper understanding. An air bubble released by their mutual breath slowly ascends, and bursts on the surface with the ecstatic efflorescence of an expanding ring nebula. It’s a fitting end to an exhibition in which the artists’ imaginations cause their material, as Shakespeare put it in The Tempest (always leave ‘em with a bit of the Bard), to ‘suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange’. Come along, dive in and submerge yourself.

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