Once a wild and pristine environment seen as a compelling metaphor for the sacred mysteries of nature, the romantic image of the ocean has been eroded by the global threat of climate change.
RMIT Gallery’s new international exhibition Ocean Imaginaries (5 May – 1 July) focuses on some of the contradictions and conflicted feelings raised by the way the ocean is imagined in an age of environmental risk.
Though inspired by science, the works in the exhibition address the audience through the language of art, with each of the 20 artists involved sharing a clear understanding of precisely what it is at stake in acknowledging that the future of the oceans remains uncertain.
RMIT News spoke with curator Associate Professor Linda Williams - who is presenting a curator’s talk on Friday 5 May - about her exhibition highlights.
1. Ecological degradation
British artist Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater sculpture Inertia (2011) sits four metres below the Caribbean Sea near Cancun in Mexico. It features a life-like cast of an inveterate couch potato absorbed in idle consumption, slouching before a television with fast food on his lap.
Yet ironically, like deCaires Taylor’s other underwater sculptures, he has become an agent of ecological regeneration. This is because the sculpture, which is made of pH neutral concrete, is located in a shallow sea in a region damaged by hurricanes and storms and has become something of an anchor for algae, crustaceans and small fish.
You can get into a wetsuit and go with other tourists to look at deCaires Taylor’s works in various locations around the world but most of us will see his works in an urban context. A really important aim of this exhibition is to consider how we perceive the spaces beyond the city, from an urban perspective. Particularly in this case, the world’s oceans.
Many of us think of the city as a place isolated from the rest of global space but in fact those imaginary boundaries are very porous. So while many of us don’t believe our urban lifestyle has much to do with the ocean we’re consuming massive amounts of seafood and our carbon emissions are affecting the basic chemistry of oceans across the globe.
2. Underwater world
Exhibited for the first time in Melbourne, Australian artist Lynette Wallworth’s major work for fulldome digital planetariums Coral, Rekindling Venus (2012) will transport the urban viewer to the mysterious realm of fluorescent coral reefs, bioluminescent sea creatures and rare marine life living in the oceans most threatened by climate change.
Celebrated for her use of interactive technologies to create immersive installations, Wallworth’s work uses cinematic technology to its full capacity in terms of engaging the viewer in the sheer beauty of the underwater world.
Her work brings home to the viewer just precisely what’s at stake with the environmental or the ecological threats to global oceans.
While artists still respond very deeply to the poetics of the ocean and the place it holds in our imaginations, they’re also now beginning to track its often changes to its ecology, which can often be invisible.
Some of the artists in Ocean Imaginaries address the impact on the Great barrier Reef, or the problem of ocean acidification, while others consider potential rises in sea-levels.
Wallworth will be speaking about her work, art and environmental risk on Thursday 11 May (5.30-6.30pm) and Friday 12 May (1-2 pm) at RMIT Gallery.
3. Melting ice
English artist Chris Wainwright travelled with UK arts project Cape Farewell to the north-west polar region of Greenland so he could manoeuvre a small inflatable dinghy around the icebergs. The result is an evocative large-scale photograph of an arctic iceberg.
Working in sub-zero temperatures, Wainwright projected red light onto the ice to convey the paradoxical impression that it is burning before our eyes. While this is a clear allusion to the melting polar icecaps and mountain glaciers as a result of global climate change, he makes his point simply and subtly.
Wainright's Red Ice glows with energy as it looms out of the ocean like a kind of semaphore in the new semiotics of potential catastrophe that has become a major current in environmental art.
There are other artists in the exhibition that look at the problem of rising sea levels, such as Japanese collective teamLab. Their real-time video sequence 100 Years Sea (2009) unfolds like a long Japanese scroll of islands in an Asian sea that grows in depth according to shifting predictions of sea level rise since 2009, when the work began.
Josh Wodak, a young Australian artist who considers how anthropogenic global warming and melting sea ice have triggered a rise in global sea levels, speculates on how varying levels of global warming will affect the people of the low-lying Pacific island of Tuvalu in his work Two Degrees of Separation (2012).
4. Plague of plastics
RMIT alumnus Stephen Haley’s work One Second: Plastic Water Bottles 5,982 reveals where so many of the 5982 plastic water bottles produced globally every second very often end up.
And as a recent Australian-based study has argued, in order to prevent the kind of plastic pollution to which Haley and artists Alejandro Durán (Mexico) or Chris Jordan (US) also explore in Ocean Imaginaries, a much deeper analysis is required of what kind of bio-political and socio-economic agencies are fulfilled by the mass markets for bottled water.
What art can bring to this issue, however, is a palpably felt experience that has the potential to engage the social imaginary, especially through the visualisation of processes that remain out of sight – and as often as not – out of mind.
As other artists in the show attest, the plastic objects we regularly discard reappear beyond our field of vision to present grave hazards to a range of marine creatures and become even less visible as pollution by microplastics.
5. Sea and shore
Other artists in the show, such as RMIT's Associate Professor Dominic Redfern, explore the histories of the shore as a liminal zone between the human world and the ocean.
His video triptych The Beach at Skara Brae was recorded in the Orkney Archipelago near one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe, where Redfern’s close study of the detritus washed up along the shore tells a tale of the long history of human habitation in that region.
6. Ocean acidification
Scottish artist Anne Bevan explores the invisible microscopic life in the ocean.
Her work Ghost I-III (2012) is the result of collaboration with marine bio-geologists at the University of Edinburgh, in which she adapted CT Scans used to record and magnify the minute shells from single cell organisms of marine plankton, or foraminifera.
There’s something very poignant about the fact that these tiny little creatures, with the problem of ocean acidification, are unable to construct their exoskeletons effectively.
7. The deep
Many of the artists in this exhibition also explore the worlds below the surface of the ocean: some reveal its poetic qualities, while others represent its extraordinary creatures and show how anthropogenic changes to global environments are impacting on fragile marine ecosystems.
RMIT alumnus Sam Leach represents such strange creatures of the dark ocean depths that are transfigured by the alien environment of the urban gallery.
Leach’s Granrojo (2017) depicts a deep-sea creature which at first glance looks benign. First classified in 2003 as Granrojo (large red), this strange red jellyfish grows up to a metre in size.
Extending across its primitive soft body, Leach has inscribed the phrase scyphozoa contra mundum (jellyfish against the world). A warning, perhaps, that creatures from its world may become extinct before being classified. Or that certain creatures, jellyfish among them, can rapidly become invasive species at the expense of animals that have lost their natural habitats due to human activities.
Ocean Imaginaries addresses research undertaken by the AEGIS Research Network, led by Associate Professor Linda Williams in the School of Art.
The exhibition is part of CLIMARTE’s ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2017, a festival of exhibitions and events harnessing the creative power of the arts to inform, engage and inspire action on climate change.
Story: Evelyn Tsitas