Alex Farquharson is director of Nottingham Contemporary and curator of their current exhibition ‘Aquatopia’. On 22 August, 2013, Alex and Laura-Jade Klée discussed ‘Aquatopia’ and how the ocean is represented within the exhibition.
LJK: Nottingham Contemporary’s current exhibition ‘Aquatopia’ represents a long and diverse history of how the ocean deep has been interpreted. Do you feel as though one of the central and uniting themes of the exhibition is the unknown and how human beings make sense of it’
AF: Yes, definitely. It is difficult to represent the unknown. The unknown can take the form of the monstrous; it can take the form of a void; it can be sheer darkness. If you think of being in the water at different depths, at shallow depths one can still see things because the sun still shines through. Shapes are distorted through the refraction of light that comes through water. As you go deeper certain colours in the spectrum are lost, exaggerating and concealing different qualities. There is a correlation between the vertical dimensions of the ocean and the mind. We can enter into an unconscious state like sleep. Our subconscious is more like the shallow depths of ocean; it is not crystal clear but it is still visible to us.
LJK: There is a recurring theme of sea gods and sea monsters throughout the exhibition. Do you have any thoughts or comments about this duality’
AF: In Western thought, the sky represents divinity and the ocean is a more sinister presence. The sun is seen as sacred in pagan religions, and the heaven is in the air and cosmos. In a European perspective a bird’s eye view is a colonial view. The ocean is seen as an inversion of this. In Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, Ariel is of the air and she is good whilst Caliban is a rebel belonging to the sea. Since we cannot easily see the ocean deep, it is viewed as mythical and fantastical like the heavens yet it has a darker presence. The outstanding symbol of this is Kraken; a giant octopus or squid based on occasional sightings by sailors. Sailor’s relationship to the sea is horizontal, as historically there were not many who could swim and the ocean is their grave. Kraken has become a dark religious god. Lovecraft came up with a whole pseudo religion for it, Cthulhu. In B-movies, what emerges from ocean onto land is monstrous. Even in still life paintings crustaceans have monstrous qualities that exceeds the reality of subject.
LJK: You make another reference to H.P. Lovecraft by including an extract from ‘Dagon’ in the text panel alongside Alan Davie, ‘Image of Fish God’ (1956). Is this a connection that you made’
AF: I do not know what type of fish god Alan Davie had in mind, but we have recast the piece in a Lovecraft context. It is an enigmatic aquatic force as we do not know if its forces are good or evil, how long it has been alive, if it predates humanity, or to whom it was a God. It suggests Kraken, an all-powerful creature who is not fully known yet has a forbidding presence. There is a connection between the art forms but they are not explanatory of one another; it was intended to set up a dialogue.
LJK: You have discussed how the ocean is often seen through a Western perspective as containing monstrous beings. Conversely, Madsen Mompremier’s painting of the Haitian Vodou spirit Lord Agoue presents a religious water figure who is viewed as virtuous.
AF: As the title of the exhibition suggests, the ocean can be a utopia or a dystopia. In non-Western cultures, mythical creatures are often life-giving and on the side of the people. In Vodou, Agoue is a loved character and the ceremonies for him are very elaborate. Vodou ceremonies are usually in temples, but this is the only notable one that happens at sea in a boat. Offerings are put on a raft such as cakes and a ram dyed indigo. When the raft sinks Agoue has accepted it. In paintings he is represented wearing the uniform of an admiral in the Napoleonic era, as he shares a revolutionary history with the Haitian people. Many religious figures do link to a cultural history. You can find examples of this in Ana Mendieta’s work.
LJK: Ana Mendieta’s works differ from the majority of works in the exhibition, in the respect that it is not physically set in the ocean deep. In ‘Silueta series’ (1976) Mendieta photographs an indentation of her body made in the sand as water washed over her. What was the significance of including pieces for this series in the exhibition’
AF: Part of Silhueta series is about a Cuban oceanic goddess, Olokon. I find it interesting she is dealing with similar symbolism and similar cultural references as Haitian art, but through post-minimal performance, site-specific, action-orientated art. It is interesting this has happened on neighbouring islands with related histories, yet one is produced in a post-minimal context, and one is from within the cultural vernacular Haiti.
LJK: I feel as though many of your exhibitions displays artworks in unexpected contexts which creates new meanings. Is this important to your curation’
AF: I find it interesting to take things out of its original context and I do not feel that is an abuse of works. It realises that the work has the capacity to speak to things outside of the immediate context it was made. I think one of the signs of a good artwork is how it can lend itself to multiple interpretations.