The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea Part VI addresses the mystery of the maritime world
At the Charles H. Scott Gallery until November 24
The salty sea runs in our veins and through our imaginations. And the lore of life near, in, and upon the great oceans—of sailors, whalers, pirates, and mermaids, of magical realms, man-eating monsters, lost treasures, and legendary islands—is at the heart of the sixth and closing chapter of “The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea”. This series of exhibitions, conceived and curated by Cate Rimmer, has brought together contemporary art and archival materials in a persistently smart and stimulating way. Part VI may be the most enthralling of the lot, possibly because it draws upon our human longing for stories that both question and explain seafaring existence. Folk tales, ballads, ancient myths, and modern novels all frame our sense of being bound to the boundless sea—and to the creatures that swim in its depths.
The local and international artists represented here address the fears, longings, crimes, deaths, and mysteries of the maritime world. Angus Ferguson has created a suite of small, monochrome paintings based on the voyage of the Demeter, the doomed ship that conveys the original vampire to England in Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel, Dracula. Sean Lynch uses printed matter and colour slides of moody seascapes to tell the history of HyBrazil, a mythical island long supposed to be floating off the west coast of Ireland. Glenn Kaino’s A Plank for Every Pirate is a big, model, three-masted ship, pierced with multiple planks for the jettisoning of multiple lives. Beau Dick’s carved and painted masks, headdress, Raven rattle, and speaker’s staff recount an ancestral tale involving an undersea journey and rescue. Especially impressive here is Dick’s grim Pookmis mask, evoking the frightening spirit of a drowned whaler.
In his performance video Finfolk, Marcus Coates explores our kinship with animal and undersea worlds. Our understanding of the ordinary and the wondrous, too. Here, he enacts the role of a selkie, one of the seallike creatures of Irish and Orkney Islands folklore that are able to shed their skins and become human. We watch as Coates emerges from the stormy, cold North Sea, dressed in a wet suit, Nike-style sportswear, and sunglasses. He looks about him, talking incessantly in a repetitive, fuh-fuh-fuck–filled gibberish that sometimes wanders into high squeaks and squeals. He dances too, before spotting other people on the jetty and returning to the sea. It’s a funny and curious performance—a man pretending to be a seal pretending to be a man—and entirely in keeping with an artist who uses animal impersonations and shaman-style transformations to smudge the boundaries between us and not-us.
Duke Riley, an American artist whose website is subtitled “Artist-Patriot”, is represented here by his truly remarkable ink drawings on paper and engravings on whale teeth. Riley practises the old sailors’ and whalers’ arts of tattoo and scrimshaw, using them to mash up history, myth, and erotica. As the exhibition guide reveals, Riley works at the liminal space between land and sea, evoking the dangers and orgiastic possibilities that lie beyond the constraints of urban life.
Serving as the haunting soundtrack to the exhibition is Lowlands, a rendition of a 16th-century Scottish lament by the Glasgow-born, Berlin-based artist Susan Philipsz. The Turner Prize winner is captured singing, a cappella, three slightly different versions of the melancholy song, in which a woman is visited by the ghost of her lover who has drowned at sea. The recording was made and originally installed as a sound sculpture under the George V Bridge in Glasgow, a seedy place of booze, drugs, and suicide; it functioned there as a way of exploring history, memory, and urban space. Within the clean white walls of the Charles H. Scott Gallery, Lowlands’ echoing strains lend an ethereal dimension to our encounters with the sea, the sea, the mysterious sea.