Install-view-G1-iAquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep, Nottingham Contemporary

20 Jul 2013 – 22 Sep 2013

Ninety percent of the earth’s oceans remain unexplored. Science knows outer space better than the ocean deep. Scores of new species, weirder than any fiction, are found each time a submersible descends to the ocean’s deepest trenches.

In the absence of knowledge the deep is a site where imagination has full rein. The ocean has always bred monsters, and like outer space has been a setting for science fiction since Jules Verne. But unlike outer space, the oceans are part of our own planet – and by extension a part of us too.

Throughout recorded history the deep has been the site of shared myths, subconscious fears and unnamed desires. Aquatopia, then, is less about the ocean as it actually is – it is about how it lives in our heads.

This major exhibition brings together over 150 contemporary and historic artworks that explore how the deep has been imagined through time and across cultures. Sea monsters, sirens, sperm whales, giant squids, octopi, submarines, drowned sailors and shipwrecks are all portrayed here by many of art history’s “greats” JMW Turner, Odilon Redon, Hokusai, Barbara Hepworth and Oskar Kokoshka among them. Steve Claydon, Wangechi Mutu, Juergen Teller, Alex Bag, Christian Holstad and Mikhail Karikis are some of the many celebrated contemporary artists amongst whose oceanic – inspired artworks are shown here too.

The exhibition is a collaboration with Tate St Ives in Cornwall, where it will be shown from 12 October to 26 January 2014.


Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep, Nottingham Contemporary – review

By Jackie Wullschlager

This show takes an unusual approach to its subject, exploring the ocean as myth

The sea is a captivating subject for a summer show – especially for a city as far from the coast as Nottingham. With its exhibition spaces entirely bathed in blue watery light, Nottingham Contemporary takes an unusual approach, exploring the ocean as myth in a trans-historical, cultural-political voyage across new and old art. Guy Ben-Ner restages Moby-Dick in his kitchen; Spartacus Chetwynd reprises Hokusai’s “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”, reverie of coupling with an octopus, in a hula-hoop and pipe-cleaner sculpture; Simon Starling’s “Infestation Piece” ornaments Henry Moore with mussel shells.

The ocean has been a locus for stories of metamorphosis, repressed desires and mortal fears since ancient times, and for science fiction since Jules Verne. Surrealism avant la lettre abounds here: the giant fish foregrounded before a harbour scene in Willem Ormea’s “Fish Still Life with Seascape” (1649), Odilon Redon’s “The Beasts of the Sea, Round Like Leather Bottles” (1896), form a continuum with Dalí, Edward Wadsworth, Marcel Broodthaers and, in the absence of Hirst’s formaldehyde icon, Ashley Bickerton’s coconut-hung polyurethane “Orange Shark” from Hirst’s Murderme collection.

There is always a random, over-fashionable element to group shows of historic/contemporary juxtapositions, but at best the double resonances prompt new engagement even with familiar works. Reread, say, Turner’s “Sunrise with Sea Monsters”, his magnificent late depiction of a hazy sun over grey waves flecked with pink/red shapes – an abstraction of light and atmosphere? a fantasy of threatening deep-sea creatures? an unfinished fishing scene? – in the context of the Otolith Group’s “Hydra Decapita”. This 2010 video envisages an Atlantic populated by amphibious descendants of Africans drowned in the Middle Passage, playing to plaintively sung renditions of Ruskin’s critique of Turner’s “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Approaching”, and overlaid with an imagined account of molecular mutation transforming the universe into a wholly aquatic space.

Until September 22,, then at Tate St Ives from October


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