Aquatopia at Nottingham Contemporary

It has been a big year for Nottingham Contemporary. After receiving a boost of notoriety by way of Mark Leckey’s The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, the recently rechristened museum and its director, Alex Farquharson, immediately launched their most ambitious curatorial project to date: a traveling exhibition titled Aquatopia. Organized with partner institution Tate St. Ives, the exhibition comprises more than 150 artworks as well as performances, lectures, and screenings, all organized around the imaginative worlds of the ocean depths.

Alex Bag and Ethan Kramer, Le Cruel et Curieux Vie du la Salmonellapod, 2000; (video still); 11:48 min.

Alex Bag and Ethan Kramer, Le Cruel et Curieux Vie du la Salmonellapod, 2000; (video still); 11:48 min.

With artworks cutting across history and displayed in groups of abstract logic, Aquatopia could be described as a conceptual survey; it explores its theme from diverse historical angles and artistic perspectives. Here, the ocean is a filter, a site for interpretation, a toolbox of images and relations, and a stage for the sexual, spiritual, scientific, and narrative imagination. Firmly framed in the fantastic, artworks and objects are relieved of their descriptive duties and instead evidence their author’s fears, dreams, and wonderment. The brilliant antique copper diving helmet, the set of biological scientific etchings, the eighteenth-century map—each inspires new associations beyond their original purpose.

Contemporary works seem in their element. Located in a handsome video cluster, Le Cruel et Curieux Vie du la Salmonellapod (2000), by Alex Bag and Ethan Kramer, is a double riff on the nature documentary format and the fantastic violence of romance (in the dreamed-up world of the disgusting, hilariously chimeric Salmonellapod), playing this subjectivity to amazing ends. Ashley Bickerton’s nylon-equipped Orange Shark (2008) is perfectly fits the exhibition, as does Spartacus Chetwynd’s squidlike fabric construction. Shimabuku’s Then, I decided to give a tour of Tokyo to the octopus from Akashi (2000)—one of my favorite artworks in any circumstance—exactly captures Aquatopia’s double exposure of the ocean as both unfathomable phenomenon and site for personal experience. Nearby, Herbert James Draper’s A Water Baby (1895) leaps out of its circular frame, absurd and absolute in its sea-foam sentimentality.

Liz Craft, Old Maid, 2004. Bronze, 9 x 53 x 24 in.

Liz Craft, Old Maid, 2004. Bronze, 9 x 53 x 24 in.

While lacking a seeming sense of order—none of the works are grouped according to type, subject, medium, or arranged historically or by origin—Aquatopia’s construction feels highly considered. At first, the exhibition’s historical leaps caused me to fear that the curators had chosen to rely too heavily on spurious juxtaposition. I was scared that the exhibition would simply be a collection of Interesting Things (related to the ocean), much like Leckey’s The Universal Addressability and other scattered, perhaps too fashionable, contemporary modes of curating. To a certain degree, the curatorial choices reflect a similar gesture: many works included in Aquatopia were not meant to be exhibited in this manner—or at all—and part of the pleasure of examining works like the aforementioned copper diving helmet comes from examining it as art, placed as it is in a display context. However, the majority of works in Aquatopia are proper contemporary artworks, built as such, and those not in this category were chosen carefully and seemed to become more of themselves in the context of the exhibition. Often, the works appear arranged in unmarked clusters, patterning between contemporary and historical: in one room, Guy Ben-Nar’s homemade interpretation of Moby Dick (2000) plays a few meters from Gustave Dorés’s prints from Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1876); in another, the lapping waves from the Otolith Group’s quest for the undersea Drexciya, depicted in its film Hydra Decapita (2010), wash over the small huddled body of Liz Craft’s bronze Old Maid (2004), lit from above through emerald and azure gels.

JMW Turner, Sunrise with Sea Monsters, 1845; oil on canvas; 36 x 48 inches. Tate, London.

JMW Turner. Sunrise with Sea Monsters, 1845; oil on canvas; 36 x 48 in. Courtesy Tate, London

Aquatopia is perhaps a perfect summer exhibition for a museum of the size and scale of Nottingham Contemporary. It offers as much to devoted followers of contemporary art as it does to children, as the exhibition’s content and breadth is rich territory for the museum’s educational directors. While it included a number of powerful and hard-edged works, Aquatopia remains one of the most enjoyable museum exhibitions I’ve attended. It is full of drowned wrecks, humor, and irony, and functioning almost like a postcard for the show, one of James Turner’s finest paintings, Sunrise with Sea Monsters (1845). An unfinished work, it was titled only by its interpreters, who discovered monsters in Turner’s waves.

Aquatopia is on view at Nottingham Contemporary, in London, through September 22, 2013.