Both part of Hull 2017 UK City of Culture, these two exhibitions, each in very different ways, celebrate Hull’s maritime heritage and its profound connection with the North Sea. In the case of Somewhere Becoming Sea, at the impressive new Humber Street Gallery, the city’s historic and continuing links with the Nordic traditions of Scandinavian countries are explored, where the sea features as a mostly malevolent force. Humans are isolated and nature overwhelms. Winds are icy, skies are grey, waves encroach; landfalls are melancholy and prospects bleak.
Northern Romanticism abounds – Esther Johnson’s lament for the loss of land and destruction of homes through erosion around Holderness in ‘Hinterland’ (2002) and ‘Retreating the Line’ (2017), is powerful but goes a little overboard in its enthusiasm for the aesthetics of the distressed surface, the fragment and the ruin. These are shown in conjunction with Ruth Maclennan’s ‘From Time to Time at Sea’ (2012-2016), an elegiac portrait of life in Caithness, Orkney, Fair Isle and on the working boats that sail the seas around them, conveyed with the quiet detachment of its documentary style.
Employing a different Romantic trope, Simon Faithfull’s ‘Going Nowhere 1.5’ (2016) involves an inwardly spiralling walk determined by the rapidly encroaching tide. The artist’s isolation (the heroic individual overwhelmed by the power of nature) is emphasised by the aerial viewpoint and the slow panning of the long shot with which the video ends. The work recalls some of Richard Long’s earliest work, but most of all Robert Smithson’s dramatic film of his ‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970), also mainly shot from the air.
Somewhere Becoming Sea is curated by Steven Bode of Film and Video Umbrella, with some of the works commissioned and part-funded by FVU. Sometimes this results in a tension between cinematic filmmaking and video art and some of the work here would be better suited to cinema viewing than standing in a gallery with headphones on in front of a flatscreen monitor. Occasionally too, it feels as if artists are trying too hard to create a multi-sensory experience, with films more like a radio play with added visual effects, or like an illustrated short story that might have been more richly experienced solely as text.
In a show that includes more than a dozen artists, the strongest work for me is Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’ (2017). Utilising a cinematic presentation in widescreen format with very effective surround sound, Larsen’s AV installation is dramatic in its narrative and poignant in its emotional effect. Set in 2033, ‘Quicksand’ tells the story of a man fighting for his life in the Mediterranean Sea, echoing current refugee crises but inverting our understanding of the victims. In this all-too-believable dystopian near future, the economy has imploded, hospitals and schools shut down and trains rarely run. Throughout Europe, borders have closed and a husband/father has joined the exodus of those who pay people-traffickers to help them leave Europe in the hope of starting a new life ‘somewhere else’. Much of the story is told through his attempts to make phone calls home, his journey ending when the boat capsizes and all seems lost.
A short walk around the dock from Humber Street Gallery, across the footbridge at the confluence of the River Hull and the River Humber, things are more cheerful, but no less thought provoking. Three very ordinary hatchback cars, scattered amongst the others in the car park of The Deep, Hull’s aquarium tourist attraction, could easily be missed without the tell-tale sign of variously bemused and captivated visitors peering through their windows. The cars form the three separate but related parts of Chris Dobrowolski’s Washed Up Car-go (2017). Each is filled with sand, pebbles and washed-up tideline detritus to windscreen height, creating a in-car beach where a reproduction painting is partially buried. A short film is projected on the reverse of each painting, with a classical music soundtrack from the operatic works of Carl Orff, both triggered by motion sensors as you approach the car.
The childhood experience of holding a conch shell to your ear to hear the sound of the sea is wittily subverted by using conch shells to conceal the loudspeakers through which the music is amplified. A toy version of each car sits on the beach that fills the real car and the films are beamed from tiny projectors under the sand via a periscopic mirror on the underside of each toy cars’ raised hatchback. Such playful ingenuity is evident in much of Dobrowolski’s previous work, but the metaphorical subtleties of the films’ narratives and the art historical references of the paintings against which we see them, introduce new levels of sophistication to his exploration of real and imagined journeys.
The screens are small and the big skies of the flat Humberside coast create reflections in the car windows that can make the films difficult to see. Holding your hand against the glass to compensate and peering intently through somehow intensifies the experience though, and such attentive looking is rewarded by the multi-layered narratives it reveals. A miniature makeshift raft bears as its cargo a small reproduction of Géricault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ (1818-19), floating calmly at first on the River Humber, which is suddenly overcome by waves and capsized. The reference to media images of the perilous journeys of refugees is overt, but is then undercut by the comedy of the raft being winched ashore by a rope and the gradual revelation that this is by means of the rope being wound around an oar attached to the slowly rotating wheel of a car, the same car that you are now peering through the windows of to watch the scene unfold.
In the second car, the film shows a model of a Chinese shipping container floating under the Humber Bridge. It runs aground and is revealed to be full of a cargo of plastic and rubber toys, sea creatures of all sorts. The biblical story of Jonah comes to mind as we briefly see a knife in Dobrowolski’s hand slicing open the belly of a (rubber toy) whale from which a toy car emerges. Again, it is the very toy car that contains the miniature projector and the mirror through which you are watching the film, on the reverse of a reproduction of Rubens’ ‘The Union of Earth and Water’ (1618), showing a boy blowing into a conch shell, mimicking the music emerging from the conch shells in the car.
The third car contains a small copy of Herbert James Draper’s ‘Ulysses and the Sirens’ (1909), a painting found in Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery. Its reverse is the screen for a film featuring three of Dobrowolski’s sirens, washed-up Barbie dolls on the banks of the Humber. The dolls have all-seeing minicam heads and have become mermaids, their legs disappeared inside real fish tails. The wit and ingenuity Dobrowolski brings to all his work are very evident in Washed Up Car-go, but this playfulness does nothing to detract from the seriousness of his concern with marine pollution, consumerism and the dangers of a globalised economy.
Somewhere Becoming Sea, Humber Street Gallery, 5 April – 17 June 2017; Chris Dobrowolski: Washed Up Car-go, The Deep, 29 March – 4 June 2017.
Derek Horton © 2017