A four-minute animated loop of a colourless, foreboding ocean-scape is central to Beth Hughes’ exhibition Bodies of Water. The occasional edit in the video causes the horizon to lurch up and down dramatically. Though the waves are calm and serene (and despite their obvious artificiality), memories of scenes from countless films lead us to conclude that we are lost at sea. The video is presented on a large plasma screen monitor that has been cracked in the middle, resulting in multi-coloured trails of damage across the screen. This draws one’s attention to the screen itself, without dis-privileging your engagement with the animation. You peer at the screen and through it, like a porthole, or the visor of a defective diving suit (elsewhere in the exhibition, a tablet screen, latex, and plastic bags filled of water are employed in similarly membranous ways).
Hughes has used the word ‘body’, or ‘bodies’, in her work before (Softbodies, Bethan Hughes 2017). Her usage is always deliberate, yet never fixed, and stresses the word’s ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning. Her conception of ‘body’ hinges upon a categorical slipperiness, whereby the bodies in question are neither incarnate nor disincarnate, neither hard nor soft. However, the works often stretch the word’s meaning beyond straightforward empirical distinctions. In this exhibition, for example, the exhibition’s title immediately proposes three inclusive readings. In no particular order: ‘Bodies of Water’ refers to the discrete but related objects and images that make up the exhibition; ‘Bodies of Water’ refers to the animated seascape and the suspended water-bags; ‘Bodies of Water’ refers to human-like forms made of water.
This last, more poetic allusion, is elaborated on in the text piece that is printed in vinyl on the wall. The text (‘Bodies of Water’ Bethan Hughes and Caitlin Stobie 2017), produced in collaboration with the poet Caitlin Stobie, insists on ‘fluidbodies’, ‘translucent bodies’, ‘liquid armour’ and a ‘shapeshifter’. ‘Bodies’ effectively transports the visitor into an imaginative space wherein one can speculate about the potential significances of the exhibition’s intriguing arrangements.
The aforementioned large plasma screen is attached to one of the building’s wooden ceiling joists with a pair of bright yellow tension ratchet straps, implying perhaps that the damage occurred at sea. We shouldn’t assume, even now, that we are stood on terra firma. Hughes’ careful use of particular colours, materials and display methods extends throughout the exhibition. Aluminium scaffolding, yellow latex and plastic are all arranged with a formal elegance that belies the associative power of these seemingly disparate elements. Without wanting to over-determine the work, there seems to be an institutional overtone to the exhibition. Even if this overtone is created merely by visual reference to the institution of seafaring (i.e. the exhibition is figured as a boat), the effect is claustrophobic. Bodies of Water is the keenest expression yet of Hughes’ subtly disquieting and visually compelling practice. Be aware, however, that prolonged time spent aboard produces a not-unpleasant feeling of seasickness.
Bodies of Water, Serf, 27 –29 June, 2017.
David Steans is an artist and writer based in Leeds.