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

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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