25.03 - 30.05.2021
The abyss is a tautology: the entire ocean, the entire sea gently collapsing in the end into the pleasures of sand, make one vast beginning, but a beginning whose time is marked by these balls and chains gone green. – Édouard Glissant, Poetics of the Relation
To think of water is to think of circulations – condensation, evaporation and sublimation. To think of circulations is to think of territoriality, borders and movement, which is to say sovereignty, citizenship, stability and home. Currently on show at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town is a group exhibition, Fathom, bringing together works by artists Dor Guez, Alfredo Jaar, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Gerhard Marx, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Jeremy Wafer and Sue Williamson. The show is Goodman Gallery’s contribution to Galleries Curate: RHE, a platform for exhibitions, performances, and public interventions that loosely address the theme of water – geographically, politically, economically and metaphorically. With Fathom, histories of the world are re-enacted through the story of water. Water is encoded with assault and violence, revealing the ways in which we choose to other and to oppress.
Through a selection of works, Fathom produces a sense of travelling backwards in time – from Nazi occupations, transatlantic slavery, the roman empire to near distances and geological time. Like water, time is fluid, moving back and forth, looping through repeated cycles of wetting and drying.
Despite its title, the exhibition works against the easily comprehensible, pointing to complexities present at the edge of seas, rivers, canals and other contact zones and paradigms of enclosures. This is where encounters with water germinate unhoming and a prevailing sense of groundlessness. In a 2018 essay, The past is a foreign country, architect and academic Lesley Lokko notes, ‘Migrants’ journeys are commonly portrayed as a linear progression from home to host nation. In reality, their movements are full of interruptions, discontinuities, periods of waiting, displacement, limbo and escape.’ The states of limbo, interruptions and discontinuities that Lokko points to are clearly visible in Don Guez’ Letters from the Greater Maghreb. Guez’ prints capture manuscripts written by his grandfather, who fled concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Tunisia, emigrating to Israel. These once precious personal documents, handwritten in Judeo-Tunisian Arabic, are fragile and water-damaged – a reminder of the passage. Similarly, Kia Henda’s Mare Nostrum (Black Birds), which is a composition of photographic images taken from the salt pans of Arles on the French Riviera, bring the passage to the fore by alluding to the stories of migrants crossing the Mediterranean towards Europe.
Jaar’s Searching for Spain (2012) evokes an in-betweenness by highlighting the place between the land and the sea. Through capturing the sea from the viewpoint of an abandoned palace in Algiers used as a hiding spot for migrants during their journeys, the work suggests unruly edges and contested spaces traversed by those searching for new homes. The place between land and sea is also about orientation, navigation and taking note of the changing elements of the earth’s structure. In Monolith III (2013), Sunstrum draws the earth structure and the processes that take place within it. A complex polygon floats in the centre of a lake, surrounded by rocks forming hills and mountains. Through the chosen angle of the drawing, the viewer is placed outside of the scene, detached from the landscape and observing it from an aerial perspective.
The works of Sunstrum, Kia Henda and Marx are tied together through the physical structure and substance of the earth, where place becomes a graphic abstraction revealing absences – whether it is the possibility of relaying the narrative without relying on the figure (Sunstrum), drawing attention to spaces of death and disappearance (Kia Henda) or encounters with absence through distance, where distance is experienced as a space of longing (Marx). Through his examination of distance as a language, Marx redefines regions and zones. Abandoning conventions of map-making, he splices and collages old maps and through this process obscures meaning while offering new reflections of fragmented narratives.
The language of water is poetry but it is also a language of mourning, of liquid cemeteries (Verges) and watery wakes (Sharpe) because water is an element that remembers the dead. This terror of remembering the dead is contained in Williamson’s Messages from the Atlantic Passage VI (2021). Made with hand-engraved glass bottles, a fishing net and chains, the installation is a record of the history of slavery. Messages from the Atlantic Passage VI wrestles against the amnesia which John Akomfrah describes as “a constant sea that we swim in”. Each bottle in the installation details known information about an enslaved person; name, country of origin, the name of the slave master, the ship on which the slave was transported etc. But of course, these are mere residues. If we are to think with Christina Sharpe who noted that ‘every time, in every instance, that the boat is moving through water it has the potential to generate a new wave’, then here, the boat (or rather the suspended net read as a boat) is unmoving. There are no new waves. The deed is done. The dead are gone.
Wafer’s sculpture, made of rope and cast lead, brings in the calculus of sound. Titled Fathom, the sculpture references sounding lines used to measure the depth of water under a boat. Much like water, sound is motioned through waves, evoked here through the weighted line of rope and again in the sound of the rhythmic dripping of water in Williamson’s installation. In these two works, in presence and in absence, water is rebellious and uncontainable – its effects experienced outside the confines of what is seen and rather experienced through frequencies of vibration.
Fathom reminds us that water is equally beautiful and cruel. And that the place where the land meets the sea is equally pleasurable and melancholic. It reminds us that the provocation is not only the footprints found on the land but those washed away by the waters too.