The concept of ‘hydrarchy’ used to “designate two related developments of the late seventeenth century: the organisation of the maritime state from above, and the self-organisation of sailors from below” is complex and manifold, as is the current exhibition at Gasworks. Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea is comprised of a group show, including screenings at Tower 42 in the City, a conference at UCL and a performative talk at London Zoo. The exhibition is layered and loaded from the disconcerting performance Aryan Death Ship by Paul McCarthy, shown here as a video for the first time, to an episode of The Simpsons. It explores the political, geographical, social and economic circumstances of the sea, the ship and its people - past, present and future.
It is difficult to imagine the 17th century phenomena of the beached whale, seen as a bad omen, and the impact the widely reproduced journalistic engravings had on feeding this superstition. It is also difficult to imagine the lives of the sailors of the day and the conditions they lived in. History helps us to piece this together providing us with a sequence of events and stories of human experience from which we can construct opinions and beliefs. As humankind progresses and technology advances, history repeats itself and corruption, greed and capitalism continue to dominate.
Mathieu K. Abonnenc’s film The Middle Passage uses a powerful series of collaged extracts from movies to trace the journey to the New World. The rough seas, the density of a tropical forest and the suggestion of the isolated and unknown reveal only the route, but not the people. Melanie Jackson’s work The Undesirables deals directly with people, human nature and the authorities attempt to stop the looting of the container ship MSC Napoli washed up on Branscombe Beach in 2007. While the installation is inspired by 18th and 19th century sea dioramas, the model of the ship and cut-out etchings of the media, the scavengers and the police reconstructed on the gallery floor uncomfortably reiterates the human need to possess and control. Anja Kirschner and David Panos’ Polly II: Plan for a Revolution in Docklands takes this unease into the future where London has been flooded and its dissident society struggle to survive in it’s flooded high-rise flats. Again the work takes its cue from the past (John Gay’s 1728 play The Beggars Opera) but the issues raised are worryingly current. In the context of recent news stories such as the Pakistan floods and the BP oil crisis this exhibition pursues a deep and somewhat depressing line of thought that parallels the historic and contemporary global and social contexts of maritime activity and the cyclical nature of human and geographic patterns.
-- Joyce Cronin
All images courtesy Gasworks
Images: Paul McCarthy, Aryan Death Ship (1983/2010), video on DVD. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Mathieu K. Abonnenc, The Middle Passage, (2006) 9'40, Courtesy the artist. Installation view.