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Oceans Away At The Art Museum?

Sea Form (Porthmeor) 1958 by Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975These days, museums are increasingly straying from traditional exhibition themes, like anniversaries of an artist’s birth (or death), into more topical themes — and, for the record, I have no problem with this strategy. It all depends, in the end, on the strength of the original idea and the execution.

I wish I were in England right now to see an example of this trend, a show that opened yesterday called Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep, at Tate St Ives. (I regret to say that I’ve never been to St Ives, but I have been to Cornwall, all the way to Land’s End, in fact.) Here’s the description:

This major exhibition brings together over 150 contemporary and historic artworks that explore how the deep has been imagined by artists, writers and poets through time and across cultures. Its briny depths are populated with ancient sea monsters and futuristic dolphin embassies, beautiful sirens and paramilitary gill-men, sperm whales and water babies, shipwrecks and submersibles, giant squid and lecherous octopuses.

Sunrise with Sea Monsters c.1845 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851So, is this more of a natural science show, viewed through artists’ eyes? If so, it might be quite boring.

Tate, though, goes on to add:

Throughout recorded history the deep has been the site of shared myths, subconscious fears and unnamed desires. Aquatopia, then, is less about the ocean as it actually is and more about how it lives within us. But our wild imaginings about the ocean aren’t simply escapist. The ocean is the keeper of political histories that continually resurface in the present day. Ocean myths both ancient and modern have been shaped by conquest and colonialism, and more recently by the tide of gender politics.

Among the artists in the exhibition are J.M.W. Turner (above left), Marcel Broodthaers, Oskar Kokoschka, Barbara Hepworth (above right), Odilon Redon, Lucian Freud, Hokusai, Mark Dion, Spartacus Chetwynd, Steve Claydon, Juergen Teller, The Otolith Group, Mikhail Karikis and Wangechi Mutu.

I hope it’s the contemporary artists whose works deal with things like “the tide of gender politics.” It’s usually a mistake to reinterpret past works with an overlay of current politics.

We’ll have to wait for reviews of this exhibition — I could none tonight in the British papers — and, perhaps, for RCA readers to write in, if they see it. There is no mention on the Tate website or in the press release I received of this exhibition traveling to other sites. That’s sounds curious, but I think it is Tate’s normal practice.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Tate St Ives



  1. Chris Crosman says:

    While the Tate St. Ives show sounds interesting, there is nothing new about thematic shows–even on the theme of oceans and water. Indeed, the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, NY (being on an island) mounted “Waterworks” many years ago and the Parrish Museum, also on Long Island, mounted a “Crosscurrents” show that dealt with more conceptual thematic connections related to “island-ness.” Or Guild Hall’s landmark, “Elders of the Tribe,” featuring senior and Jewish artists with ties to Long Island’s Hamptons region. The Renwick’s “Boat Show” and Farnsworth Museum’s “Voyages of the Modern Imagination” dealt with contemporary imagery related to ships (of fools–mostly politicians– in a subset of works included at the Farnsworth). I suppose the point is that museums, especially regional museums, try to introduce contemporary art to their audiences through themes that are recognizable to the general public. It is also a way to include both regional and national artists within a familiar context, giving the locals a moment in the spotlight along with better known peers. What would be new and quite innovative might be a closer look at the many artists of the late 40s and 50s, both in the US and abroad whose work has a certain “submerged” aesthetic feel–Baziotes, Stamos, Rothko and Motherwell to name a few who charted these (Jungian) waters.

    • Never said they were new… I said they are being used increasingly.

      • Chris Crosman says:

        Increasingly? Not sure that’s correct as thematic shows have been art museum staples for at least the past century and more. I think a quick look at MoMA, Met, and just about every museum in existence for any length of time will show there has always been a preponderance of thematic shows. Monographic shows are the exception to the rule, I believe (although retrospectives do tend to get lots of attention if the artist is well known or living).

        • we’ll have to differ. An exhibit doesn’t have to be monographic or a retrospective to lack a real theme. There are also period shows, for example. Or things like “Artists of the West,” which I wouldn’t call a real theme.

          • Chris Crosman says:

            I guess it come down to exhibitions having a curatorial point of view (or not). I would argue period and historical exhibitions are by definition “thematic.” I do agree with you that there is an increasing tendency–driven largely by diminishing financial resources, I believe–for museums to explore their own collections through “thematic” groupings. Whatever the motivations, this can and should be considered a positive tendency.

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