The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea Part VI is the final chapter in an exhibition series that explores our relationship to the sea. In Part VI, we explore sea lore—pirates, sea monsters, lost islands, lost souls—the stuff of legends and tales that have ignited imaginations for centuries and are at the heart of some of the world’s great literature from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. As with the previous iterations in the Voyage series, Part VI brings together the work of local and international contemporary artists with archival materials that form linkages with the rich depths of maritime history.
Los Angeles-based artist Glenn Kaino has produced a body of work based on the Turkish pirate and cartographer, Piri Reis, who during the first part of the sixteenth century created detailed maps and charts, including some of the earliest of the Americas. These maps began as abstract drawings from Piri’s early days as a pirate. Kaino’s large sculptural work A Plank for Every Pirate (2012) is also included in the exhibition. Bristling with planks (the stuff of every pirate story), painted white and suspended in midair, Kaino’s ship is a ghostly spectre of revolutionary possibility.
In his work titled, A preliminary sketch for the reappearance of HyBrazil (2007–2009), Irish artist Sean Lynch reconsiders the legend of an island that for centuries was thought to have existed off the coast of Ireland. HyBrazil first appeared on charts by Italian cartographer Angelino Dulcert in the fourteenth century and it remained on maps for over five hundred years. For his project, Lynch positioned a camera overlooking the Atlantic facing toward the charted location of the mythical island and at sunset each evening took photographs when light and shadow suggested a mirage, or potential presence of a land mass.
Duke Riley is an artist based in New York. His varied practise includes large-scale public projects, performative interventions, drawings, mosaics and tattooing; all of which engage with maritime history and the tensions between authority and those on the periphery. Combining populist myths and reinvented historical obscurities, Riley “profile[s] the space where water meets land, traditionally marking the periphery of urban society, what lies beyond rigid moral constructs, a sense of danger and possibility.”
Chapter seven of Bram Stoker’s Dracula tells the story of the voyage of the Demeter, the ship that unbeknownst to the captain and crew is transporting the ‘undead’ in their cargo. Told through the log entries of the captain, an overwhelming sense of foreboding grows as an eerie presence hangs over the ship and one by one the crew disappears. The tale expresses the superstitions and fears of mariners isolated and vulnerable on vast expanses of the open ocean. It also shares a kinship with the many historical accounts of mysterious and unexplained disappearances at sea. For The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea Part VI, Vancouver artist Angus Ferguson has produced a series of paintings based on the doomed passage of the Demeter.
A sense of eerie unease is also present in Lowlands (2010), a sound work by Scottish artist Susan Philipsz, for which she won the Turner Prize in 2010. In this work, the artist sings three slightly different versions of a sixteenth-century Scottish ballad titled Lowlands Away; a haunting lament about a man drowned at sea who returns to his lover to tell her of his death. The work speaks to themes of longing and escapism often associated with a life at sea and to the ever present spectre of loss hanging over loved ones left on shore.
There are countless legends throughout the seafaring world of sea monsters and sea creatures that are both animal and human in form. In the British Isles these take the form of selkies or finfolk able to transform from seal to human and back again. In his video work, Finfolk (2003), British artist Marcus Coates casts himself in the role of one such creature emerging from an icy North Sea to experience a brief visit on land. As in his other works such as Journey to the Lower World (2004), Coates collapses the distinctions between animal and human, myth and the banal everyday.
Like Coates, Beau Dick, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist from Alert Bay, has depicted sea creatures that are in human form. Among the many sea-related stories of the coastal First Nations peoples is that of Pookmis, the malevolent spirit of a drowned whaler, who brings danger to seafarers and collects their souls for Kumugwe, the lord of the undersea. In Dick’s powerful masks, Pookmis is ghostly white with crazed eyes and flotsam caught in his hair. Dick’s work speaks of a strong, enduring connection to the sea shared by people throughout the world that make a living either on or at the edge of the sea.
For more on this exhibition series visit Three Years at Sea.