Heavy Water | of Coordinates, Containers and Containment
Curated by Jessica Edwards
Diana Akoto-Yip, Justin Barton and Mark Fisher, Julius von Bismarck, Stephanie Comilang, Nik Nowak, Steve Goodman (aka Kode9), Ayesha Hameed, Fabian Knecht, Mischa Leinkauf, Ella Littwitz, The Otolith Group, Su Yu Hsin (and Angela Goh)
Jan 27 – Mar 28, 2024
Opening: Jan 27, 6-9pm

Public programme of events
Curatorial exhibition guided walkthrough & Reading Group (in English)
Mar 16 | 2-5.30pm
Attendees must register here, the reading materials will be sent after registration.

Special listening session
Feb 17 and Mar 2 (played throughout the day in the video room)
Mark Fisher and Justin Barton
On Vanishing Land (2013/19) & transmission: londonunderlondon (2023)

Selected Artist Panel Talk
With Diana Akoto-Yip, Justin Barton, Stephanie Comilang, Nik Nowak, Su Yu Hsin and curator Jessica Edwards
Saturday, March 23, 6pm
(in English)
Register here

Heavy Water | of Coordinates, Containers and Containment is anticipated as a mutational encounter between the participating artists’ exhibited works, asking us to think anew, following the late Édouard Glissant’s ‘aquatic’ theories (1997) and Denise Ferreira da Silva’s conception of a ‘deep or abyssal implicancy’ (2019), of how we might understand these works when reframed, recast, in a poethics of relation, in dialogue with each other. Taking as its indexical register the wet mechanics of both the historical and contemporary global movement of peoples – volitional or enforced – and commodities, of peoples transformed into commodities, Heavy Water | of Containers, Coordinates and Containment considers the entanglements and afterlives of maritime colonial history, racial capitalism, and contemporary hypermodernity: embarkations and disembarkations, promethean fantasies of an imposition of order, containment and mastery of uncharted ‘new worlds’, paralleled with unimaginable dystopian lived nightmares of abduction, dispossession, and displacement; of contestation over borders, exclusion zones and proprietorship of space; dislocation wrought through war, scarcity, persecution, and the acceleration of extreme climate events. Commencing with the conceit of ‘Heavy Water’, its ambivalence and excess of meaning informs the span and framing of the exhibition, interrogating both Real and speculative visual (and sonic) histories and futurities: ‘Heavy Water’, the channel, the sea, the ocean as freighted, weighted with precarious crossings, unsafe passage and untold trauma, and of practices concealing the most egregious extractive processes of capital becomes hauntological, “pregnant with as many dead as living” (Glissant, 1997:6), and where the value of a life is differentially calculated. From the slave ship to the transmodal container and its super cargo container carrier ship, from the colonial plantation to the refugee camp, and from the spectral threat of nuclear ruination to the escape fantasies of the colonisation of outer space, today James Baldwin’s profound and prophetic reflection, “Tomorrow you will all be negroes!” resonates more starkly.

Diana Akoto-Yip | Point of No Return (2011)

In Diana Akoto-Yip’s Point of No Return (2011), the viewer is poised on a threshold, affectively compelled, rather than visually invited, to pass three times through the matrixial funnel of the work’s framing that constitutes a passage across a shore, to be delivered up to an expansive ocean as it meets with an infinite horizon, beyond which lies the unknowable. Ayoto-Yip’s process in the production of the work – composing, photographing in analogue, digitizing and then processing on the computer – engenders an effect laying somewhere between painting and photography, and is at once oneiric. Yet, Point of No Return is hauntological, a work of exorbitance, an excess of meaning to understand which we must withdraw our gaze from the oceanic expanse and return to the threshold upon which we stand: the space of the Real that both suffuses and lays outside of the frame. The artist places us inside une maison des esclaves, the ‘house’, the prison-hold of the enslaved at Cape Coast Castle, Ghana, a fort and settlement that would pass, over centuries, between the hands of rival imperial/colonial forces. The point, or door, of no return,

[…] is a place, real, imaginary and imagined. As islands and dark continents are. It is a place which exists or existed. The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. […] Imagining our ancestors stepping through these portals one senses people stepping out into nothing; one senses a surreal space, an inexplicable space. One imagines people so stunned by their circumstances, so heartbroken as to refuse reality. Our inheritance in the Diaspora is to live in this inexplicable space. That space is the measure of our ancestors’ step through the door toward the ship. (Brand, 2012:35-36)

The title of the work refers then, to both a lived place in the diaspora consciousness, and a point in history – the transatlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage, propelled by the predatory and voracious appetites of colonial capitalism, where,“[…] the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production,” (Karl Marx, Capital Vol.1, 1867: see pp.915-24). Ayoto-Yip thus directly confronts the physical and psychical vestiges of this history and the wider hauntology, the afterlife, of a vertiginous and un-representable past that continues to act coexistent and insistent with the present and the future.

The horizon looms as both a horror and a romance contingent upon one’s vantage point.

Justin Barton and Mark Fisher | On Vanishing Land (2013/2019)

The spatial and temporal coordinates of Mark Fisher (†) and Justin Barton’s audio-essay On Vanishing Land (2019), are the launch point for an evocative walk along the South East Coast of England, in 2006, from Felixstowe container port (“a nerve ganglion of capitalism”) to the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo. A walk under immense skies, through zones of deep time and within sunlit, liminal terrains, into the eerie. Everywhere there are charged atmospheres, shadowy incursions, enigmatic departures. A derelict radar base, coastal heathland, drifting thistledown, towers of overgrown shipping containers – music haunted by wider levels of reality, narrations about rarely visited zones and potentials, voices of dreams and stories. Beyond the surface of the day something becomes visible, a way forward, an escape-path from capitalist reality. On Vanishing Land is about following the lines of terrains and dreams. It is about a micropolitics of escape, of disappearance. A micropolitics of waking the faculties.

“It is April, but it feels like summer. They turn left onto the seafront […]” (1)

It is fitting for the exhibition that OVL should begin at Britain’s biggest and busiest container ports, with container behemoths silently following the horizon and revealing the inconceivably large and invisible structures of capital and the circulation of commodities of which they are a mechanism. At one point, Barton as narrator lists the names of the major global corporations containerising the world: Maersk, Sealund, Yang Ming, Cosco, Hanjin… In another time, these names might have been replaced by those of slave ships: Amistad, Beeckestijn, Brooks, Clotilda, Hannibal, (the German) Jesus of Lübeck, Zong. What connects the container ship to the slave ship is the practice of “tight packing” of their cargo, a practice tied to profit but increased risk. Echoes, connections, and reflections between seemingly disparate details illuminate the threads that connect the historical, political, and conceptual complexity at the heart of OVL.

Justin Barton and Mark Fisher | transmission: londonunderlondon (2005/2023)

Marking the global premiere of this definitive version of the Fisher and Barton’s first collaboration, transmission: londonunderlondonencapsulates a close and unusual thematic connection to water culminating with events in London’s docklands. Thematically structured in five parts, The Quiet Man, The Drowned World, The Waves, necropolis now, and when space breaks open, it is an abstract and oneiric engagement with underwater and flooded spaces (and with the sea) that is not only sustained, but is maybe even a little bit eerie…

Fisher (†) asked: “Can we rediscover and develop modes of listening that are intimate yet public, collective but anti-social?”

alexander levy gallery and the exhibition Heavy Water | of Coordinates, Containers and Containment will have two dedicated listening sessions for the playback of the audio essays in the lower ground screening room (see programme) creating an encounter with the works where everything has been done to assist toward an impression that a striking, maybe slightly eerie broadcast has been stumbled upon, on an unsuspected wavelength.

On Vanishing Land can be listened to throughout the duration of the exhibition in the main gallery space.

Julius von Bismarck | Punishment I (2011)

Known for his emblematic interventions with the creative and destructive dimensions of the elemental forces of nature, in the video work Punishment I, Julius von Bismarck enacts the hubristic scene of the Achaemenid King and Egyptian Pharaoh Xerxes, who suffering the ignominious spectacle of his thwarted military strategy – he had ordered the construction of a bridge of boats to breach the strait of Hellespont (today the Dardanelles), at the Battle of Salamis (480BCE) which were in quick order destroyed by the violence of a storm – unleashed his anger and humiliation by “punishing” the sea with 300 lashes. In the video work, we see von Bismarck, bullwhip in hand, stride defiantly into the incoming waves as they crash on the shoreline battle incoming waves on the shoreline, furiously meting out its punishment, to exhaustion, to points of collapse, only to get up again, continue, until the tariff has been paid. Yet, as historian of antiquity Professor Michael Scott tells us, Xerxes not only had the sea whipped but also brandished with hot irons, throwing chains into it. It is a scene of subjection, an imperial power’s attempt to make of nature a slave, making nature bend to his dominion. Whilst von Bismarck plays with the rhetorical power of this traditional retaliation, questioning the value patterns that are conveyed to people today by societal constructs and authorities, the vantage point of the viewer may elicit further interpretive associations with colonial overtones.

Julius von Bismarck | Landscape Painting (Bismarck Sea, Surf) (2023)

A more autobiographical work in tone, is also presented here by von Bismarck – a work that reckons with the very political, social and cultural weight of the artist’s family name and his forebear Otto von Bismarck, the first German Chancellor, founder of the German Empire and “architect” of the 1884/5 German West Africa conference that accelerated the carving up of Africa amongst the colonial powers. With the plethora of seas, land masses and geographical formations bearing the name of the von Bismarck’s, the artist, their descendent, in this large-format photographic, work whose quality lays between traditional methods of engraving, painting and photography, over codes the undulating waves of the Bismarck Sea off Papua New Guinea, (a site of historical German colonial violence), with monochromatic lines, describing their movement. This rendering, voiding the sea of colour might suggest a temporal act of going back to that history, revisiting the violence, both physical and psychical but also linguistic – the violence of language and acts of naming and claiming.

Stephanie Comilang | Diaspora Ad Astra (2020)

Operating within the forms of a docu-fiction and a critical fabulation – a mode of storytelling and speculative narration as a means for redressing history’s omissions, particularly those in the lives of enslaved and/or subjugated peoples – Stephanie Comilang’s science fiction documentary centres the themes of migration, displacement and global (extractive) labour utilising the device of a fictional account of a lived experience, a narrator, and a playing with temporalities. In Diaspora Ad Astra, we enter the total-world, of a container carrier ship through the lens of a Filipino seafarer who has signed on as crew for a period of 8 – 10 months. Comilang’s short video work, zooms out to reveal an endless horizon coupled with a sense that the passage of time is out of joint, stretched beyond meaning when there is nothing on the horizon but an infinite horizon: the sea is the land. Eponymously named for the science fiction anthology that is the comparative analogy around which the lived experience of the bored seafarer, unable to access the internet and thus family for this long period of confinement, he turns to the reading of the collection of Filipino science fiction, finds a parallel with his own conditions of existence in a story woven about a group of commercial space travellers prohibited from returning home for fear of their harbouring “unknown aliens”; a reference to the COVID-19 pandemic stories and quarantine regulations of the seafarers, who though being within touching distance of home, are forbidden from docking, amplifying their already extreme sense of isolation, dislocation, and alien-ation. Outer space becomes analogous to the vast expanse of the millions of square miles of the world’s oceans. Comilang interjects phone portrait inserts of the container ship stalking the horizon, near emptied of its global consignments, ‘pasted’ on to the verdant green landscape of home. But a further sense of the meaning of this euphemism, could also be in its reference to illegalised workers, or indeed the extractive and exploitative contractual conditions and brutality under which these mariners, are forced to take up this lonely position, leaving behind families for emotionally unsustainable stretches of time, unable to contact them due to loss of internet connectivity. There are currently 400,000 seafarers from the Philippines and their profession helps move 90 percent of global trade. Under brutal conditions, these people earn ten times more than what they can at home. Thus, through her hyperstitional critical fabulation, Comilang returns us to questions of the migration and dissolution of self, identity, mobility, labour rights and exploitation.

Steve Goodman aka Kode9 | Astro-Darien (2023)

Weaving together sound, science fiction, video game culture, colonial history and speculative futures, Steve Goodman’s (aka Kode9),Astro-Darien, explores some of the dynamics surrounding the movement for Scottish independence, employing an allegorical approach, in a moment of tension, to interrogate the politics of the union and notions of nation and colony.

The 26-minute documentary sonic fiction, narrated throughout by synthetic Scottish voices, unfolds the story of the break-up of Britain, framed as an eponymous video game, and spirals between the role of the catastrophic late 17th century Darien Scheme in the founding of the UK – when Scotland ignominiously failed to colonise the geopolitically and lucrative coordinates of present-day Panama resulting in its subsequent marriage with England – and the contemporary fracturing of the union. In a somewhat wild extrapolation of the race to become Scotland’s first vertical satellite launch station, currently being played out between Sutherland Space Port and the Shetland Space Centre, independence is speculatively framed as an exercise of escapology, a jailbreak and exodus from the restrictive containment of the union to an orbital space habitat, with all the risks and dangers that entails. An interstellar secession. From a Caledonian heart of darkness to a supernova Scotia?

Loosely plotted, Astro Darien follows a game designer from a fictional games company called ‘Trancestar North’ (inspired by the Edinburgh-based, real-life video game production studio Rockstar North of Grand Theft Auto fame) who, in attempting to lift the dark spell cast by Darien, of a “failed colonialism”, models a counter-future by ingesting cosmism, the history of racial capitalism and the demise of Empire into ‘T-Divine’ (a neural network based on an emulation of the brain of historian Tom Devine), the geopolitics simulator of the game engine. She follows the Brexit algorithm as it runs to its logical conclusion.

Goodman’s array of archival research and visual techniques encompass video filmed at sites of the proposed spaceports in the North of Scotland, machine learning video trained on maps and satellite imagery of the UK and Atlantic, and of space habitats derived from NASA’s Summer Study of future space colonies conducted at Stanford University in 1975, which brought together artists, architects and engineers. Other visual elements include animations produced in collaboration with simulation artist, and long-time collaborator, Lawrence Lek.

This will be the European premiere of Steve Goodman’s Astro-Darien.

Ayesha Hameed | I sing of the sea, I am mermaid of the trees (2021)

I sing of the sea, I am mermaid of the trees, is a multichannel audio and textile installation commissioned by the 2021 Liverpool Biennale. Hameed’s installation follows the laying down of the first undersea telegraphic cable between India and Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century, that was precipitated by the six week delay for Britain to get news of the outbreak of the Revolt of 1857.

Hameed’s installation moves this history underwater, taking us to battles against the forces of the seafloor, through the fragile nervousness of cable signals, and to the forests in Sarawak from where gutta percha was extracted by indigenous peoples to insulate the thousands of miles of undersea cables. I sing of the
 sea considers how communication can act as a kind of violence, transmitted across the seafloor, consolidating Britain’s imperial control over India. If Imperial Britain was the mother country and its colonies its offspring, then the undersea cable was a kind of pathological, strangulating umbilical cord. This is a subaquatic story of those offspring. (2)

I sing of the sea, I am mermaid of the trees points to the human/non-human relation between the indigenous population’s extracting, or “milking” (as Hameed and her co-performers phrase it) of the forest of Palaquium percha trees, an act of equal parts recognition of shared state, intimacy and mourning, “milk white tears into bamboo bowls,” simultaneously exposing the doubly extractive process underpinning the hierarchical colonial power relation between the British, and the worker and the land: it is the British that claim the triumph and power of this oceanic feat, not the hands that caressed and collected the thermoplastic substance used for insulating the sub-marine cables; “if the metropolis is the body’s head, the telegraph lines are its tentacle nerves”/ “telegraph is another word for distant writing”/ “turning six weeks into nine minutes,” as the British achieve dominion in reducing, transcending, spatial and temporal coordinates: The killing of space and strangling of time. Hameed, and her co-performers voice, hymn, this subjugated history, voice the voiceless, voice the land, to counter-actualise prevailing narrations of history.

Fabien Knecht | Lachen ist verdächtig (2022); Isolation (52°33’44.1”N 14°03’12.8”E) (2019)

Fabian Knecht’s, collaborative relationship with Livyj Bereh (Left Bank), a Kyiv-based volunteer group emerging in the wake of the eruption of the Russia-Ukraine war, led to the creation of the series Lachen ist verdächtig / Laughing Is Suspicious, one edition of which is exhibited here. Spilling down the gallery wall, it is redolent of discarded fishing nets entangled with drifting aquatic life, of algae, voluptuous seaweed, such is its colour palette. Yet the work, a functional element of the Ukrainian war machine, makes redundant the interrogation of the well-worn triumvirate of art-value-utility, its primary purpose having been for the concealment of strategic targets from Russian aerial surveillance technologies, to then arrive within the gallery space at the end of its use-life as an ostensible materialwitness, a carrier of the detritus and embedded memory of its war use. Created out of a communal activity, fabrics, rendered in strips – each encapsulating an autobiography, garnered from family, friends, loved ones and strangers, whose future return or survival cannot be guaranteed in the face of war’s vicissitudes – the resultant camouflage net, woven, knotted together by many hands, is cast wide as a form of protection, coverage, embodying a national intimacy. Within this communal process we might, reading otherwise, reading relationally, find parallels with the African American quilt-making tradition of chattel slavery, female slaves communicating embedded codes, other information about, for example, safe passage via the Underground Railroad, and storytelling in their stitching in camouflaged acts of radical refusal and resistance. Lachen ist verdächtig / Laughing Is Suspicious also bespeaks that other side of war; of the dispossession and becoming-refugee of thousands of Ukrainians. Notwithstanding the Bosnian War, it is the first time since the Second World War of a becoming-refugee of a white Western populace who must reckon with the precarity of a dislocated status and identity most usually ascribed to racialised others.

Knecht also exhibits here, the photographic documentation of one of his Isolation works, Isolation (52°33’44.1”N 14°03’12.8”E), 2019, a massive architectural undertaking in which he literally ‘isolates’, frames, a selected location of nature within a temporarily constructed white cube – thus taking the white cube out of its normative urban locale – the geographical coordinates of which giving the work its title. Yet, this ‘isolation’ is also an act of containment, a ‘quarantining’ even, wherein nature is run as a simulation model, the timed-based ‘natural’ installation being subjected, within the confines of the white cube, to a scrutinising even scientific/empirical gaze, within laboratory-like conditions – unnatural stark white lighting making nature, decontextualized from its environment, appear more intensively, more hyperreal, as it temporally succumbs to Knecht’s prometheanism of intervention and manipulation. 

Mischa Leinkauf | Fiction of a Non-Entry (Israel + Egypt) (2019)

Mischa Leinkauf’s artistic practice might well be conceived as operating through a deterritorialising tactics of stealth, nomadic incursions into politically and symbolically-charged spaces, to circumvent the limitations of architectural and geopolitical boundaries and borders, coordinates of containment. The title of the work refers to the expression „fiction of a non-entry“, originating in German refugee policy yet here Leinkauf uses it to interrogate questions about the normative practices of territoriality and identity. In his wider video work of the same title, it

…shows Leinkauf crossing the invisible borders on the ocean floor between Israel and Jordan or Egypt in the Red Sea […] The respective regions are militarily guarded and secured by border fortifications, some of their fences protrude 30 metres from the banks into the water. Behind them, a landscape opens up to which visual separation has to surrender: the sea. With a research period of over a year, Leinkauf travelled into these regions and crossed their borders whilst diving. By leaving the overland routes, Leinkauf traces the national interspaces. Where systematic gaps arise, he reveals the absurdity of control systems in a performative way. The recording shows him at the bottom of the sea […] walking in the dystopian-looking tranquillity and expanse of the sea and opens up a space of absolute freedom. (Poppinga, A. on the occasion of the artist’s exhibition Fiktion einer Nicht-Einreise / Fiction of a Non-Entry, 2019, alexander levy gallery).

Here, in the photographic documentation Fiction of a Non-Entry (Israel & Egypt), 2019, like a character from J.G. Ballard’s prescient ‘cli-fi’ (climate change science fiction) novel The Drowned World (1962), the artist/diver, miniaturised in the expanse of the Red Sea, bestrides the invisible border, the coordinates of separation, that arbitrarily determine Israel from Egypt. Secreted, metres down, Leinkauf’s corporeal insertion into, and disturbance of, this nationally invested proprietorial yet imagined marker of difference, reflects upon the methods through which borders – as much psychological as physical and geopolitical – condition our way of understanding and feeling about others, the ‘not-us’; borders can be porous but they can also, equally, be intractable, fortressed, paranoic. Critiquing modes of “topographical and symbolic barricading, […] Leinkauf recourses to Situationist theory and practice, revealing the permeability and absurdity of border fortifications. […] Neither the natural resources of water, air and earth nor social lifestyles, solidarity and intimate relationships suggest spatial demarcation.” (ibid.)

Ella Littwitz | 853,901 (2024)

In 853,901 (2018), Littwitz follows the trajectory of one of three Mediterranean migration routes into the EU in recent years. In her employment of the honeycombed geosynthetic soil erosion control product, the geocell, Littwitz performs an inversion, inverts land and sea bespeaking the human dimension of the ongoing migrant crisis that subtends this work. The Mediterranean Sea, whilst connecting many countries, has become the tragic symbol for the gulf between the Global South and the Global North. The eastern Mediterranean route into Greece represents the arrival point of 1,083,248 immigrants by sea since the onset of the current migrant crisis. The passage from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesvos is one of the shortest sea routes into the EU, and therefore one of the most frequented paths.

The shape-form of 853,901 (2018), following the route of precarity used by refugees to cross the Mediterranean Sea, proffers us an aquatic cartography of flight, of fleeing. The unfurling tendrils of the geocells – like exotic sea life yet to be discovered and taxonomically ordered – belie a deeper horror, making cartographic the lives of those who have ‘arrived’…and those who did not; the life buoy a talisman to cling to in the depths of a sea that would draw you down with no ground from which to return upwards. Littwitz’s work, and the affective ecology that intensively reverberates far outside of its grounding black frame – of survival, of trauma, of loss, mourning; of the official processes-to-come in proving one’s rights to asylum, of being ‘held’ in a liminal state of non-being – passes us three times through Édouard Glissant’s abyssal matrix: the first abyss, the womb of the boat; the second, the depths, the bottom of the ocean; and the third, into the unknown,” (Glissant, 1997).

Ella Littwitz | De Facto (2018)

In the global circulation of signs, the Coca Cola bottle has been near ubiquitous short-hand for the concept of freedom, though one that has been motivated by the ideological framing of the West. Disrobed of its identifying red and white labelling, it is still readily distinctive it’s proportions and shape immediately registered. In its state of utter transparency – an ideal extolled in Western aesthetics and politics alike, Littwitz perhaps critiques the extractive and commercial practices of such huge multi-national corporations, making too, a comment on the plastics industry and pollution. Littwitz fills this container with international water emanating from one of the global transboundary zones in which ships, as well as peoples, have the right to “innocent passage”, not ‘contained’ or subject to the jurisdiction of a sovereign state (in accordance with UN conventions). Yet, increasing geopolitical tensions, sovereign state incursions – as they attempt to expand their reach beyond the limit point of 12 nautical miles of their territorial seas – threatens this de facto right.

Nik Nowak | Heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs (2024)

In conversation with Jessica Edwards, Nik Nowak has produced this new work on the occasion of the exhibition Heavy Water | of Coordinates, Containers and Containment. Formally, we see a scale model of a 40ft overseas shipping container sinking, seemingly being drawn down into a black reflective morass. Upended, its doors are flung wide open as though taking its last desperate gulps of air. Knowing what is imminent, we stare down into the abyss of its gaping black maw.

Nowak’s sculpture, Heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs (2024), encompasses several devices of aesthetic doubling. First, reflected back to us from the polished black eddying surface – an ostensible black mirror – we see the container being drawn down to the depths in a droste effect, a recursivity; the black chasm of the container’s interior, repeated in the black ‘sea’ into which it is sinking. It is a container descending into a container, Nowak’s sculpture employing the same corrugated industrial steel panels as utilised in the making of full-sized containers, and stamped with an authentic seafaring identification number. The work’s title, drawn from a line of the American poet Ellen Bass’ poem, The Thing Is, (a poem arcing the emotional turbulence of love, loss and grief), in its choice elicits several critical but ambiguous allusions. The container – as a medium for the global circulation of commodities, trade, a “nerve ganglion” of capital; as a motif of global finance capitalism, yet its underside a gaping economic and social inequality. In recent years the tragedies of those whose lives have been lost as part of a global organised (n)ec(r)onmy – the smuggling of desperate migrants unable to gain access to free movement and who are “transported” via containers, sometimes never to arrive. Inside the abyssal mouth of the container, it reveals no “truth”, in its blackness, we see neither commodities, nor human (commodities). Nowak’s work also makes critical reference to the Drexiyan, or radical black imagining of the afterlives of slaves who were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage, of a mythos of aquatic adaptation – “gills” rather than “lungs”. But the work too, in the dark viscosity of the ersatz liquid might also bespeak the accelerating climatological and existential crises we face. For Friedrich Nietzsche: “[…] if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”(2) (Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886). For the viewer, this staring into the black liquidity, the black mirror, of Nowak’s sculpture might afford us that moment to see the unspeakable, to reasonably ruminate of that which it is uncomfortable to contemplate.

The Otolith Group | Hydra Decapita (2010)

At the centre of The Otolith Group’s Hydra Decapita, is the infamous maritime legal case from 1781, in which the British slave ship, The Zong, having taken on board its ‘consignment’ of slaves, became lost, losing all sense of its coordinates in its return journey from Jamaica to Liverpool, England. The decision made by its captain, faced with a dwindling supply of freshwater was to order the crew, over a series of days, to throw overboard 133 African women, men and children – the entirety of its valuable ‘black cargo’ – handcuffed, chained together in irons, into the Caribbean Sea in order to claim insurance for the loss of these ‘goods’ under the salvage clause of the ship’s insurance policy. When the case came to trial in 1783, it was in relation to the insurance claim and not the murder of the slaves, the jury ordering the insurer to pay the compensation to the Zong’s Liverpool-based owners: the violence of abstraction, the dead reduced to numbered fungibles in ships’ ledgers.

Hydra Decapita connects this historical atrocity to the wider understanding of the operations of financial capitalism and a racialised ‘necronomics’. The work evokes J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 imagining of this atrocity, in the painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), Turner an advocate for the abolition of slavery having read of the horrors aboard The Zong in Thomas Clarkson’s The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808). Overlaying the brooding monochromatic seascape of Hydra Decapita, is Anjalika Sagar’s – one half of The Otolith Group – narrative singing of 19th century art critic John Ruskin’s response to Turner’s painting. The work takes us through the first two abysses of Glissant’s schema: the first, the womb-boat, the second the depths/bottom of the ocean. Yet Glissant also argued that the abyss is transformational, a passage from one state of being to the becoming of another. Here Hydra Decapita invokes the mythos of Detroit electronic group Drexciya’s subaquatic mutant Black world set in an underwater kingdom populated by Drexciyans, the descendants of the amphibious babies of pregnant African women thrown overboard from slave ships during the Middle Passage.

Hydra Decapita turns Drexciya’s powerful reimagining of this Middle Passage towards an encounter with the words of […] Ruskin and JMW Turner’s visual reckoning with the irreparable evil of British slavery. […] By voicing Ruskin’s text in counterpoint with Gerald Donald’s thoughts on what he calls ‘interhydratic’ travel, the film invites audiences to tune themselves into the radical imagination of a Black future. (3)

Su Yu Hsin | Tidal Variations (2021)

[In] Tidal Variations a video installation initiated by Taiwanese artist and filmmaker SU Yu-Hsin and her collaboration with Australian dancer and choreographer Angela GOH, and co-commissioned by the Sydney Opera House, the artists dig into the history of the site, re-imagining it—as a speculative data center drifting on water where undersea cables converge, and a screen-like surface that reflects water and light. Under COVID-19, the windows became a symbol of enclosure and isolation. People looked out the window to the street, and also encountered one another as digital framed images. The artists examine Glass Walls and the engineering structure of the Sydney Opera House to map the Internet infrastructure and optical fiber network: the data light crosses the bottom of the sea and reaches the path of people’s glass screens. They attempt to think from the perspective of material imagination in a way to approach isolation and intimacy during the epidemic. Undersea cables construct watery conduits from node to node, frame to frame, window to window. It’s a global system that never sleeps, and information behind the black screen continues flowing. Water and light, the two substances that enabled life to evolve in the first place, now enable the contemporary technological entanglement upon which we have come to rely. The tide in people’s bodies is highly connected with the data light behind the screen. Tidal Variations renders and reveals the image, the body, data, and thinking as water and light, reframing the world through a wet mechanics of seeing. (4)

Su Yu Hsin | water sleep II Akaike river under Xizang Road, 2019

Maps are controlled by nation-states: who creates them, what they will look like, how they will be read, and how they will be shared. water sleep II Akaike river under Xizang Road is an essay film in which the artist guides us to find the lost river in historical maps. Taipei/Taihoku City Planning Map with Bird’s-eye View (1935) and Taihoku Aerial Map, American Army 14th Air Force (1944) represent the colonial history of Taiwan. The process provides another reading through decolonizing gaze of maps and turns the focus toward evidence of objective portraits of the landscape. (5)

Text by Jessica Edwards



(1) Description taken/adapted from the Flatlines / Hyperdub bandcamp online shop product page for On Vanishing Land: https://hyperdub.bandcamp.com/album/on-vanishing-land

(2) See Nietzsche, F (1886) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Chapter IV. ‘Apophthegms and Interludes,§146.

(3) Text used, with permission, from the artist’s portfolio. The rights to the text remain the property of the artist.

(4) Quotation taken from: https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/display/otolith-group-hydra-decapita

(5) Text used, with permission, from the artist’s portfolio. The rights to the text remain the property of the artist.

(6) Text used, with permission, from the artist’s portfolio. The rights to the text remain the property of the artist.