SAN DIEGO — The first thematic group show from the newly established ICA San Diego, Surface Tension presents a sophisticated exhibition of video-based pieces by seven international artists, who all use the ocean as a setting for their work. The curatorial text tells us that Surface Tension “explores our relationship with ocean environments,” but the conversation among the strongest works in the show, I believe, makes a more precise point. Here, the ocean serves less as a subject and more as a backdrop, or surface, against which humanity’s wild vagaries play out. The exhibition raises the specter of the nuanced and innumerable ways in which we have degraded the environment, and how that very degradation is intertwined with systems of power in our societies.
The show begins with Sue Austin’s “‘Creating the Spectacle!’ Part 1— Finding Freedom” (2012). A mesmerizing underwater scene shows Austin in a specially adapted wheelchair, propelled by transparent fins and using her arms to guide her direction. She swims balletically past coral reefs amidst brilliant underwater life. The video brings to mind the social model of disability — that it is the barriers built by a society that disables people with physical impairments, rather than the impairments themselves. Here, the only human intervention in sight — Austin’s chair — is one that allows the artist to be enveloped in the natural world. The video imparts a lingering sense of freedom, even hope, providing a bright spot in the exhibition.
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Two other standout works are anchored by colonization’s impact on land and bodies. “Like Ships in the Night” (2018), by Algonquin French Canadian artist Caroline Monnet, documents a 22-day trip by boat across the Atlantic Ocean. Departing from the Netherlands and arriving in Montreal, Monnet captures varied scenery: from industrial ports to pastoral landscapes, cityscapes to open waters. At one point, a view of the ocean horizon tips, the image turning upside-down. For much of the video, Monnet employs a technique in which the image is divided, mirroring itself, or repeated multiple times. These artistic interventions into the footage throw the viewer off-balance, gently drawing our attention toward the constructed nature of the colonized, industrialized landscape.
Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, a Black trans artist working in London, presents an interactive computer game “Pirating Blackness” (2021), where the player — identifying as an ancestor of either the colonizer or “those that were carried across the sea” — navigates a fictional history in which the ocean did not serve as a tool for trafficking humans and stealing land. Available online at BlackTransSea.com, at ICA the game is projected against a wall, an oceanic paper carpet spread in front of it. Viewers press large red buttons to navigate the game and, when I was there, they congregated, watching each other play to different outcomes. In “Pirating Blackness,” the ocean is a site of both devastating history and possibility of a more just world.
Another strong piece is Ulu Braun’s collage-like video “Westcoast” (2010), an epic panorama of environmental destruction. Like a modern-day Hieronymus Bosch painting, the work possesses intricate detail, a cacophony of things happening at once, with Braun effectively employing bizarre shifts in scale to create a claustrophobic effect. A combination of the ocean surface and busy capitalist activity, we witness humans and animals alike navigate a polluted environment in freefall, pushed over the brink by our exploitation of the ocean and its inhabitants. It is terrifying.
However, I found myself disappointed by two pieces that focus on the refuse we have sent spilling into the ocean, a crucial point in the show’s overall theme. Pinar Yoldas is an accomplished artist with a wide-reaching practice, but her video in this exhibition, “Hollow Oceans” (2021), is less than effective. The digital imagery, morphing between vaguely oceanic and net-like forms, aims to represent abandoned fishing nets but is so abstract that the viewer has very little to grab onto without additional context. I thought Marina Zurkow’s multimedia installation “Boil the Ocean” (2021) was more successful upon first approach, incorporating video monitors into a tableau of objects used in commercial fishing and effectively creating a three-dimensional environment for the digital screens using real things from the ocean. Yet the actual imagery on the monitors — animations of underwater scenes with sea life, humans swimming, plastic refuse, oil spills, radar images, etc. — feel like predictable choices. The charming illustrational style in which they are rendered turns the whole installation into a Disneyesque take on the havoc we have wrought on our ecosystem, sapping it of real urgency.
I was soon distracted from these missed opportunities by Charles Atlas’s intriguing work, “Waning of Justice” (2015). It features a two-channel video of changing footage of sunsets, over which large words appear in dramatic all-caps. Some of the word pairings are absurd and funny, others all too precise, even in their abstraction. Yellow Martian. Hoodoo Quinoa. Forest Destiny. Asshat Decade. Paisley Wartime. The setting sun and troubling germaneness suggest some kind of ending, an imminent dystopia.
Overall, Surface Tension’s curation is simultaneously tight and expansive, leading the viewer down winding trails of thought through relatively few works. We see the ocean as backdrop, how we have treated it as a two-dimensional surface against which our exploitation and pleasure unfold. The works in the exhibition invoke the ways in which this positioning of the natural environment has degraded both the ocean and our social systems to a perilous degree. It resonates with the kind of despair most of us — or, at least, those paying any attention — are feeling. Surface Tension asks viewers to question humanity’s hubris and, just maybe, imagine solutions.
Surface Tension continues at ICA Central at The Institute of Contemporary Art, San Diego (1439 El Prado, San Diego) through June 26. The exhibition was organized by the museum.