Emily Dickinson never saw the sea. When it appears in her poetry, and it appears plenty, it is as a totally mythic site, unfettered by experience but crafted solely from dreams. Dickinson’s ocean is a shapeshifter, its indeterminacy experienced by the poet as nightmarish and reassuring in equal measure. The threat of being devoured comes with relief in relinquishing responsibility; the pleasure of imagining oneself known to another is despite that other’s unknowable depths.
One can’t be sure whether Joan Jonas can also claim to have been ‘eaten up’ by the sea, but she has certainly aimed to digest it for her viewers in Moving Off The Land II, her most recent exhibition in Venice. Jonas illuminates our conflicted relationship to the ocean in a way every bit as penetrating as Dickinson, from whom the artist draws much of the material that comprises this absorbing show.
Moving Off The Land II inaugurates a new centre dedicated to catalysing ocean literacy, research and advocacy in the arts. Ocean Space, as it is called, is housed in the former Chiesa di San Lorenzo, a rather sombre and gloomy chamber when one enters from the Italian sunlight. The church was badly damaged in the First World War and has remained, decaying and closed to the public, for almost a hundred years. Inside there is something of the stagnant depths of the sea, like a wreck dredged up from the lagoon.
The front room holds a sound installation created by Jonas in collaboration with the marine biologist David Gruber. Gruber’s hydrophone recordings capture the audible frequencies emitted by sperm whales. These aqueous vibrations are translated into airborne waves; the space reverberates to the tune of an invisible body of water. Behind the altar lies a Murano glass tank and five wooden viewing devices for Jonas’ films. Jonas has said that video is the ‘illusion of boxed space’, but in these installations the screen is more like the transparent wall that both keeps us dry and makes it possible to believe that we are in with the fishes.
What emerges from these works is the deceptive nature of such boundaries between human civilisation and the hydrosphere. In one film, Jonas relates the story of an octopus in the New England Aquarium in Boston which at night would lift the lid of its container and enter a neighbouring tank to catch fish, before returning unnoticed. We are awakened to a world in which we share a knowing wink, or an uncanny shudder, with the creatures of the sea. Whilst they seem so fundamentally alien (they are not even mammals!), Jonas shows us the sinuous ties that bind.
In Moving Off The Land II, science and mythology lead us continually back to the ocean. A fluid montage of words from writers as diverse as Herman Melville, Rachel Carson, Sy Montgomery and Emily Dickinson form the vocal backbone of Jonas’ films. Beyond acting as a reference or metaphor (although there are enough mirrors in the show to make an argument around reflection) these invented or recollected waters seep into our culture and biology.
The aquatic ape hypothesis proposed by Alister Hardy and Elaine Morgan in the middle of the twentieth century holds that significant human characteristics, such as hairlessness and bipedalism, derive from marine ancestors. In parallel, it is also now believed that some oceanic mammals can claim terrestrial origins. The Pakicetus, a goat-sized mammal of the Eocene that made its home along fertile shorelines, is now understood to be the earliest ancestor of the modern whale, having quite literally moved off the land in the course of its evolution.
In Venice, Jonas is attentive to the many ways in which human and non-human life has and continues to drift into and across the blue yonder. Footage Gruber shot at the artist’s summer home in Cape Breton, Canada, shows her dog playing in the surf. Waves push back up the land, the undertow drags the sand down and in; an endless cycle of ebb and flow. This cosmic rhythm expands, filling space, pouring through the cracks, filling up everything.
This particular film is dedicated to the mermaid. Joan plays the part herself: dressed in nets and shells she makes her way down to the ocean shore. She draws an octopus on a chalk board. During the performance an ancient coin is produced depicting the earliest of these sirens, the Syrian goddess of fertility Atargatis. Though Jonas does not mention her, Hans Christian Anderson’s mermaid surrendering herself to the foam, is never far from the surface. Anderson animates the tension between land and sea in the figure of a young woman who yearns for, and ultimately gains the rewards of, both. This rhymes with Jonas’ conviction in the mutability of matter and the mutual lines of desire reaching in and out of the water.
In another viewing box we see Jonas drawing herself as an octopus. She wears a white outfit onto which she traces the outlines of tentacles and suckers; flesh becoming fish. It seems impossible to resist the call of the sea. But this primal ache to re-join our origins comes with an equally strong revulsion towards those that still swim in that primeval mire. When Coleridge wants to debase his ancient mariner, polluted by sin and wallowing in a state of abject self-loathing, he casts his ignoble flesh as slippery discharge from the murky depths: ‘The many men, so beautiful! / And they all dead did lie: / And a thousand thousand slimy things / Lived on; and so did I.’
Jonas transforms this sentiment into a beacon whose vibrant sense of ecology slices through any misanthropy, allowing to emerge instead a sheer delight in the formlessness of this posthuman morass. With great levity, Jonas filters her ragged collection of allusions and quotations through her own layered visual language to produce a fluid space of retelling and recounting myth. Her method appears as a way to grasp the ungraspable by being as slippery oneself.
Things that are as vast and multi-faceted as the sea are too evasive to be understood by the embrace of a single practice. is only in the sum of all these strokes that we can cleave understanding from confusion. This is true also for the current ecological crisis, which Jonas engages here with new intensity under the impetus of Ocean Space’s commitment to fostering collective action on pressing issues facing our waters today.
Speaking in relation to his 2018 book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle emphasises the need to balance different ways of thinking about climate change. Embracing the archaic, the occult and the metaphorical alongside scientific explanations is necessary to break the chains of the current empiricism which holds that what is knowable is what is computable. Moving Off the Land IIexplodes such epistemological delusions. The sea is present in all its rich generosity; irreducible to mere data, bursting at its seams. Jonas’ accretive process is witnessed as a serene descent through the oceanic zones; our experience of her work is of being consumed by something very wide and very deep.
‘The Brain is deeper than the sea – / For – hold them – Blue to Blue – / The one the other will absorb – / As sponges buckets do’. Jonas quotes these few lines of Emily Dickinson, attesting to the sea’s quality as food for our imagination. But the ocean is more than this for Jonas; our minds and bodies have been steeped in these waters until we are as saturated as a sponge. The oceans run through humankind, in material as well as mythic ways, and with substantial consequences. The ocean cannot remain a fiction, but we must be awakened to the reality of the diminishing hydrosphere and effect of the current climate crisis on our oceans.
Frances Whorrall-Campbell is a writer and artist based in London. Her writing has been published by the Oxonian Review, AnotherGaze, Arteviste and Art Review Oxford amongst others. She is currently working with Banner Repeater on their Digital Archive of Artists’ Publishing, and with the Tate Modern to develop their ‘Tate Exchange’ programme.