Nottingham Contemporary’s current exhibition ‘Aquatopia’ contains all sorts of fabulous objects and for that reason alone is welll worth a visit. However, despite enjoying a thoroughly good wallow in it myself, I’m left feeling that it lacks something. In his opening address on the night of the private view, curator Alex Farquharson explained that the underlying ethos of the show was to present ‘loose affinities’ between the objects. And there’s nothing wrong with that – bring together a huge variety of material from over 500 years of representing the ocean and let the viewer make up their own mind about it all. But whilst I have huge sympathy with this approach, it also runs the risk of being too open – too unstructured.
Interesting though it is in its own terms, Aquatopia has close links to other exhibitions on related themes. One was at Nottingham Contemporary itself in 2010 – Uneven Geographies: Art and Globalisation. More directly, perhaps, the Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea exhibition at London’s Gasworks Gallery, again in 2010, has considerable overlaps with Aquatopia. What both of these earlier shows had (and here I must declare an interest, because I was directly involved in both) that Aquatopia seems to lack, was an engaged critique, both within the exhibited objects and in the show as a whole. Both were concerned with the power of the sea – both as a natural force and as an arena for the playing out of human struggles. Aquatopia sits rather oddly in connection to these earlier shows partly because (as far as I could see anyway) neither are mentioned in the Aquatopia literature (though that may change when the catalogue is published), but more importantly because it does not seem to develop the themes they opened up. Having brought the enormous topic of the ocean into the gallery as a profoundly political problem, Aquatopia seems to pull back – content to drift among the objects without direction.
The overall effect is that of a ‘cabinet of marine curiosities’ which, coming after Mark Leckey’s, The Universal Addressibility of Dumb Things, is very much in keeping with a curatorial style at Nottingham Contemporary. Popular and effective though this has certainly proved, I cannot help but wonder whether at a certain point it starts to emulate the original just a little too much – that patrician and often imperialistic amalgamation of stuff from all over the place that was the original cabinet of curiosities.
I am not suggesting here that an exhibition ought to be either preachily moralistic or overly didactic – both should be avoided at all costs. But neither of the earlier exhibitions mentioned above were like that (and there are many others one could mention here too) but still managed to convey a sense of engaged purpose. Aquatopia is lovely and often fun, but lacks sufficient shape as an intellectual project to give the audience much to respond to. Tha various events and talks that are associated with the exhibition will go some way to mitigating this – particularly, I suspect, Phil Steinberg’s two contributions in September – but these are only ever seen by a minority of the audience. Ultimately the message seems to be that the ‘deep ocean’ is strange and important, but not really why. As the Foucault-inflected will no doubt point out over and over again, the sea is a ‘heterotopia’, but what that means and why that matters really needs more thorough exploration.