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Nottingham Contemporary present Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep

Nottingham Contemporary present Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep on view 20 July–22 September 2013.

It occupies seven-tenths of the surface of our planet, yet the depths of our oceans are less known to us than the Solar System: ninety percent of it remains unexplored. Each time a submersible descends into its deepest trenches, scores of species are discovered—often their weird realities outstrip our ancestors’ wildest oceanic fantasies. The deep, like outer space, has been a locus for science fiction since Jules Verne. Our respiratory system is not adapted to either, and both ocean and space have given rise to imaginary aliens, mutants and monsters. But the ocean belongs to our planet; the deep is a part of us—it is our alien within.

Aquatopia is a major exhibition of contemporary and historic art and artefacts that explores how the ocean deep has been imagined across cultures and through time to the present day. The exhibition and the accompanying book reveal how human cultures have projected their sexual desires, their will to power, and their fear of difference and death onto the ocean’s invisible depths and the life-forms it sustains. The deep in Aquatopia is a dream-state, akin to the unconscious. At the same time, its mythologies allegorise far-reaching historical processes—globalisation, colonisation, slavery, expropriation, subjugation, patriarchy.

Aquatopia’s utopic and dystopic depths are inhabited by ancient monsters and sirens, shipwrecks and submersibles, militarised gill-men and dolphin embassies, sperm whales and giant squids, water babies and horny octopi. The deep and its species are represented by major pre-19th-century artists such as JMW Turner, Andrea Mantegna, Odilon Redon, Francis Danby, Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and major figures in 20th-century art such as Marcel Broodthaers, Oskar Kokoschka, Barbara Hepworth, Edward Wadsworth, Hannah Wilke, Ana Mendieta and Lucian Freud. Contemporary artists include Christian Holstad, Mark Dion, Spartacus Chetwynd, Juergen Teller, The Otolith Group, Shimabuku, Mikhail Karikis, Simon Starling, Sean Landers, Mati Diop and Wangechi Mutu. Scrimshaw (sperm whale teeth carved by sailors), antique diving equipment, elaborately carved shells and coral, and the glass models of marine species of Rudolf & Leopold Blaschka are amongst the artefacts also featuring.

The exhibition is curated by Alex Farquharson, Director of Nottingham Contemporary, in dialogue with Martin Clark, Artistic Director, Tate St Ives. It travels to Tate St Ives in October, and is a partnership between landlocked Nottingham Contemporary and oceanic Tate St Ives. It features over 150 loans from a great many museums and private collections, in particular Tate, Victoria & Albert Museum and National Maritime Museum.

Aquatopia has strong links with powerful literary archetypes: The Odyssey, The Tempest, The Ancient Mariner, Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the more recent writings of Derek Walcott, China Miéville, HP Lovecraft, Philip Hoare, Marina Warner, David Toop, Celeste Olalquiaga, Kodwo Eshun and Marcus Rediker. The catalogue will include an anthology of new and republished subaquatic texts by these and other writers.

Nottingham Contemporary
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