Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

How to Represent a Fish?

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

How to Represent a Fish?

Article excerpt

Ceci n'est pas un poisson1

Once you begin to notice fish, you see them everywhere. Or at least that's my case. Several years of studying fish have turned me into a hyper-observant fish. I see fish everywhere. Of course they appear in places where I seek them out-fish markets, supermarket aisles, maritime museums, ports and docks-but I also see them in other places such as in fertiliser, food supplements for humans, pigs, chicken and fish, and even in supermarket omega-3 fortified white bread.

My argument is about how fish are represented. I will be asking: Who represents them with what effects? Are some representations more affective and effective than others in sustaining more-than-human fish worlds? How do scientists approach cultural representations of fish, and how do social scientists and humanities scholars understand scientific and technical representations of fish? Across multiple contexts, I follow the numerous ways fish are represented in the hope of rendering the simplified cultural politics of fish more complex-an argument to which I will return in due course. But for now please follow me into a web of fish images.

On a temperate winter's night, pitch dark at six pm, the Sydney Opera House breaks into full Aboriginal colours and cultures.2 It's part of Vivid Sydney 2016, when the city lights up in spectacular ways. Nothing else I saw quite competed with Songlines for its technical and artistic virtuosity. Goannas, spearmen, dots that erupt from the red earth ... and fish that swim up the sails of the Opera House. It is a stunning representation of Aboriginal lives and livingness with this land. But 'land' as sea too. The fish climb out of the harbour waters and swim effortlessly over the sails and back to water. 'There is no sea-land dichotomy.'3 For fifteen minutes the light show emanates the simple truth: you are on the Aboriginal land and sea country of the Eora people.

There's a huge fish trap in the National Art Gallery in Canberra.4 Called the Mandjabu, or conical fish trap, it was based on a 1.2-metre-long fish trap probably designed by Anchor Kalunba from Maningrida in Arnhem Land. Kalunba was one of the last few people to construct these intricate affairs, which were used to trap barramundi and also sold as craft.5 These Mandjabu look like prototypes of purse-seine nets used around the world and (maybe wrongly) attributed to the Danish. Purse-seines are integral to many forms of fishing, and widely blamed for a large amount of by-catch. Contrary to this, Kalunba's trap would have been efficiently and ecologically used only for trapping barramundi in special fishing spots.

Below the hanging fish trap, a white man cradles a blobfish. This is Patricia Piccinini's Eulogy. Her artwork is fascinating: the wondrous sculptures of more-than-human forms fascinate; they attract and repel. She describes her work:

This sculpture is a celebration of the simple, gormless, wonderful existence of the blobfish. It is a eulogy for this particular specimen, supported in death by a very ordinary looking man. Perhaps he is one of the millions of ordinary people who neither know nor care much about the fate of the blobfish.6

The photograph I took of her sculpture captures the blobfish looking rather fed up. But perhaps that unsmiling mouth is a seductive moue. The blobfish to my mind is considerably sexier than the earnest young white man holding it hopelessly.

Piccinini's description marries the affective and the fight against facile emotion. Donna Haraway writes of her work: 'I recognized a sister in technoculture, a co-worker committed to taking "naturecultures" seriously without the soporific seductions of a return to Eden or the palpitating frisson of a jeremiad warning of the coming technological Apocalypse.'7 Psychrolutes marcidus is a 'gormless' fish. It was for its unsightliness (to some humans) that it was named the world's ugliest animal in 2012. It was all for a good cause: the blobfish became the mascot for the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, in an initiative 'dedicated to raising the profile of some of Mother Nature's more aesthetically challenged children'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.