Magazine article Art Monthly

Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea

Magazine article Art Monthly

Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea

Article excerpt

Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea

Gasworks London 18 September to 7 November

Despite the UK's pride as an island nation, it spent the latter half of the 20th century neglecting its links with the sea, although a proliferation of recent lifestyle TV series about the coast (Coast, Island of Britain) suggests nostalgia for its heroic naval history and a re-appreciation of its coastline for austerity-chic staycations. Up until recently, air travel seemed most poignantly to express our guilt and paranoia over the environment, terrorism and globalisation. This group show, 'Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea', instead picks up on the growing political interest in the sea, while reminding us of its cultural significance, and romantic and mythical inspiration for artists even today.

The exhibition's title borrows a 17th-century revolutionary term 'hydrarchy' that was resurrected by historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. Their book The Many Headed Hydra of 2000 provocatively proposes a radical form of political order based on the self-organisation of sailors, which at its most extreme manifested itself in violence and piracy. Anja Kirschner and David Panos's film Polly II: Plan for a Revolution in Docklands, 2005, presents itself as the sequel to John Gay's banned play Polly, 1728, a satire on capitalism and corruption that was itself the censored sequel to Gay's better-known The Beggar's Opera from 1727. Polly II is set in the East End of London after some kind of Hurricane Katrina-scale disaster has turned luxury waterside living into a watery apocalypse, with the poor marooned on the top floors of high-rises and left to fend for themselves through piracy and theft.

Pirate Jenny is the most radical of the Polly II characters, even though--or perhaps because--she is also a whore (as she was in Gay's two plays). Indeed, despite horror tales of contemporary Somali pirates hijacking cargo ships and stray yachtsmen and women, the figure of the pirate still conjures up a seductive air of debauchery and lust. And who better to ham up those traits than Paul McCarthy, whose penis-buckling performance as captain of the Aryan Death Ship, 1983/2010, contrasts with the family-friendly popularity of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films. Likewise, in this exhibition, Joao Pedro Vale's trophy set of huge whale teeth, on which are painted homoerotic vignettes, are more Moby's dick than Moby Dick.

Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc takes Hollywood films as source material for his film The Middle Passage, 2006, which splices together scenes of rainforests, treasure islands and long-distance shots of wandering figures to create a condensed epic narrative that maps the journey undertaken by African slaves to the New World. With an opening stormy reference to The Tempest and shipwrecked scenes reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, Abonnenc's film underscores the white, colonialist perspective of the West's most iconic maritime fictions.

Given the many heads of Hydra, the Greek mythical sea monster from which the term 'hydrarchy' is derived, it is not without irony that the curators chose to screen Goldin+Senneby's Looking for Headless, 2010, the latest addition to an ongoing project about an offshore company brazenly called Headless. This time the artists have commissioned a documentary maker and an actor to investigate the company, but the credibility of this docu-fiction itself comes under increasing suspicion, so that the viewer is unsure which part of the company or investigation is real--cleverly mirroring the ways in which offshore companies are notoriously difficult to trace to 'real' physical headquarters.

Media stories about the sea--oil spills, tsunamis, piracy, border disputes--often surprise us because they make visible underlying global problems that remain under the radar because of the sea's vastness and enduring sense of mystery. …

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