Swimming in the sea is a midsummer pleasure for so many of us, but the idea of “a future lived in partnership with the ocean” suggests a relationship altogether deeper and more complex than my level of happy floating. This intent, the ambition of Blue Assembly, is purpose-designed to take us into uncharted waters. Behind it is a collaboration between Brisbane’s UQ Art Museum and UQ Centre for Marine Science. It will unfold over some years, and explore the ocean as an environment, habitat, and field of study – also asserting its importance to the future of humanity. The launchpad of this multi-year program is Oceanic Thinking, an art exhibition which begins the process of what curator Peta Rake hopes will “complicate our thinking” about the ocean.
The exterior of the Art Museum is transformed with a huge pink sponge-like archway by international group SUPERFLEX. This sculptural installation, titled Dive-In, 2019, was first commissioned by Desert X in Palm Springs and, for UQ Art Museum, is a site for evening film screenings. The large glass windows at the entry feature the work of Sancintya Mohini Simpson, whose paintings are usually executed in miniature, scaled up, depicting the hand-painted ocean and also referring to Simpson’s ancestral background with its journey of indentured labour.
In the face of issues like climate change and pressing scientific conundrums, the question of what art may achieve is at the centre of this exhibition. Rake has been in conversation with scientists over the last eighteen months and sees the Museum as “a platform for research and outreach.” She said, “In collaborations between art and science, often art becomes illustrative. We are not doing that. We have established a non-hierarchical space. The sciences need the humanities in this vital and urgent work. As an art museum, we can expose issues to a myriad of different methodologies; this is core to Blue Assembly.”
In Rake’s view, art may highlight the intertidal zones and coastal areas physically and conceptually. What is made manifest is surprising, designed to engage audiences with artists and their ocean-related interests, drawing them into the galleries and education spaces established to shed light on this watery subject.
In doing so, it opens the ocean to exploration by culture and art. Issues like climate change, our energy futures, race relations, decolonisation and more have their depths plumbed – through the genre of the ocean as expressed by selected artists. Vignettes of the ocean are explored in work by artists such as Izabela Pluta, who is a diver and an artist, and Salote Tawale. Tawale’s I don’t see colour, 2021, takes the viewer away from “centuries of hardened power” into the sea as they describe freedoms by “fly[ing] into the unknown.” Monira Al Qadiri’s meditation on the octopus, designed to evoke our genetic links to these aquatic creatures, is juxtaposed with Elise Rasmussen’s exploration of the colour blue, and Tabita Rezaire’s DEEP DOWN TIDAL, 2017, which conflates undersea fibre optic cables and technological expansion in the ocean to the nineteenth century slave trade.
The exhibition is titled for a playful dalliance with a phrase from psychoanalysis (“oceanic feeling”), which describes the experience of being bonded to the world as a whole. For Rake, it evokes an ultramarine conversation, a space to explore for years to come – in lectures, exhibitions, reading and discussions – that allow for new ways to envisage a future, enlivened and innovated by artists.
Artists: Andreas Angelidakis, Benjamin Armstrong, Charles Callins, Stephanie Comilang, Isha Ram Das, Léuli Eshrāghi, Birrmuyingathi Maali Netta Loogatha, Alicia Mersy, Kuruwarriyingathi Bijarrb Paula Paul, Izabela Pluta, Monira Al Qadiri, Elise Rasmussen, Tabita Rezaire, Sancintya Mohini Simpson, SUPERFLEX, and Salote Tawale.
Louise Martin-Chew is an arts writer based in Brisbane.
UQ Art Museum
19 February to 25 June 2022