Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary– Augarten (TBA21), Vienna
Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary’s Vienna exhibition space, which will relocate to Prague in 2018, hosted the initial act and first “materialization” of an ongoing series of research and expeditions dedicated to the ocean as both endangered site of ecological concern and reservoir of myths, legends, and imagination. Following Allan Sekula: OKEANOS [February 21–May 14, 2017], a retrospective of the artist’s multifaceted research on the effects of globalization exhibited earlier this year, TBA21–Academy curator Stefanie Hessler continued to develop an “oceanic worldview.”
Tidalectics [June 2–November 19, 2017] was grounded in research within the framework of the TBA21’s Academy—an interdisciplinary con- stellation of artists, researchers, and thinkers— whose mission is to incite “new knowledge, communicative strategies, and dynamic solutions for environmental challenges,” thereby raising questions about the stakes of artistic research and fieldwork for both shore and off-shore expeditions in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Expressing a genuinely environmentalist stance combined with a sensitivity to local accounts, these expeditions seek to amplify our understanding of geopolitics and contemporary history.
The latest “maritime turn”—that is, the emergent understanding of the ocean as a site of environmental and sociopolitical concerns— connects among other things to debates on globalization; Tidalectics expanded this angle by combining documentary imagery, debris, soundscapes, and artistic research into such forms as smell (in the form of Sissel Tolaas’ Ocean SmellScapes ) and even living organ- isms (e.g., Tue Greenfort’s installation Tamoya Ohboya , which incorporated a tank filled with jellyfish). The exhibition looked into the surfeit of problematics associated with the ocean, such as humankind’s relationship to the natural environment, and laid bare interactions between human and nonhuman actors. Most importantly, perhaps, the exhibition mapped out the ethical dimensions of knowledge production and sought to enhance scientific research with activism and testimony, frequently building on mythologies and local narratives and thus pointing to the fissures between Western epistemology and “native” forms of narration. This approach came across clearly in Alexander Lee’s Me-ti’a—An Island Standing (2017), a video that revolves around the volcano Mehetia in Tahiti and confounds history, science, and local mythologies. In the same room, two fanfolds—Fictionary of Corals and Jellies (2017), a collaboration between artist Janaina Tschäpe and marinebiologist/oceanographer David Gruber—combined research in the field of marine biology with imaginative drawings that fashioned modern artists as explorers.
Tidalectics opposed systems of thought and knowledge shaped by the idea of fixed geographies with a nondialectical, fluid conception of geography and history, leaving space to unveil the imagination and myths that circumscribe the topos of the ocean. Tidalectics equally mobilized the meaning of its title, a concept borrowed from Barbadian thinker and poet Kamau Brathwaite. Similar to Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant, Brathwaite has been an influential figure in post- colonial theory and has become known for his poems, dubbed “riddims.” As the term insinuates, “tidalectics” plays on a rhythmical proximity to the movement of the waves and suggests a “cyclical” understanding of geography and history rather than a dialectical model of progression.
Brathwaite’s poetics repeatedly resonated in the works on view, the majority of which were specifically commissioned by Thyssen- Bornemisza’s Academy. For example, Em’kal Eyongakpa’s installation Gaia beats/bits III–i/doves and an aged hammock (2017) consisted of objets trouvés, driftwood, and fishing nets, which hang above a wooden platform. Visitors were invited to sit or stand on a slightly moving platform resembling a simple wooden raft, on which they heard interlocking narrations and sounds. Eyongakpa’s piece thus reflected the ocean as a space of travel and migration. On display in the last room, Julian Charrière’s video Iroojrilik (2016) showed the ongoing effects of nuclear tests in the 1940s and 1950s in the Bikini Atoll, almost deserted and only vestigially touched by humans since. Many of the works engaged the relationship between humans and other beings, such as bioluminescent dinoflagellates, jellyfish, or whales. Susanne M. Winterling’s Glistening Troubles (2017) took form as an installation composed of objects and animations, and it featured a video interview with a fisherman of Jamaica’s Glistening Waters lagoon explaining the medical uses of bioluminescent dinoflagellates firsthand.
As an allegory of the global and as an archetype of hybridity, the ocean certainly provides a space for thinking about the borders and boundaries of epistemic life itself. Tidalectics rejected the terrestrial view of the West and its fascination for ordering and categorizing principles. However, in times of global waves of migration—a forced fluidity caused by natural catastrophes and armed conflicts—it may be necessary to further complicate these terms, and to call into question the problems a rhizomatic understanding of geography and history might eventually entangle.