Artsdesk: Ocean Breaker – The Ocean After Nature

Posted October 13, 2017 in Arts & Culture Features

The Ocean after Nature considers the ocean as a site reflecting the ecological, cultural, political, and economic realities of a globalized world through the work of twenty artists and collectives.

The idea that all humanity is connected on a global scale is seeping more and more into mainstream thoughts. We’re slowly coming to realise that, truly, no (wo)man is an island and every single one of our actions has an impact on the global environment, to a greater or lesser extent. As Timothy Morton, so called ‘philosopher prophet’ of the Anthropocene, puts it, we’re the first generation to live with the constant awareness of how our every action, like turning the key in the ignition of our cars, is contributing to the greater ecological picture. The earth’s oceans and seas both unify and divide global humanity – they move around and between our land masses, carrying currents that cool and warm, interacting with weather systems and funnelling rubbish from the borders of one country to another. They’re also a constantly shifting site of negotiation on sovereignty and borders.

The current state of our oceans (with bleaching coral reefs and swirling plastic gyres) is a collective global problem – a matter of planetary housekeeping that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored by any country. It is within this context that the current group exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery takes place. The Ocean After Nature has been travelling the world, collecting contributions from local artists as it goes. It examines the condition and status of the earth’s oceans, the interactions we humans have with them and what they can tell us about the direction humanity is headed, in terms of the environment but also in terms of how we interact as a global community. The title refers to the idea that there is no longer any part of the planet untouched by humanity – ‘nature’ no longer exists.

Curated by Alaina Claire Feldman and produced by Independent Curators International (ICI) New York, the exhibition features contributions from twenty artists from multiple countries including Switzerland, India, the USA, the UK and Korea. Their contributions investigate the watery terrain of the ocean under diverse themes, including globalisation and the movement of goods, territoriality in the oceans and the implications of this for resource ownership and environmental responsibility, global warming, and migration. For its sojourn in Dublin, the Hugh Lane Gallery invited two Irish artists to contribute, Elaine Byrne and Philip Napier. Tying together a number of the other themes in the exhibition, Byrne’s contribution broaches the impact global warming is having on the quietly occurring race to secure access to resources in the Arctic, and the various strategies countries use to secure territory.

In 2007, Russia (ludicrously) planted its flag on the seabed of the North Pole, a symbolic gesture towards staking a claim on the billions of dollars worth of as-yet-unextracted fossil fuels in the region. A replica of this flag forms part of Byrne’s contribution to the exhibition, a nod to the oddly archaic-seeming tactics still being employed in the twentieth century to secure sovereignty. As the Canadian foreign minister at the time said, “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say: ‘We’re claiming this territory’.” Canada itself has been engaged in stealthily securing sovereignty in the Arctic for some time – by settling Inuit communities in remote parts of its territory up there. It was this phenomenon in particular that Byrne wanted to investigate in her film Cold Rush, the second element in her contribution to the exhibition.

I went to Grise Fjord, which is the most northerly inhabited region of Canada, and one of the coldest in the world – it’s called the place that never thaws. A community of Inuits was settled there in 1953 by the Canadian government. They were told they were only going for two years and that they’d be brought back. They weren’t brought back. They were told there would be great hunting and housing up there, but the hunting wasn’t what they were used to and they struggled. Eventually, the Canadian government apologised and gave them a ten million dollar settlement in the ‘90s. But they’re still up there. The community struggles a lot because all their goods are heavily taxed.

Russia, Canada and Denmark are currently all asserting their right to land in the Arctic – they’ve submitted papers to the UN, which are shrouded in secrecy and tricky to get hold of, as Elaine discovered. The race is on as the impact of global warming melts the ice in the Northwest Passage (a stretch of ocean along the northern coast of North America through which it’s possible to access the Pacific from the North Atlantic ocean), making it more easily navigable year-round. Through her research, Elaine discovered that not only are these countries vying to assert their claim to unclaimed territory in the Arctic, they’re also arming the regions they do currently have access to.


What’s interesting is the arming that’s happening up there – people are getting ready to fight for it. Russia have made two new Arctic armies, they’ve built three new bases. Canada’s plan is to make eighteen hubs, small army bases you could survive in – some of it is reopening Cold War bases. Russia are moving eighty soldiers and their families to one of their islands up there to live next year. China have invested in icebreakers [huge ships that can break through sea ice] and there’s no ice around China.

When Elaine spoke to the residents of Grise Fjord, she found there’s a lot of anger and bitterness amongst them; they feel sidelined and ill-treated by the Canadian government, despite the multi-million dollar settlement they received. Like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Grise Fjord community is an example of the collateral damage of rapacious capitalism and tunnel-vision nationalism, forces that ignore the essential connectivity of the different parts of reality. What The Ocean After Nature does is draw out the connections that exist, politically, environmentally, geographically and socially, creating a space to rethink our relationship to the oceans and, by implication, the rest of the planet and each other.

The Ocean After Nature runs in the Hugh Lane Gallery until Monday January 8th.

Words: Rachel Donnelly

Image captions:

Featured Image: Installation view of The Ocean After Nature at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, 2017, featuring Manny Montelibano, A Dashed State, 2015.

Hyung S. Kim, Hyun Okran, Onpyeong Jeju, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Installation view of The Ocean After Nature at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, 2017, featuring Elaine Byrne, Cold Rush, 2017 and Lomonosov Ridge, 2017 (foreground) and Manny Montelibano, A Dashed State, 2015.


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