Marwa Arsanios, Bianca Bondi, Bouchra Khalili, Théo Mercier and Hajra Waheed
The imaginary surrounding the ocean is tantalizing in part because of its ambiguous character. Historically, the seas have been as much a channel for human development as instruments of geopolitical dominance. At the same time, the impossibility of full human control over this space, encapsulated by the concept of international waters, makes it a locus of anti-civilization. In our current world, the ocean lies at the intersection of several key issues such as overfishing, rising sea levels due to global warming, and the immigration crisis. Indeed, it is simultaneously a lived political and social space, and also a rich imaginary cultivated over centuries of artistic and literary representation. With the assertion that about 80% of our ocean is as of yet unmapped, unobserved and unexplored, it is naturally a rich source of imagination for artists. Its susceptibility to man-made destruction coupled with the mysterious existence of an underwater world beneath the surface, render the oceanic depths a vast source of symbolism as well as a suitable vehicle for institutional critique.
In her photo series Wet Feet, Bouchra Khalili zones into the immigrant experience in the United States. She does this by photographing different scenes along two of the biggest cruise ports and trade harbors in the country, both located along the coast of Miami. These harbors are known areas of illegal transit of goods and money, as well as points of arrival for illegal migrants. The work’s title refers to the « wet feet/dry feet policy », a state government guideline for immigration.
When illegal Cuban migrants were stopped at sea, they could be sent back to Cuba. But if detained in American soil, they had the chance to be regularized at the end of a year. Haitian migrants, on the other hand, did not benefit of this possibility, being susceptible to detainment at any given point.
The objects photographed in these photos —rusted and broken containers, abandoned boats and floats that refugees used to flee from their home countries — are material reminders of the perilous journeys of Caribbean migrants. The sea is here revealed as a deeply political space, that likewise represents the disparate journeys of displaced peoples arriving at the Floridian shores, reminding us of the arbitrariness of the laws that frame immigration.
Wet Feet (Broken Container fig.11), 2012
Wet Feet (Lost Boats fig.3), 2012
Wet Feet (Lost Boats fig.4), 2012
Wet Feet (Broken Container fig.7), 2012
Marwa Arsanios’ drawings on diverse flora and fauna call attention to endangered plant and animal species. Using the format of biological illustrations, she typifies and categorizes Resilient Weeds. Each of the drawings displays a typified portrait of an animal or plant species found in the Beirut ecosystem, threatened by littering and the accumulation of waste as a result of the city’s rapid urbanization.
The artist categorizes the living organisms that survive the toxicity of garbage dumps, including sea creatures such as marine turtles, seagulls and jellyfishes.
Here, marine fauna is invoked to point out the destruction caused to the Beirut shoreline, as well as a forecast of its impending privatization.
Resilient Weeds, 2016
Falling is not collapsing, falling is extending
Arsanios’ video installation, titled Falling is not collapsing, falling is extending, looks more closely into the strategies used by real estate developers to privatize this seashore. To this end, she presents the specific case of the Hotel Normandy, one of the numerous beach dwellings that were almost entirely destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War. The Hotel’s rubble was piled into the sea, later becoming the Normandy landfill, and now a site for urban redevelopment.
The new “Waterfront District”, consisting of high-end retail storefronts, condominiums, and other built structures, will cover the Hotel Normandy’s remains.
Exposing the new forms of empire building that are veiled as capitalist progress, the ocean is postulated as yet another stage on which human greed is played out.
Falling is not collapsing, falling is extending, 2016
Red List Hector’s Dolphin (The Fall and Rise), 2021
The Fall and Rise
Bianca Bondi likewise points to the dangers faced by aquatic life in her series The Fall and Rise. She often alludes to marine ecosystems from both an occultist and a biological perspective.
Here, life-size replicas of the bone structure of three cetaceans are covered in salt and suspended above ground: the series is introduced by the homonymous work based on the remains of an imposing whale. A second work, Red List Hector’s Dolphin, reproduces the frame of a dolphin variety in the IUCN Red List for endangered species.
The crystallized skeletons of these marine creatures hover over the viewer, inciting both marvel and threat. The title of the series, a play on the common expression “rise and fall”, is an allusion to a rather complex ecosystem of the sea bed, which literally feeds on the death of cetaceans, by capturing precious minerals and nutrients from the decomposition of the corpses.
The Fall and Rise, 2021
Théo Mercier deals with the mutable aspect of the sea in his Hangings series by exploring states of fluidity, movement and transformation. The ocean is approached as an ever-changing ground, deeply sensitive to the throes of globalization— it is a place where everything is at once liberalized, and yet controlled. Squelette, as part of this series, focuses on transatlantic journeys.
The ambiguous, fluctuating character of the ocean is hereby emphasized through the display of some of the discarded objects that travel across the Atlantic in freight ships. In so doing, the artist points out the metamorphosis inherent to any industrial product composed of outsourced materials.
For instance, tires are essentially made out of rubber— itself a byproduct of the widespread destruction of the Amazon rainforest, pollution, among other modern ills. The tire is then indirectly tied to processes of ecological devastation. This item is chosen by the artist to be mutated into a hybrid object: by covering everyday things in scales, reminiscent of the opalescent skin texture of fish, he assimilates the wastes of globalization to live marine creatures. This transmutation leads to the reinvention of such objects, whereby they are re-inscribed onto a new organic cycle.
Crime et Ornements, 2019
La possession du monde n’est pas ma priorité, 2020
Still in Your Wake 1-8, 2018
Still in Your Wake 1-8
Hajra Waheed unveils the lyrical beauty of the seascape in her work Still in Your Wake 1-8, composed of eight linen hardbound artist books. Laid out over an accordion form, these books unfold, extend and are meant to be read as a continuously flowing river. In this way, the unbounded aspect of the sea becomes circumscribed and almost legible though the book format.
Through a unique poetic approach, Waheed recreates the simple yet profound movement of the ocean. It reminds us that, as we strive to protect and salvage the sea and its creatures, we can let ourselves be moved by the inherent melody of the tides.