Aquatopia, the latest of Alex Farquharson’s highly original themed exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary, explores the cultural history of humanity’s imagined relationship with the sea and, especially, the alternative world hidden from sight beneath the ocean’s skin. The show has been justly admired by the critics and will be going on to Tate St Ives this winter. It deserves and amply rewards repeat visits.
There is one work in particular that has wrapped its tentacles around my imagination. Atlantiques, a 15 minute video made by Mati Diop, an artist, film-maker and performer, of French and Senegalese heritage. Much of it is filmed in the light of a fire on a beach in Dakar. Young men discuss the terrors of crossing the ocean in a pirogue for a better life in Spain and the despair of being found and deported to where the journey started.
It’s impossible to do justice in a few words to such a film—that, after all, is why we have art. In the hands of an exceptional artist like Diop, a familiar story to which most Europeans have hardened their hearts, breathes again. The act of watching, belly full, secure and safe, as people living in precarity recount their experiences is, to say the least, uncomfortable. What could easily be mere voyeurism, poverty porn for the liberal elite, is in experience profound, beautiful and genuinely unsettling.
This is what art can do, in the hands of gifted artist and curator. It redeems the current compromises and ambiguities of its place in Western culture and illuminates a better way. Could one ask more?