NoDef Art Writer Kathy Rodriguez reviews Swoon's Thalassa at NOMA and mara/thalassa/kai: the SEA, a travelling group exhibition at UNO's St. Claude Gallery.
In the Anabasis, Xenophon – a Greek essayist and historian concurrent with Socrates – relates the trials of ten thousand Greek merchants lost after a battle with the Persians. A famous scene from his account describes the resounding cry of the Greeks who, after losing hope and sight of their homeland, finally approach Greek settlements on the coast of the Black Sea. Their mouths open wide, straining their tear-stained cheeks with the bellowing call, “Thalassa, thalassa!” or, “the sea, the sea!”
Xenophon suggests the emphasis of the ocean in Greek life with this description of overflowing relief. The call is to thalassa, the water, not the settlements surrounding it. This speaks of the power of the water, its gravitational pull, as well as a society (among many) that places great economic, cultural, and historical significance on the ocean. Thalassa is also the name of the primordial sea goddess who represents the Aegean Sea, that elongation of the Mediterranean that stretches across the eastern coast of the Greek mainland. Yet another characterization of the Aegean: a waterway among multitudinous islands. Despite all its different names, the ocean is a great connecting force, linking land masses and their civilizations. Our contemporary societies are rooted in the civilizations established by ancient cultures, and it is these societies that projected a specifically female identification with the ocean as it relates to the goddess herself, cycles, and a source of nourishment.
Two exhibitions currently on view in New Orleans explore the subject of Thalassa with widely varying approachse. At its off-campus gallery on St. Claude Ave., the University of New Orleans hosts mara/thalassa/kai: the SEA, a group effort of Anastasia Pelias, Rian Kerrane, and Melissa Borman, with works in various media Now in New Orleans from Denver, the show moves next to Minneapolis, a city as spotted with lakes as the Aegean is strewn with islands. Thalassa, a monumental installation by New York artist Swoon, is a temporary, site-specific installation at New Orleans Museum of Art. All of the artists are female, which in part informs their singular interpretations on the shared theme of representing historical ties and individual identity with the iconography of the ocean.
Out of the three artists included the summer expo at UNO St. Claude, Pelias is most directly linked with Thalassa. Her video piece, titled Alati, Greek for salt, is a broad leap from the more formal abstract expressionist paintings and found-object collages familiar to her work. The video is an amalgamation of continuously looping, brief moments filmed on the Aegean island Skopelos, where her mother was born. Pelias symbolizes her family ties with intimate close-up shots of vegetation, rock formations, and moving water. She savors these moments, like the anonymous mouth that relishes worn sea rocks at the beginning of the video. The mundane images of local scenery, captured by friends and family and interspersed with an erratic soundtrack of washing waves, picture the soil in which Pelias’ history is rooted and the water which is such a strong part of her heritage. Though representational images, they are abstractions of her family’s growth from this landscape.
Like Pelias, Kerrane traces her own matrilineage in a recurring installation of a cast iron deck chair. In this manifestation, the frame of the chair is stretched with a swath of knit red hair meant to symbolize her grandmother. It anchors a sea of translucent plastic sheets that writhe over oscillating table fans. The plastic formally references the scintillating movement of semi-opaque waves, and the fans create a gentle sound likened to water. But, the sheets are bunched and flattened on the floor over snaking cords, making this association a bit of a conceptual stretch. The colorlessness of the plastic might symbolize the wasting of a memory, particularly of the ocean, which was near her grandmother’s home in Dun na Mara (“Fort of the Sea”), Ireland. Still, it almost seems too blunt, or even careless, compared to the obvious concern given to the chair.
Borman’s small-scale photographs mounted on aluminum detail the formal differences in color, size, and shape of ocean waves. They read like a story board, less about the specific lineage described by her two counterparts and more like stills narrating a personal experience. She took these at an up-close vantage point while swimming near Mexico using a little waterproof camera, licking the lens to keep it clean. These are the most directly personal images in the expo, as they document intimate and multiple encounters between the force of water and artist. They show a balance of power between the uncertain and ever-changing waves – and the dangers they might conceal – in the vulnerable but intrepid photographer. Borman documents cycles of change in her record of the waves over several days, archiving these memories with the greatest care.
At NOMA, Thalassa literally looms over the viewer, similar to the waves that overtook Borman’s vision. Caledonia Curry, better known by her alias Swoon, took over a Mid-City warehouse to prepare the monumental figure. From the ceiling of NOMA’s great hall, she and her small army of assistants installed the massive portrait, which stretches tentacles assembled from oceanic diecuts, intensely colored linoleum prints, and neutral-toned cloth and paper strips to the banisters framing the mezzanine. At first glance, Thalassa’s hopeful upward gaze appears to be Swoon’s own. Though a compelling idea, the face of the goddess actually belongs to performance artist Naima Penniman, half of the duo Alixa +Naima, who created a piece based on Katrina. Still, the resemblance indicates Swoon’s attachment to the water. Last year, millions of barrels of oil frothed into the Gulf of Mexico while Swoon worked on various humanitarian projects in Haiti. Her empathy for New Orleans and the Gulf during and after this disaster springs from her personal history as a native of Daytona Beach, Florida. With her site-specific representation of the goddess, Swoon suggests a protective and concerned force, differing from the destructive characterization water has earned locally.
Like the ocean, the subject of Thalassa literally links these artists. Somehow, they are all linked with New Orleans too. Pelias is a citizen of the city, who also earned her graduate degree at University of New Orleans like Kerrane. Borman is familiar with New Orleans through Kerrane, and the context of her photographs suggests an absence of boundaries. As member of a military family, her peripatetic existence has asked her to call many places home – New Orleans could be one. Swoon is linked to the city both through tragedy and concept. The sheen of oil that stretched over the Gulf grew into an awful island that almost linked our distant coasts. But the water underneath it constantly connects the shores, and Thalassa herself is a reminder that there is care and concern for our plight. Like the water, history ever changes, and – as represented by the work of these artists – art is the means to record those changes as they shape and define our existence.