Bodies of water
The exhibition departs from the work of posthumanist feminist thinker Astrida Neimanis, of which it takes the name and critical perspective. It features the works of geographer Sofia Gavrilova and artists Giovanni Vetere, and Maaike Anne Stevens — curated by Sasha Burkhanova-Khabadze.
In the “modem West”, Neimanis observes, we have a tendency to reduce water to either a commodity, or a particular kind of abstraction, a trope — that replaces the actuality of water. While it is a common knowledge that we are made of water and can’t exist without it, it is equally true that the water is “made” by us, and consequently cannot exists without us — as a figuration, an embodied concept. As we mix our language and systems of meaning, our mythologies and milieus with water, we give it life and transcendence. At the same time, we have a well-established habit for diminishing water. On the one hand, since “water has a nearly unlimited ability to convey metaphors” (Illich 1985:24), it is often reduced to the stereotypical “waterly” features such as liquidity, shapelessness, agency for transition and change, power for distraction and reproduction (Neitzsche famously refers to the world as to “an unstable foundation of running water”). On the other hand, our common talk of the worldwide water “crisis” commodifies water — as it typically addresses the anxiety about the capability of water resources to sustain human populations, and the inability of our institutions to be honest about the hydrological condition. The “quality” of water is consequently equated with, and limited to, its suitability for fulfilling our bodily needs.
But how can we reimagine water? How can we move away from water-in-the-abstract and water-as-a-resource notions — towards imagining the entanglement of humans and water, that constitutes both parties, and gives rise to every possibility that is otherwise latent in both water and ourselves? That would mean a profound change in the approach: a shift from objectification of water to thinking with it, and learning from it. That would ultimately mean to reimagine and accept ourselves as the specific kinds of bodies, comprised, transformed and dissolved by different waters; to become the bodies of water — as a thought experiment (to begin with).
According to the dominant Western humanist notion of embodiment, bodies are understood as consistent, fundamentally autonomous distinct subjects. The current social, political, economic and legal regimes of the West are dependent on this paradigm: in order to make sense and function, our concepts of citizenship, property and human rights require the stable sovereign bodies — as a standard and a goal. In this respect, becoming the bodies of water would come as a hope for different regimes, different relations, and an expanded notion of a human self. “As the bodies of water we leak and seethe, our borders always vulnerable to rupture and renegotiations”, Neimanis writes; “for us humans, the flow and flush of waters sustain our own bodies, but also connect them to other bodies, to other worlds beyond our human selves” (Neimanis, 2017:4).
In this sense, the thought experiment in BODIES OF WATER is set up not only to undo the idea that bodies have to be human; rather, it is to help our imagination to grasp that the human is always inevitably more-than-human — as our essential wateriness proves both materially and conceptually. It enables us to reimagine ourselves as milieus for other bodies — and get a step closer to understanding the complex relations of debt, gift and theft, of mutual empowering and decomposing, that we enter with all other watery living beings. In this regard, the three art projects, coincided in the exhibition, enable alternative ways of thinking about the “waterly ethics”, mutual responsibility, and developed practices of care — specific to the human-water relationships, explored by each artist.
Peripheral Vision (2017) by Sofia Gavrilova is a video-installation based on the geographer’s research trip to the part of Chucotka peninsula, where the vitality of indigenous people is solely dependent on the sea. Here the only possible way of travelling are boats or vehicles on frozen water during the winter; all their traditional and new settlements are on the seashore. For Chukchi and Eskimo, marine mammal hunting (authorised and subsidised by the government) remains the main occupation and livelihood. On the global scale, the waters here are extremely important in geopolitical sense — as a border between Russia and US; and also as a gap between two different lifestyle of indigenous people — Chukci and Eskimo that were once a one family. On the more intimate level, for the locals, it acts — and is accepted — as a source of life and natural destruction: the coastal erosion gradually ruins the settlements, despite the ongoing preservation attempts, and actions to legally declare the area a cultural heritage site.
In Black Sea (2014) and Almost Touching (2018) by Maaike Anne Stevens the sea itself becomes the main protagonist — an intoxicated body. Nearly 90% of its water is anoxic due to the concentration of an extremely lethal gas (hydrogen sulphide) that makes it a rich source of archaeological findings. Wooden boat hulls have been pristinely preserved because of the lack of oxygen which is needed for the rotting process. The story continues in Tools (2018): the ongoing series, constituted by the cast shapes in which various overlapping modes of functionality — geological, archaeological, symbolic — are being explored. Finally, The Sea The Sea (2014) departs from the story of Erika, the Maltese oil tanker that ran into a heavy storm in the Bay of Biscay on 12 December 1999, broke in two and sank, releasing thousands of tons of oil into the sea. Through a re-appropriation of the online information available about the life and disappearance of the ship, Stevens created a new story: a fictional document, in contrast with the occurrences in real life.
In his work The Metaphor of the Shipwreck (2018) Giovanni Vetere recalls the allegory by a Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, in which the pleasure of a spectator contemplating a shipwreck was compared to witnessing the tragedy of the other that would bring about a pleasing sensation of distance and safety. To understand the event of a shipwreck, Vetere suggests, the position of the spectator must metaphorically and physically collapse; her physical involvement is necessary for the true, unmediated experience. This is the reason why a shipwreck cannot be fully experienced by a screen — as his video work seeks to demonstrate. To break the distance, Vetere creates an immersive water installation: an artwork as a shipwreck. Here, the safety of one’s body and the unconscious fear associated with water is put into question — not as metaphors, but as lived experiences that can be negotiated and altered, if a different model of body-water relationship is established.