The ocean leads a paradoxical existence that humans have long worked to capture in art. Its incredible size and mystery function in concurrence with the sense of comfort and reflection it provides; its beauty is nearly unparalleled, but there are also few settings on the planet that reveal the ugly truths of climate change on such a massive scale. No one truly owns the ocean and yet much of our economic activity stems from its depths. “The Ocean After Nature,” the new exhibition at The College of Wooster Art Museum running Sept. 11 to Nov. 18, seeks to explore some of these ideas through an array of media, each almost as varied and, consequently, as functionally whole as the sea itself.
The exhibition, which is concluding its international tour in Wooster after visiting six other cities, was put together by Alaina Claire Feldman and Independent Curators International. Feldman describes the works as “Imagination used to explore the tension between humans and nature — because humanity can no longer escape itself in the marine.” As you move through the gallery, you see that 19 artists and collectives translate this concept in numerous ways, from photographs to music to film and sculpture. The space is filled with a cacophony of sound as the rhythm of a slide projector punctuates unfamiliar voices emanating from films and recordings. This symphony almost creates white noise reminiscent of the ocean hitting a shore, somehow simultaneously overwhelming and hardly even there once it registers in your mind.
Feldman notes that “The Ocean After Nature” “asks more questions than it can answer.” The pieces presented examine numerous diverse angles from which the ocean can be explored: as a conduit for the movement of peoples and goods, with a focus on the pitfalls of late capitalism and the ways it has influenced the human relationship with mass forces of nature; the experience of migrants and the sea’s potential for hope and tragedy; the geographic boundaries we create for ourselves and the implications they have for our relationships to one another and the environment around us.
The experiences here are not those of the idyllic beach that immediately come to mind, but the ocean of our lifetime, which has undergone a dramatic shift into something that we can no longer exist without and yet will never be tamed.
Wooster is the only non-coastal stop on the exhibition’s tour, but our land-locked location provides an excellent reminder of how we are bound to the ocean, even from the middle of Ohio. For every region “The Ocean After Nature” has visited, Peter Fend has designed a map relating the area to its nearest bodies of water; for Wooster, he examined our connections to Lake Erie and the profound effects of even the illusion of the ocean.
Additionally, each iteration of the exhibition has included a piece by a local artist, and Julia Christensen’s “Cold Snap” carries the Lake Erie motif further by tying our familiarity with freezing Ohio winters to the realities of climate change. These small links form the greater framework of “The Ocean After Nature”: individually, we are tiny compared to the oceans of the planet, but taken together, we form a vast fabric that meets the water with equal force. It is up to us to decide how we use that power.
(Photo from CWAM)