Participating artists: Simon Faithfull, Lavinia Greenlaw, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen (with Duncan Pickstock and Mikkel H. Eriksen), Cecilia Stenbom, Ruth Maclennan, Isabella Martin, Esther Johnson (with Jez Riley French), Gunnar Jónsson, Nina Sverdvik, Guy Moreton, Christine Clinckx and Alec Finlay (with Hanna Tuulikki and Lucy Duncombe)
I walked out of the station and headed towards the sea in sunshine. Through a bustling shopping street and passing by where the Maritime Museum and Ferens Art Gallery face each other across a little square. Soon I was walking along a quayside, and then very quickly the view opened up to a forest of masts and the clinking of rigging. Seagulls. Big skies.
Somewhere Becoming Sea paraphrases the last line of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings. Larkin was university librarian in the city for thirty years, but that connection is less pertinent to the exhibition than the implied mutability of the distinction between land and sea. Migration, coastal erosion, rising sea levels are among the themes explored and while these are subjects that equally affect the southern hemisphere, the line of up of artists are all from what is now termed the ‘global north’: the UK, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Iceland and Norway. There is a strong post-Brexit agenda playing through the exhibition, encouraging the visitor to confront the region’s cultural, historical and psychological connectedness to the continent of Europe
On the ground floor, the central installation is a new work by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen that continues his longstanding focus on the migration crisis. A long-form narrative film, Quicksand, 2017 posits a future in which by 2033 the European Union has collapsed and all borders have closed. Industry is gone and the economy has imploded, with hospitals and schools closed and other infrastructure barely functioning. Migration in this scenario is away from Europe, traversing similar treacherous stretches of ocean that have claimed so many real lives since 2010.
Christine Clinckx, from Belgium, has appropriated vintage photographs from 1946 that depict groups of bathers in the sea. In the foreground of each photograph a group of standing figures has been partially erased. These people, ankle-deep in the water, are recent refugees from mainland Europe, displaced by the war. The image is designed to reinforce the memory of our relationship to the landmass to which we are connected, rather than separated, by water, and of the ties that unite us across time.
Isabella Martin’s works are shown on paired monitors on both floors of the show. In each she stands waist deep in the waves, plaintively semaphoring from one coast to another: from the Netherlands to the UK, from Denmark across the coastal border to Germany.
Esther Johnson and Guy Moreton both deal with the inexorable process of coastal erosion – a particular issue in the North East around Hull. Johnson first filmed in Holderness when she was still studying at the Royal College of Art. She has returned more than ten years later to make three short films documenting the process of erosion that claims more than a metre of land a year. Particularly melancholy are sequences panning along the very edge of the eroding cliffs, where fence posts hang in thin air – the property that they once protected having fallen away. Edges, borders, the delineation of territory are emphasized as arbitrary or at least temporary. Spurn Point is the place where the tides take much of the displaced material from here and a photograph by Moreton captures the mudflats of the changing coastline there.
Somewhere Becoming Sea is a delicately curated exhibition that explores a complex set of interconnecting themes, all associated with Hull City of Culture’s focus on the sea. The installation is crisp and precise, the messaging acute but not hectoring. Hull has made every effort to connect its programme this year to the history and geography of the city, specifically the maritime history of the city that looks out across the North Sea. At the Maritime Museum contemporary works are interspersed among enjoyably unmodernised exhibits devoted to whaling, the fishing industry and merchant shipping, so that the differences between our relationship to the sea now and 100 years ago are stark.
The Humber Street Gallery is in the Fruit Market district, an attractive neighbourhood of low-rise 19th and 20th century buildings, now largely given over to Farrow & Ball-painted bars and restaurants. The gallery only opened in February and describes itself as a pop-up. On current evidence, I would say that Hull could gain a great deal from maintaining a space for contemporary art of this calibre.
Humber Street Gallery, 64 Humber St, Hull HU1 1TU. Monday – Sunday, 10.00 – 18.00, Thursday until 20.00. Exhibition continues until Saturday 17 June 2017. www.humberstreetgallery.co.uk