Weird Fishes - Reviewed

Cathy Carter

Weird Fishes

Allpress Studio, Auckland

November 20–December 7, 2018

Reviewed by Nina Seja for PhotoForum

For some artists, a muse is a person, their visage taking on different personas in changing seasons. For Carter, her muse is non-human: the ocean, watery bodies. It would be a mistake to call it inanimate though, for her photographs depict water as an entity at once familiar and entirely strange. It has its own purpose for being.

In Erika Balsom’s recent text An Oceanic Feeling: Cinema and the Sea, she describes the sea as a multi-layered zone, physically and philosophically. Balsom suggests, “To leave terra firma and delve into the liquid flux of oceanic feeling is to undertake a radical reorientation of perspective.”[1] There’s something in both Balsom’s stance and Carter’s show that suggests an exchange, a swapping out of the usual and the every day for the unexpected journey that the ocean can take us on. At this particular juncture in history, it takes on urgency. Carter’s work engages with the Anthropocene – the current era we’re living in, which has seen devastating environmental change due to man-made actions. As global citizens, we’re being called on to reshape our behavior – a “radical reorientation” that places humans in a symbiotic relationship with nature – our environment not as resource to exploit, but as the very structure to our home.

The Anthropocene is producing a novel branch of psychology – how to mourn during this time of drastic and far-reaching alterations. People are experiencing anxiety and depression, with some expressing “biospheric concern” about the impact of climate change on our non-human surrounds.[2] If we think about the ocean alone, the transformation is significant: the bleaching of coral landscapes at the Great Barrier Reef; sea level rise; the breakdown of marine food chains. In this light, Weird Fishes offers a space for the viewer to “reconnect emotionally with the natural world as well as make connections with internal worlds.”[3] Given the diversity of the show, there’s ample room to find considerable, intimate meaning.

The ocean and other watery forms have often been aligned with purity. Perhaps this is because we begin our life in a liquid substance. They’ve also been imbued with supernatural power, requiring of us offerings and supplication. Think of the names associated with great spirits – Neptune, Tangaroa, Ler, Aegaeon. Cathy Carter’s work is an attempt to capture both this purity and this mystical force. This is most apparent in the spellbinding Your Eyes, 2018. A water sprite looks up at the viewer, immersed in an otherworldly green. Her long hair is dark in the water, as are her limbs. The lack of definition makes it seem as if they could be fins, or tails, or webbing. Her expression is bleak and imploring, though this could just be a trick sirens are known to pull. But these figures could also be taniwha, more warning than threat to earth walkers.

Weird Fishes is not a tidy show, in the sense that there isn’t a smoothness to its edges. It doesn’t appear as if a certain beginning and endpoint have been packaged for one moment in time – the show. Instead, it reads as if a glimpse into an artist’s obsession, or rather, a place of wonder. It feels as if a lovely, weighty idea is being thought through and delicately turned over. This makes sense, too, given the ultimate changeability, multi-dimensionality, and vastness of the ocean. Form is given as much attention as content. Large-scale photographs dominate, but these, too, expand conventions. Carter draws on round frames to provoke an immersive underwater quality, as in La Bulle (the bubble), 2018. On the floor, a large, round pile of sea salt is installed – a literal presence of the ocean. Carter also explores the amorphous, elemental features of watery bodies with a light box. An ocean-scape slowly changes color, and I’m reminded of my experiences in such conditions: daybreak on an Australian road trip; driving along Tamaki Drive as a storm sets in; the long, reliable days of Southern Californian coastal afternoons. Ocean is not just space, after all – it’s also time.

One of the most captivating additions is a long, ceiling-high scroll. Living Water, 2017 is printed on Sihl woven fabric, and cascades downwards to the floor. At first, I see the rough waves symptomatic of deep water, far from land: out there, where the trawlers and Navy vessels haunt. But Living Water, with its dominating presence, insists on undivided attention. Looking more closely, I see that it’s not all squalls and peaks. There are calm spots in among the tumult, dips and valleys between the breaks.

As humans, we often bestow landscapes with our hopes, fears, and dreams. These sites become repositories for both personal and collective impulses. I think of Jung’s iceberg theory of the collective unconscious. The psyche is made up of three levels: individual consciousness at the top, followed by personal unconsciousness beneath it, and at the very bottom is the expanse of collective unconsciousness. What is submerged demands respect – sharp things are underfoot. I’m reminded of this when in front of Motu-O-Kura #1, 2018. There’s an unearthly starkness to the photograph of Bare Island. Influenced by the Japanese artist Hokusai, Carter draws on his 36 Views of Mt Fuji, creating a series of images, literal and re-imagined, of Motu-O-Kura. This particular iteration, digitally manipulated, shows the island reflected in the ocean. Upside down, it’s not an exact replica – there’s an odd slippage that suggests the unreal. The island’s cool topography has ridges and crevices. It looks like it’s seen a lot – a prehistoric mass that has accumulated years watching the follies of humans.

To make the psychological impact of oceans even more explicit, Carter presents the viewer with Blue Psyche, White Water Butterfly, 2017. White ocean spray radiates outward from a center point, transforming into wings and antennae: all this against a backdrop of dense blackness. The butterfly is a symbol of transformation, though in this instance it could be much more. It is reminiscent of a Rorschach test. If I look too long, it’ll be a psychoanalytic session by way of a photograph.

I’m thankful in this hurried time that projects such as Carter’s exist. Focusing on such a rich field enables one to not dismiss the subject so quickly – to see the value of something more than a commodity, more than a resource.

Nina Seja is a writer, academic, and curator. She received her PhD from New York University and wrote the landmark book PhotoForum at 40: Counterculture, Clusters, and Debate in New Zealand (Rim Books, 2014).

[1] Erika Balsom, An Oceanic Feeling: Cinema and the Sea (New Plymouth: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2017).

[2] “Researchers Explore Psychological Effects of Climate Change,” ScienceDaily, January 17, 2018. Also see Sabrina Helm et al., “Differentiating Environmental Concern in the Context of Psychological Adaption to Climate Change,” Global Environmental Change 48 (January 2018): 158–167.

[3] Weird Fishes show notes.

Your Eyes, 2018

La Bulle (The Bubble) 2018

Living Water, 2017

Moto-O-Kura #1, 2018

Blue Psyche, White Water Butterfly, 2017