BY Eric Otieno Sumba in Opinion | 12 MAR 24
Featured in
Issue 241

The Haunted Hydrology of Dominique White

Her marine sculptures and installations envision the future from the bottom of the ocean

BY Eric Otieno Sumba in Opinion | 12 MAR 24

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 241, ‘Outer Depths

There is an impressive range to the frameworks Dominique White uses to engage with bodies of water. There is the nautical Afrofuturism of Detroit-based techno duo Drexciya (Gerald Donald and James Stinson). Another is Duke University Press, specifically the Black, feminist or nihilist thinkers on their roster such as Katherine McKittrick, Christina Sharpe and Calvin L. Warren. White’s YouTube algorithm recently recommended a video on how deserted lobster traps, crab cages and discarded fishing nets can combine to become naval mines. Likewise, social media has been generative as a source of information. When we meet in late 2023, she refers me to a series of TikTok videos titled ‘Haunted Hydrology’, produced by researcher and artist Geo Rutherford: ‘This person just tells incredible stories of natural phenomena or myths and legends about bodies of water.’ For White, these tales are inconclusive evidence of the untapped power that oceans and lakes have compared to land. Water is an interface between life as we know it and all the alternatives that once were or that could have been. It is also a medium that invites radical visions.

Portrait of Dominique White, 2022. Photograph: Rose Waite
Portrait of Dominique White, 2022. Photograph: Rose Waite

Zero Is My Country (2021), from White’s ‘Flagged Out’ series (2020–ongoing), resembles a pre-industrial, deep-sea trawler’s net. Three hooks attach to one end of a long, curved mahogany pole, which emerges from a platform that looks like the base of a mast. On each hook, filigree threads of what was once a robust fishing net delicately embody the tension of imminent rupture. This effect is emphasized by granules of white kaolin clay on the floor, where the rest of the net lies: a threadbare jumble of old sails, cowrie shells, raffia and sisal that looks like it would fall apart if picked up. Though some of its materials are incredibly durable – mahogany and iron are both commonly used in boat-building – the work elicits a sense of delicacy and instability. Zero Is My Country undermines its scale by its own fragility. Is this a thinly veiled commentary on national sovereignty, or the ceremonial mace and flag of an aquatic society?

If you leave a shipwreck on the seabed, it stays intact, but as soon as you start bringing it out, things become unstable.

‘Drexciya was one of the first concrete inspirations for my work – this idea of underwater nations as examples of resilience,’ White says. ‘Both literally and abstractly: this is why my work floats between fact and fiction. But also, a lot of Caribbean myths and legends permeated my childhood, so I carry both an obsession and a fear of the sea.’ Born in Essex, White’s first contact with a body of water that was not ‘dead’ – which is to say the grey ocean surrounding the UK – was in Saint Lucia, where she often visited her mother’s side of the family. ‘In some parts of Jamaica and Saint Lucia, the ocean is the link between the living and the dead. That’s where, ten or so years ago, my fascination really started. I was clinging on to the memory of dead family members who never went home to have a proper funerary practice.’ White’s work at the time gestured towards the ocean as a medium for mourning and transcendence. The Beaconing Soul (2016), for instance, features a vertical piece of wood, covered in gold leaf, kaolin, gold wire and calico; around the wood, contoured dried palm fronds give the work most of its volume. (Amongst the Ancient Egyptians and the Igbo, the palm symbolizes immortality.) The soul of the title was quite literal for White: ‘I talk about my artworks as bodies or souls because it feels like I’ve harnessed souls that breathe and occupy space.’

Dominique White, The dethroning of the Human (detail), 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Veda; Photograph: Volker Renner
Dominique White, The dethroning of the Human (detail), 2023. Courtesy: the artist and VEDA, Florence; Photograph: Volker Renner

When we speak, White is preparing for an exhibition at Kunsthalle Münster, which opened in September 2023, and for another one upcoming at Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 2024. There is plenty in progress. ‘We are on course to sink a new work in Italy, which has been a headache because all the water around Italy is protected. My practice sits in this volatile space: it’s very hard to control and I love that. You don’t know if something might snap but you kind of have to allow it.’ To the alarm of conservationists and collectors, White has consistently played with the notion of a fugitive materiality within her work over the course of her career: ‘I always had this romantic idea of the work actually escaping through the sea because it’s soluble. All the clay aspects of the work would disappear, leaving you with just the harpoons or the hooks. The work will actively be eating itself throughout the exhibition.’ For White, the retrieval of Deadweight (n.d.) from the water is perhaps even more interesting than its submersion because it would enforce true destabilization: ‘If you leave a shipwreck on the seabed, it stays intact, but as soon as you start bringing it out, that’s when things become unstable.’

It feels like I’ve harnessed souls that breathe and occupy space.

In many ways, White’s practice is an exploration of how to push things to their limits. Take iron, which she works with a lot: ‘It’s such a volatile material. You can try and protect it but, whenever you see iron next to the sea, it’s actually expanded with the salt and has become unruly. I try to never look at material in a fixed way. Instead, I think: what can I do to push that to become its most unruly, uncontrollable form?’ The resulting entities can range from four to six metres in height. At Kunsthalle Münster, however, building restrictions have kept White’s ambitions on the lower side of that range, but they are still tall. She tells me of recent experiments: ‘The best way to imagine the creative process behind these works is to envisage everything being suspended ten metres in the air and then just dropped. There is a lot of crushed metal.’ She admits that her process has become one of discomfort but, ultimately, of growth: ‘It’s the most extreme experience I’ve ever tried to create in an exhibition: everything feels unstable and viewers may feel almost scared to enter the space.’

May you break free and outlive your enemy, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and VEDA, Florence; photograph: Flavio Pescatori
Dominique White, May you break free and outlive your enemy, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and VEDA, Florence; photograph: Flavio Pescatori

Disillusioned with cosmological Afrofuturism, White’s vision of the future has become darker – and more fluid: ‘There’s so little that we know about the deep sea. It seems to contain more possibilities than, say, outer space, the imaginative capacity of which seems to be dwindling.’ As the ‘province of all mankind’ – to quote the 1967 Outer Space Treaty – becomes the playground of moneyed men, the deep sea, while not immune to similar exploration attempts, remains as terrifying as it is exciting. When speculating about our nautical future, White makes no effort to hide her nihilist sympathies, acknowledging humanity’s inability to survive underwater long-term due to the pressure and the lack of light. Yet, visions of futurity, for White, are the domain of radical scepticism, where the illusion of certainty has forever been abandoned. With each new work, White returns to this realm eager to see how a piece of old wood, a retired net or a stretch of rope might cope.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 241 with the headline ‘Haunted Hydrology’

Dominique White’s ‘When Disaster Strikes’ is at Kunsthalle Münster until 10 March.

North American audiences can see 'Dominique White and Alberta Whittle: Sargasso Sea' at ICA Philadelphia until 2 June.  

Main image: Dominique White, A refusal to be dominated, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and VEDA, Florence; Photograph: Volker Renner

Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer and editor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany. His work has been featured in publications including Camera Austria, Contemporary And, Griotmag, Lolwe and Texte zur Kunst.