‘The Imaginary Sea’ Turns Science into Fiction

At Villa Carmignac, Pourquerolles, the pioneering underwater photographer Jean Painlevé acts as a guiding spirit for a group exhibition that depicts the beguiling strangeness of aquatic life

BY Amy Sherlock in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 04 AUG 21

The octopus is sleeping. Or, at least, he’s resting his eyes. Around them, his bulbous head sac swells and deflates in a continuous pumping motion. ‘L’oeil ouvert, très humain,’ reads an intertitle: ‘The open eye is very human.’ In the initial sequence of Jean Painlevé’s La Pieuvre (The Octopus, 1928), a fisherman turns an octopus’s head inside out and tries, indecorously, to yank out its entrails: the eyes are evidently not human enough to spare him a beastly fate.

The strangeness and beauty of the creatures that live beneath the sea – a world distant from yet deeply enmeshed with and threatened by our own – is explored in works by 33 artists in ‘The Imaginary Sea’, guest curated by Chris Sharp at Villa Carmignac. Situated on a hill on the edge of the natural park that occupies most of the small, beach-scattered island of Pourquerolles in western Provence, Villa Carmignac looks out over an expanse of blue.

Jean Painlevé, Buste de l’Hippocampe (Bust of the Hippocampus), 1931, unique vintage print, 141 × 98 cm. © Les Documents Cinématographiques, Paris

Painlevé – an amateur biologist and pioneering underwater photographer – is the show’s guiding spirit. Working at a moment when surrealists in France were exploring the oneiric possibilities of the young cinematic medium, Painlevé made beguilingly strange photographic portraits of marine life in a style that combined documentary and aquatic circus act. His images, including the regal Buste de l’Hippocampe (Seahorse Bust, 1931), express an ambivalence the show productively pokes at between depicting sea creatures as spectacles and as subjects in their own right.

‘Science is fiction’, Painlevé liked to say, and the mythico-scientific dimension of the world beneath the waves is omnipresent in this show, from Allison Katz’s tragi-comic Whale II (2014), a pot-bellied, snub-nosed creature (a whale as imagined rather than observed), to Michael E. Smith’s small photograph of multicoloured genetically modified goldfish (Untitled, 2011) to Bianca Bondi’s salt crystal-encrusted whale skeleton The Fall and Rise (2021), which shimmers in the sunlight that ripples through the pool-bottom ceiling of the central exhibition space. It’s a neat nod to the arrangements found in Victorian-era natural history museums, but Frankensteined together from parts of several species of whale – some still living, some extinct with the dinosaurs. It reminds me of Moby-Dick (1851), evoking all the confusion of legend and biology, history and literature contained within Herman Melville’s watery tale.

Allison Katz, Whale II, 2014, oil on canvas, 244 × 122 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Fondation Carmignac, Pourquerolles

Bondi’s is one of several large-scale, visually exuberant works that make the show a family-friendly experience. I don’t say that disparagingly: Pourquerolles is a holiday island and it’s refreshing to see a show that is so generous to its audience. And it’s certainly not that kids don’t have taste: on the day I visited, a toddler made a beeline for the stellar pairing of Cosima von Bonin’s stuffed Killer Whale with Long Eyelashes 2 (School Desk Version) (2018), which sits across from Jeff Koons’s Acrobat (2003–09). Although who knows whether they, like me, were imagining a scene of rockpool flirtation between the preening, highly strung glamour of Koon’s bewhiskered lobster and Von Bonin’s louche, voluptuous mammal.

'The Imaginary Sea', 2021, exhibition view, Villa Carmignac, Pourquerolles. Courtesy: Fondation Carmignac, Pourquerolles; photography: Marc Domage

There are nods to environmental disaster here – amongst them Yuji Agematsu’s jellyfish-like forms made from the flotsam and jetsam of urban life (Untitled, 2019) and Smith’s broken and reconfigured starfish (Untitled, 2018), the dead, bleached white of coral reefs in warming seas. But this is not, fundamentally, an activist show. In its most powerful moments, it emphasizes not the human intelligence of the octopus but the octopus-like vulnerability of humans. My favourite work, installed next to Painlevé’s film, is an untitled piece (2000–01) by the late Bruno Pelassy. An exquisite ballgownesque confection of silk, pearls and lace drifts back and forth across a fish tank. Gradually, it will disintegrate. We all do. 

'The Imaginary Sea' is on view at Villa Carmignac, Pourquerolles until 17 October 2021. 

Main image and thumbnail: Bianca Bondi, The Fall and Rise, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Fondation Carmignac, Poquerolles; photography: Marc Domage

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.