in Opinion | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

That Sinking Feeling

Cruising the Mercury Art Collection

in Opinion | 01 JAN 98

In Inside the White Cube (1976), Brian O'Doherty states that classical avant-garde hostility expresses itself not merely by instilling physical discomfort, but also by 'removing perceptual constants'. Common to all such expressions, he adds, are 'transgressions of logic, disassociation of the senses, and boredom'. In other words, a bit like your average sea cruise. At least this is the impression left by a visit to the Mercury Art Collection, a floating museum cleverly disguised as a cruise ship.

This ingenious notion is the brainchild of Christina Chandris, Celebrity Cruises' fine arts curator and wife to its billionaire owner. One of a triad of pleasure boats devoted to contemporary masters and emerging artists, the Mercury boasts an on-board installation of over 400 artworks. The collection, as a handsome brochure relates, is organised around a core of post-Pop figures including Sol LeWitt, Yayoi Kusama, Gordon Matta-Clark and Dan Flavin, as well as their heterogeneous descendants (which means anyone from Damien Hirst and Fischli & Weiss to Gabriel Orozco). This eclectic curatorial sampling isn't supposed to make sense; rather it 'sways to the rhythms of the pleasure principle', presumably embodied by the roiling waters it rides upon.

Nevertheless, an abiding thematic logic connects many of Chandris' seaworthy selections. A voyage motif (suggesting artistic journeys as well as the viewer's own more cautious explorations) is evoked in works by Hamish Fulton and Richard Long. And much of the on-deck art teems with aquatic allusions: Kristin Oppenheim's audio installation features the artist as contemporary Calypso singing 'Sail on Sailor', while Susan Rothenberg contributes a fish sculpture and Ian Hamilton Finlay a group of five stones inscribed with the Latin word for wave, unda. As in undawhelming. Most embarrassing of all, however, is Sol LeWitt's wave-themed art in the Martini Bar. LeWitt, touted as the collection's 'philosophical anchor', plumbs the lower depths with this 18-by-42 foot mural which resembles a cheery piece of 60s supergraphics of the kind that can probably still be found in the lobbies of remote outposts of large hotel chains.

Lynn Davis' arctic photographs, described in the brochure as 'deeply glamourous portraits of contemporary icebergs' (thank God she avoided the musty antique ones) provide basic documentary charms. It's the titles of these works, however - Disko Bay, Greenland - that resonate, as cruise ships (for reasons only Umberto Eco could speculate on) remain the last true hothouse of disco culture.

Lawrence Weiner adds conceptual ballast with three sea-going pieces, including Wine Poured Upon the Sea (1992), a bold inscription that runs above the Grand Foyer, where it competes for attention with an electronic 'media wall' lit to resemble a waterfall by day and the aurora borealis at night. Weiner's Bread Cast Upon the Waters (with diagram) (1992), also challengingly 'sited' by the artist, graces a set of mirrors near the ship's 10,000 square-foot Aqua Spa. Perhaps worried that conceptual wit might be a bit dry for this context, Chandris fills the adjacent spa rooms with

artsy nudes, and in the 115,000-gallon Thalassotherapy pool, bathers may ponder Andrew Lord's Watching, Listening and Biting (all 1996), a group of gold-leafed expressionistic urns with distended colon-like handles; placed on the edge of a giant hot tub, they suggest seasick spitoons.

As if all the obvious nautical references might somehow leave viewers hungry for more, the brochure declares that various 'vessel' pieces, such as Lord's urns or a set of Allan McCollum's Perfect Vessels (1985/92), located in the ship's Palm Springs Café, are punning allusions to maritime vessels. (No doubt Brooks Adams, who wrote the text, was chosen for the watery associations of his first name.) In any event, a liberal approach to interpretation seems an unsinkable modus operandi on a cruise ship, where our every reading is shaped by context. Thus Anish Kapoor's giant stainless-steel concave Mirror (1996), a funhouse prop, conjures the vision of passengers suffering severe nausea. And Bill Viola's video Nine Attempts at Achieving Immortality (1996), which features a closeup of the artist holding his breath and then gasping for air, inevitably suggests a safety instructor demonstrating emergency procedures for going down in cold waters.

Actually, the Viola video is one of the few works that isn't utterly overwhelmed by the ship's splashy environment, its mirrored walls and multi-coloured carpeting. Which returns us to the problematic notion of a floating museum, and what its possible advantages might be. Chandris proposes that the Mercury Collection 'offers an unconventional way of exposing important works to the cruise-going public'. Something about the phrase 'exposing art to the public' always sounds like public exposure is a potentially fatal condition, and in this case, it nearly is. A pair of Matta-Clark's 'Splitting' (1976) photographs are murderously placed beside a four-by-five-foot television screen in a luxury penthouse suite; in the Pavilion Night Club (the design of which was supposedly inspired by Patrick Heron's abstract paintings) several paintings by Yayoi Kusama are left for dead in unlit corners and in an out-of-sight nook behind the bar.

Under different circumstances, a hide-and-seek-style installation has its virtues, as has been aptly demonstrated by Jeffrey Vallance's theme-specific exhibits in the casinos of Las Vegas. In these shows the line between objects we designate as art and those we don't is deliriously blurred until we are no longer sure how to define what we're looking at, or more precisely, how we should be looking. Needless to say this is when things get interesting. On board the Mercury, however, the art - for all its cutesy thematics - never engenders this kind of confusion, but is merely muffled and dulled by the roar of the ship's raucous interior decoration.

This is not to say that Chandris' basic concept is without value. The chance to contemplate contemporary art while experiencing varying states of seasickness will surely provide members of the 'cruise-going public' - that most unfairly neglected audience - with insights otherwise unobtainable, just as the ship's constant swaying to-and-fro will ensure a fresh angle of view at all times. Indeed, Chandris' curatorial conceit seems so laden with potential that it's a shame to limit it to the seven seas. Wouldn't that Fischli & Weiss Stewardess (1989), a small sculpture of a 60s-style air hostess, look more at home on a Virgin Atlantic airborne museum, perhaps alongside one of Vija Celmins' burning plane paintings and a terrorist bomb by Gregory Green? What about a TGV museum to speed Raymond Pettibon's series of train drawings across Europe? Even if O'Doherty cannot be persuaded to write Inside the White Cruise Ship, I'm confident that the ship of contemporary art will once again be buoyantly ploughing the waves of change.