Odyssey – Taming the Oceans


One of the things that I have discovered about the Singapore Art Museum is that it doesn’t seem to have a permanent collection. Well, I did find a couple of rooms with some artwork that could be considered permanent, but it wasn’t anywhere near as large as some of the other art galleries (or Art Museums) that I have visited. Actually, as a side note, it is interesting that they use the word ‘museum’ as opposed to ‘gallery’, which is what you tend to expect in the English speaking world. However, after travelling around Germany and France for about six weeks, was that the French and the Germans (and I suspect the Dutch as well) consider them to be museums since a gallery is where you go and purchase art (which is also the case in the English-speaking world, it is just that a Museum tends to focus on the natural world while art galleries focus entirely upon art).


Actually, as another side note, it is interesting that this time Singapore had an exhibition on the ocean, particularly since that for most of its existence the island-state economy has been completely reliant upon the sea. However, one thing that I did notice is that, unlike England and Japan, they don’t seem to have a huge focus on seafood-related dishes (whereas in England it is Fish and Chips while in Japan you have sushi). That probably has a lot to do with Singapore being quite a new state, and a fairly artificial one at that – it didn’t arise organically as did Japan and England, but rather as the result of a British colony, and people coming here from across the Empire.


The problem with this exhibition is that I saw it seven weeks ago, and while I have found a copy of the brochure on the internet, I have also discovered that it doesn’t actually cover all of the rooms, and the artwork in the rooms, to really trigger my memories. Okay, I have taken some photos, but not surprisingly the photos don’t seem to correspond with what is written in the brochure. However, what I do have are the notes that I took while I was there. Anyway, the exhibition itself was divided across four rooms, and it seems as if I may have gone into the rooms in the wrong order (though from what I can remember I believe that there were some guides who showed us where we could go).



The Dying Oceans

So, it looked as if I entered rooms four and five before I entered rooms one, two, and three, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter because each of the rooms was dedicated to a different artist. Room number four displayed the work of the Indonesian artist Entang Wihaso. Like a lot of modern art, his displays take up the entire room, and is called breathing together.


The idea behind this display (and it is difficult to show all of them) is that the ocean connects all of us together. In a way there isn’t one place on the Earth that isn’t touched by the ocean (unless you live in a landlocked country, but that is beside the point). The ocean itself doesn’t change, but what changes is how we relate to the oceans. To some of us the oceans are a place of horror with destructive storms and untameable waves. To others it is the source of life, not just because of water, and salt, but also because of the food that it produces. In the image about we see how the perception of the ocean changes across even one society, but what is noticeable are the tentacles underneath this floating island, which shows how we are all connected to the ocean in one way or another.

Another interesting thing about the oceans is how many cultures view them as the original source of life, whether it be the secularist world which sees life having begun in the ocean and then fish developed legs and crawled out onto the land, or whether it be the Greeks or the Jews, who see the oceans as being created first and then everything else came out of the waters (though since the Jews feared the ocean it is interesting that their creation myth begins with the ocean, but then that probably has more to do with the idea of the shift from chaos, being the waters, to order, being the dry land).


The next room had some work by Richard Streitmatter-Tran, a Vietnamese artist. His work, A Short History of Man and Animal, comprises of your everyday fishing boat, expect that it has the spine of a whale running through the top of it. The reason for this is to show how we humans have taken concepts from the animal kingdom and used it to master the world. Okay, maybe not guns, but your humble boat is built like an inverse fish (or whale) to enable it to float. The thing with the boat is that the whale spine defines its purpose, and that is to travel through (or across) the oceans in search of food, in this case fish.



However, the work also represents what Streitmatter-Tran refers to as the Anthropocene Era (or others probably refer to it as well, it is just that the term appeared in this display), the period in what humanity’s actions have left an impact on the world, in many cases irreversible. In suggesting that I’m not necessarily talking about climate change (though that is one example) but may other things that our industrialised world has done to the landscape. The thing with industrialisation is that it has given us power over nature (to an extent), and in doing so we have left a path of destruction in our wake (as well shall see in a little bit).


Research Room

The next room that we entered was simply called the research room, and basically contained a collection of artifacts that related to the ocean and the ocean going professions (though considering sailors and their ilk tend to be a rough and rowdy lot, it is hard to picture them as being professionals in a traditional sense – they would be more akin to the working class). However our connection to the sea is defined in many ways by our ability to master it, and while these days we have massive ships, powered by sophisticated computers, ploughing the oceans, they are still, in many ways, subject to the the forces of nature – a powerful enough storm can still sink the mightest of ocean going vessels.
Pascah Bulka on Nobby's Beach
A ship that that run aground along the Australian Coast.
However, it isn’t just the modern technology that we are heavily reliant upon these days, since there are a lot of other aspects to ocean going technologies, including some rather small inventions that had a huge impact, such as the compass and the sextant. The thing with the ocean is that it tends to lack landmarks, which means that once the land disappears beyond the horizon it can be very easy to become lost and end up drifting blindly. In fact, one may never see their home again if they end up in unknown waters. However, what the compass allowed was to know one’s direction, and the sextant allowed one to acurately predict their location despite the fact that no land would be in sight. The original sailors would not dare venture out of sight of land, for to do so could spell disaster, but once ships became stronger, coastlines were mapped, and technology developed, people were able to sail the oceans with confidence.
Then we have the harpoon, which seems to have one purpose and one purpose only – killing whales. In fact it is interesting that we when see, or hear, of the harpoon the only thing that comes to mind are whales, and it is not as if whales are particularly vicious animals either. Whales, in many cases, are the gentile giants of the oceans, yet they are huge, and because of their size they can be seen as a threat, something to be conquered and controlled. They are also a commodity, because with their size also comes a use for what they produce. What the harpoon represents is humanity’s control over the whale, and the destructive influence it has on its existance.


Another thing we found in the research room was a collection of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that related to the ocean. For instance we have Moby Dick, a story of a man that doggedly pursues a whale until the whale eventually gets the best of him. In a way that story shows us of our determination to master the sea, and how, despite our technology and our abilities, that the mastery may never eventuate. We also have the story of Leif Ericson, which raises the question of who actually discovered the American continent, and can we truly attribute this to the Spanish and Portuguese. Finally there was the Odyssey, which is a story of a man’s war against the sea, and how he eventually arrived home, bruised, battered, and entirely beaten. Sure, he does come home, and drives out the suitors, but the reality is that no matter what he did, the ocean always won.

Oceanic Identities

While there were a few other rooms that I visited, I will skip over to Sally Smart‘s exhibition  – Where There Any Women Pirates? Sally is an Australian whose work tends to focus on feminism and gender identity. This particular peice is based on the work of surrealist poet Paul Eluard and his piece entitled the Surrealist Map of the World. His work was all about colonialism and the Eurocentric view of the world – in a way Europe was seen as the centre of the universe and everything else was on the fringes – they simply existed to form places for Europeans to colonise. In fact by the turn of the 20th century there was only one country in the entire world that had not been colonised by the Europeans – Thailand. Sure, China and Japan many have retained their identity, and we even see Japan push back against colonialism in the lead up to World War II, but other than Thailand pretty much every other country had found themselves crushed under the European jackboot.
Surrealist Map of the World
While Eluard looks at the colonial question, Smart explores our ocean going past through the lens of gender identity. The question she poses is a proper one – was the sea very much a male dominated domain, and did the women ever dare to venture beyond the calm ponds and oceanside resorts. Indeed, where there any women pirates, and if there were, did they have their own idenity beyond that of simply being a sex object. The noticeable thing is that the typical sailor is depicted as a man who is rough and generally doesn’t have any ability to really engage with the opposite sex, particularly since the only time they will encounter women is when they are in port, and those women tended to be prostitutes.


So the question, as is explored through Smart’s artwork which consists of ships made out of common items found around the house, is whether a woman could survive on board a ship, and survive with her gender identity intact. This is the thing with being turned into an object – one loses one’s individual identity. Sure one table may differ from another table, but in many cases a table is a table is a table – they have no identity beyond being a table. The same is the case with humans that are viewed in a specific way by other humans – which is why slavery is so abhorrant – we aren’t viewing these humans as humans, but rather as machines to be exploited. In a way the modern work ethic is very much the same with the aptly named Human Resources Department – we have ceased being personal and are now simply resources.



The next work that we visited (and the final one in this particular exhibition, but there was another work in the exibition across the road that I wish to finish off on), was by a Phillipino couple, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, who moved to Australia. The title of their work was Passage III: Project Another Country, and is basically a huge shanty town sitting on top of a boat. The thing is that here in Australia, and also in Singapore, the idea of the Shantytown simply does not exist, not in the way that it exists in Manilla, or even India. What is interesting is that even though I have been to Bangkok, I didn’t see anything that resembled a shanty town there either (not that I went out of my way to go and look for one).


However, what this particular art work focuses on is the idea of the home, and the transient nature of such. I guess this is the idea of the great Australian dream of owning your own home – it provides stability to one’s life, and a feeling that one has complete control over a plot of land on which they can all their own. Mind you, there is a debate over the benefits of renting and owning – one of them being that it is a lot harder to pull up your roots and move if you happen to own your own home (and the costs of selling, and the buying again, tend to suggest that renting is the better option). In a way society has become much more transient, so the idea of the home has changed. In fact a transient society really has no place in which to call home, with the exception of the room where they lay their head every night.


The thing with a home is that it provides security, and this is what the other section of the artwork reflects – if the boat is the transient nature of our life these days, then the shanty town represents the lack of security that this transient life creates. In a sense, when one moves to another location, whether it be a city, or a country, there is a lot of security that is taken away – what if you don’t get along with anybody in your new town, or what if you discover that your new location doesn’t necessarily provide you with that fulfilment. Yet a renting society also has a sense of transience, and lack of security, because at anytime you could be turfed out of your home and needing to find another place to sleep.



Imagining the Oceans

Okay, the other exhibition, Imaginarium, wasn’t actually a part of the Odyssey exhibition, but there were a couple of interesting things that sort of linked with Odyssey, particularly the work ‘Plastic Ocean’ by Singaporean Tan Zi Xi. It is not just the idea of the ocean being drowned out with the rubbish, but the fact that if we don’t do something to stem this rabidly consumerist lifestyle that we live then there is going to be a tipping point beyond which there is no return. Okay, some have suggested that we have already past that point when it comes to Global Warming, but there is also this point in regards to polluting and destroying our oceans. The problem with us humans, particularly those of us living in the developed world, is that it is out of mind, out of sight. Sure, climate change may be a bad thing, but it isn’t affecting me right now (though I will get a little upset on some really hot days, but as long as my house doesn’t burn down in a bush fire, or get washed away in a flood, then everything will be all right).
Plastic OceanThe thing is that we don’t want to change, even in the face of what is effectively a world and ecosystem destroying the threat. What Plastic Ocean does is that it puts us in the middle of an ocean that is choking to death on plastic bottles. In a way plastic is the bane of the Earth’s existence – it is so versatile, and cheap, that we treat it as something to be disposed of when no longer needed, and when we dispose of it we don’t actually care where it lands up – even if that location is a huge garbage dump that is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In our mind that’s okay because it isn’t in our backyard – it’s now somebody else’s problem.
I sometimes wonder whether the world can actually survive this new phase of consumerism, particularly with this idea of fast fashion – all of the sudden fashion doesn’t change depending on the season, fashions will change on a monthly, or even a weekly, basis – it is a way is getting more money from less of a resource – start changing the fashions more and people will be enticed to buy more clothes to keep up with the latest trends. This leads me to the last work of art in this series: Apex Predator – which is what we humans have become. We sit at the top of the food ladder destroying anything and everything that comes in our path, and most of the time it is purely for profit – if something emerges as a barrier to profit then it must be torn down because economic prosperity is all that matters. In a way, humanity has become a disease that has infected the planet, and our actions are slowly killing it off, but the Earth is also very much a living organism, and like all living organisms it has antibodies that will fight back against an aggressive disease. The problem is that unlike a disease, which will not destroy itself until it has made sure that it will continue to propagate, we humans seem to have overridden that self-preservation mechanism because in the end there is only one Earth, and when we have killed the Earth there will be, unfortunately, nowhere else to go.

Creative Commons License


Odyssey – Taming the Oceans by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me



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