Convergence Zone: The Aesthetics and Politics of the Ocean in Contemporary Art and Photography

Abigail Susik


Gradually over the last century, the ancient symbolic rapport between humanity and the sea has changed and contemporary culture at large is taking notice. The formerly awe-inspiring sublimity of the ocean as a cultural symbol has now given way to a new kind of disturbing awareness: humanity can no longer fully escape itself through exploration of alien marine reaches. To be sure, many of the literal and metaphoric associations of the ocean remain firmly ensconced in place as they have for centuries. The ocean’s tidal force still threatens human life on a terrifying scale, just as its depths continue to harbor myriad scientific mysteries. Yet it is also apparent that the ocean has submitted in diverse ways to the persistent shaping forces of the human hand, and this in turn has shifted our conception of its semantic identity.

What was once one of the supreme spaces of otherness from a human perspective has been replaced in the last half-century or so by an often grotesque experience of unavoidable self-reflection. Reversing the subliminal onus of the of prehistoric flood myth, it is rather a tidal wave of man-made materiality that surges to embrace the globe’s seas in a mass of brightly colored plastic bits. As flotsam from around the globe clutters the most remote beaches and swirling vortices of buoyant trash form new islands in the Pacific, the old horror vacui and mortal fear of the oceanic transforms into suffocating claustrophobia and violent auto-critique. Continuing to function culturally as a physical simulacrum of the human unconscious as it long has, the ocean repeatedly regurgitates and resurfaces what most of modern society has been attempting to repress for some time now. As the unwitting toilet and primary commercial highway for global commerce, the world’s oceans starkly uncover the fact that culture and nature now interpenetrate physically and symbolically, and are equivalent in both power and influence.[1]

The general consensus seems to be that the palpable pollution of the world’s oceans with non-biodegradable flotsam is a dangerous problem, and yet most of society assumes a passive pose as to what can be done about it. Meanwhile, these shifting surfaces are unceasingly incrusted with a vast array of commodities being transported, ensuring the endurance of this consumption cycle. Although this condition of passivity certainly plagues us on both practical and psychological levels in an everyday manner, it is also significant that a sizeable subset of the art world is taking notice of this environmental and anthropological situation. Several artists from around the globe have recently turned to the realm of the ocean as subject matter for their photographic work, and notably, each of these artists reflect a similar set of sociological conditions in relation to this watery milieu. Echoing what has become the status of nearly every realm of human experience today, it seems, these works stringently comment upon the way in which the world’s seas have become lucid indicators of the omnipresence of global capitalism and the resulting lifestyle of discard.

Therefore a palpable trend has arisen which, along with communicating something about the predominance of the photographic mode in western cultural manifestations and the important ramifications of this shift itself in late twentieth-century art, also speaks profoundly to the fact that the ocean has once again emerged as paramount cultural indicator at large. Rather than revealing any nostalgic return to the formerly sublime associations of the ocean as a zone of both horror and pleasure, or a modernist understanding of the ocean as a self-reflexive matrix, I argue that new themes arise via this recent influx. The current resurgence of interest in the ocean among contemporary artists, primarily photographers, speaks to the heightened awareness of the ocean as a location which transparently reflects the total permeation of life, and art, with commercial languages. Attached to this is my claim that these works activate political consciousness about environmental issues related to human waste through a complex aesthetic operation involving confrontation with both the beautiful and the repulsive, the desirable and the repellent, thereby creating a kind of convergence zone or tidal vortex for some of our most powerful emotions about modern materiality and our interactions with it.

Such a hybrid emotional cue is not unlike that of the Freudian uncanny, which plays upon the gap separating the familiar and the strange, the known and the forgotten, ultimately creating a heightened awareness of ‘being’ through this dichotomy. In the case of the contemporary ocean photographs, this dualistic viewing experience of repulsion and attraction alerts the viewer to the conflicted nature of their own feelings on this subject, thereby arousing a volatile if not always a proactively critical frustration with current affairs in our world. This kind of ‘unfolding’ or ‘awakening’ of political sentiment through the persuasive rhetoric of the artful image has underlying ties to propaganda, socialist realist art, and reportage. But as will be seen ahead, in the case of contemporary documentary photographs of the ocean, this ‘unfolding’ also establishes a unique breed of social response that is more about calling attention to a general malaise of ambiguity than spelling out any specific political message. It is this malaise of ambiguity itself, by which I mean the deeply conflicted feelings that western society harbors about ecological issues pertaining to the ocean, that arouses a subtle chain reaction of emotions. Such emotional inertia may lead to the political through the aesthetic in an indirect and gradual manner.

Thus I argue that one effect of this new body of contemporary photography about the ocean is ultimately the reversal of the extremely common process of disavowal or repression that occurs in our daily lives regarding our consciousness of ecological issues. Obviously it is not as if culture at large suffers from some kind of collective amnesia about the increasingly polluted state of the world’s oceans. It is a frequent topic of conversation and a commonplace recognition for anyone coming into contact with the ocean on a given day. Nevertheless, such photographic ‘records’ of our world, act as stubborn witnesses and petulant reminders to the situation at hand, and therefore serve to disrupt the mundaneness of the already-known and offer a potential catalyst for social change.

It is important to note that this rise in consciousness of the dominance of economic forces and their manifestation in art far exceeds early modernist preoccupations with the aesthetics of the industrial and the streamlined. While contemporary art about the ocean as an absolute cultural sphere demonstratively shares the same propensity for visual pleasure and beauty expressed in early twentieth-century renderings of the industrial, these new reflections on the ocean simultaneously embody a visceral shock and a subsequent disgust with the sheer magnitude of current material excess. In the act of looking at these contemporary images, the manifest formal beauty of the scenes and objects presented in the ocean context quickly gives way to a sharp psychological awareness of fear and culpability with regards to the potential natural disasters looming in the future as a result of our consumption patterns (more will be said on this developmental viewing process ahead). Assuredly then, it is precisely because the ocean was formerly a site for modernist transcendentalism of various kinds that today’s tendency toward unveiling the ocean as the communal sewer for capitalistic excess is all the more unsettling.

This observation is underscored by the observation that the majority of contemporary art works which take the ocean as subject are either photographs or videos, thus allowing for an even more marked departure from the past legacy of painterly depictions of the oceanic sphere with all their symbolic baggage. Likewise, most of these contemporary works are grounded in a ‘documentary’ aesthetic in the sense that they record scenes from life with apparent objectivity and minimal image manipulation (although, as will become apparent ahead, Chris Jordan and Andy Hughes are the exception to this in my discussion). On the one hand, such a formal choice on the part of these artists might seem to signify a desire for the veracity and professed ‘factuality’ of reportage— and in some measure this impetus is sustained in the viewer reception of these images. The photographs that will be briefly discussed here by Allan Sekula, Edward Burtynsky, and Pam Longobardi (and certain examples by Jordan) maintain a realist edge in the sense that they faithfully record the surrounding visual field and also present scenes of notable social significance for speculation. Further, through their site specificity, made readily apparent through descriptive titles often including dates and/or place names, the viewer ‘learns’ something about the world and its environmental issues in the act of looking. In an aesthetic sense, this choice aligns these photographs with the substantial indexical and denotative tradition of photography. The landscape or object in view becomes the present and immanent ‘subject’ while the disembodied viewing eye observes from a self-aware, detached, and timeless distance. In a political sense, the reportage edge embedded in most of these photographs connects them on an obvious level to the journalistic functions of muckraking and social critique. In other words, the photographs expose a concealed truth and allow the ocean to be seen for what it currently is at least in part: a heterogeneous natural-cultural morass containing significant quantities of plastic and metal flotsam and jetsam.

But as I have mentioned above, these contemporary photographic studies of the marine context should be distinguished from notable examples of social documentary photography by the likes of figures like Jacob Riis and Walker Evans because they linger even more emphatically in an ‘objective’ manner upon the aesthetic beauty of their subject matter (and I employ ‘objective’ here with awareness of the volatile relativity of this concept; hence ‘objective’ would read here more as ‘style’ than de facto ‘category’). This distinction no doubt has much to do with the lack of human subjects in the majority of these contemporary ocean scenes. In terms of genre, these works are closer to landscapes and still lives and so lend themselves more readily to formalized ordering and thus detached looking (at least upon initial glance). In many of these photographs, the intrusion of what we call ‘culture’ into the foreign realm of the category designated as ‘nature’ is confused in the most provocative of ways, which in turn complicates any ecological message that might be appended there in an interesting and productive manner. A photograph of shipping containers makes these objects seem almost as multitudinous in number as the ocean itself is vast (Fig.5). In another, a decommissioned ship is as impressive and poignant as the sight of a beached blue whale (Fig.6). A third photograph shows a knot of tangled netting strewn across shoreline rocks, colorful and intricate like a jellyfish or a bank of living coral (Fig.9). At first, our comprehension delights in these novel similes which seem to show the artificial objects of culture as equivalent to or synonymous or even in harmony with nature itself. Soon thereafter, however, our ecological consciousness resuscitates and reminds us of the attendant disgust we associate with polluted environments, our collective fear of an apocalypse brought on by our own obdurate profligacy, our overwhelming guilt at playing a small part in this unraveling narrative of destruction, and finally our monumental political immobility in the face of these threats.

In this regard, the contemporary photographs of the ocean that I speak of function to a degree like memento mori still lives, in the sense that we are aware on some level of the sober undertones of the scene even while we revel in the sensuous beauty of the presented images. Yet otherwise there are telling differences from the memento mori paradigm that center upon the differences between morality and ethics, religious ethos and politics—and these have much to do with basic differences in context and iconography. In the ocean images, the hubris and gluttony of humanity now extends beyond the realm of home and city, deep into the remote regions of the natural world itself where such forces become anonymous and divorced from individual moral liability. What were formerly objects of ephemeral enjoyment in pre-Enlightenment memento mori scenes have become nearly immortal plastic and metal anti-ruins both large and small in the ocean photographs. The message therefore is not that all our luxurious indulgences will pass away with the fleetingness of our own lives, as was the case with the memento mori, but rather that the fragmented remains of our banal purchasing patterns will long out live us in a horrifying, zombie-like fashion. Moreover, where memento mori scenes commented upon our collective desire to evade the awareness of inevitable death through hedonistic distraction, the contemporary ocean photographs articulate instead the notion that it is the very distraction itself, our stubbornly passive refusal to change our methods of production and consumption, which may accelerate our progress toward death as a species.

However, to return to this question of the ramifications of this recent change in artistic depictions of the ocean, it is important I think to remember the diversity of oceanic imagery in the history of Western art in this discussion. It is not as if the ocean was previously a blank symbolic canvas in the human psyche. Indeed, one of the reasons for its centrality as a symbolic signifier for humanity throughout history has been its pliability, changeability, and general aptitude for multivalence. The ocean has been a favorite cipher for the development of Western modernity over the last few centuries, and the machinations of economics and power have long been imprinted there in text and image. In Europe, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maritime scenes most frequently depicted the ocean as an advantageous (if not always tamable) medium for commerce and military conquest. In contrast to this, however, during the nineteenth century many writers, artists, and photographers were drawn to vast marine reaches as a symbolic vehicle for various subjective and idealist states of mind. Arguably this preoccupation often overshadowed its frequent painterly depiction during the nineteenth century as an indicator of imperial expansion, industrial production and distribution, proletarian labor and bourgeois leisure.

For instance, in the medium of painting, Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic oceans, galleons, shipwrecks, harbors and shorelines, evoked the universal isolation of human consciousness in the face of natural law— and at the same time, they served as a metaphor for the projected limitlessness of that human consciousness in itself (Fig. 1). Additionally, for J.M.W Turner, salty bodies of water were often suffused with a divine light and energy that overwhelmed the modern inventions of humankind, suggesting a simultaneously natural and supernatural medium which could never be tamed or surmounted, a foreign and magical animus that spit out whatever human vessel entered there.[2] On a less ecstatic level than Friedrich or Turner, Winslow Homer explored the various moods of the ocean throughout the day and across the seasons of the year. He demonstrated a more flexible and temperamental medium in the ocean, one that was nearly as permissive and generous as it was voracious. His maritime scenes show a watery surface that is unreliable and impervious: a locus of death as well as whimsical pleasure depending on the climate, the tides, and the reliability of one’s ship.

Figure 1: Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809. Oil on canvas. 110 × 171.5 cm. Courtesy of the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen ( ), Berlin, Germany. Photo credit: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Germany/ Joerg P. Anders/ Art Resource, New York, New York.

With all of its diverse nautical and coastal associations the ocean was certainly a versatile medium of communication for these painters, but one that always asserted its autonomy and absolute immunity to formal and iconographic assimilation. This persistent ontological distance between the ocean and humanity seems to have as much to do with questions of scale as with the extreme danger posed by the ocean. Although the morbid and fearsome qualities of the ocean are a visible subject in European maritime painting before the twentieth century, a more consistent theme in visual depictions of the ocean is the incomprehensible and superhuman immensity of the ocean. Even at the advent of the twentieth century, Piet Mondrian’s hemmed-in and gridded-out ocean planes profess an optical dumbfoundedness with regard to tidal expanses, as if the mechanism of the eye broke down in the face of that unbounded space past the pier, registering only abstract fragments of information, plusses and minuses that never add up (Fig. 2). This inability to enframe and delimit the ocean without a doubt made it all the more appealing to the modernist sensibility. In the hands of a painter like Mondrian, modernist abstraction was singularly adept at signifying the ocean as the most mystifying of natural surfaces— at once literal and resistant at the top layer of its liquid cuticle, but boundless and unknowable below. In such a way, the ocean became the perfect metaphor for the formalist-metaphysical interpretation of the two-dimensional picture plane as simultaneously evoking flatness and depth. The ocean, like the modernist canvas, embodied this dichotomous identity in the most direct, dialectical manner, without dependence upon illusion or pictorial smoke and mirrors of any kind.

Figure 2: Piet Mondrian, Pier and Ocean, 1915. Charcoal and watercolor on paper. 34 5/8 x 44″ (87.9 x 111.2 cm). © 2012 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International USA. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Although painterly depictions of the ocean were largely displaced with the medium of painting itself as the dominant artistic matrix during the twentieth century, the ocean and various aspects of the marine environment remained a prominent subject in photography. Indeed, the ocean’s inherent monochromatic hues and internal structure of light and shadow lent itself beautifully to the photographic mode, while nevertheless recalling— perhaps unconsciously, perhaps ironically— the fluidity and tactility of the medium of painting. It is the self-reflexive capability of the cipher of the ocean that sustained this environment as a key symbol for twentieth-century modern consciousness. Whereas once it was the prospect of endless space presented by the ocean that had so riveted its observers as an assertion of sublimity among other things, in the modern age it is certainly the ambivalent surface of shifting marine waters that became the locus of fascination.  According to Stephane Mallarmé, one if its earliest modernist proponents, the ocean is the zone of both pure determinacy and chance—simultaneously a flat slate as well as an impossible abyss, ‘blanchi, étale, furieux,’ [‘raging, whitened, stalled’].[3] Most twentieth-century artists were content to observe this capricious force from a safe distance, with the noted exception of Bas Jan Ader, who was lost at sea in 1975 during his solitary performance project In Search of the Miraculous, in which he attempted to cross the Atlantic in a 12 and ½ foot sailboat.[4] Like Bas Jan Ader, Tacita Dean is a notable contemporary artist who is likewise drawn to the potential violence of the ocean and its ability to dwarf and isolate the human actor in traumatic scenarios of shipwreck and marooning (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: Tacita Dean, The Sea, with a Ship, Afterwards an Island [Detail], 1999. Chalk on blackboard. 3 parts, 244 x 488 cm each. Photo credit: Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel.

In this vein of modernist appreciation of the ocean, it is the placid surface of the maritime environment rather than its foreboding profundity that seems to maintain the most interest currently. Today, there are a handful of artists who carry on this tradition of contemplation of the ocean’s surface as an abstract and often monochromatic canvas, such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, Vija Celmins, and Roni Horn, among others (Fig. 4). These works, whether photographic or in the case of Celmins, drawn, seem to comprehend the ocean as an impenetrable wall or façade protecting and sequestering what is beneath and behind, and yet these lateral surfaces nevertheless seductively invite careful and repetitive surface scanning. Operating metaphorically like a screen for light reflection and random physiological incident, such images suggest the abstraction of the experience of looking even when that looking is grounded in figurative specificity. Moreover, the screen-like nature of their pictorial fields, underlined through the instability of the vertical versus horizontal image orientation, inevitably invokes the unadorned but anodyne qualities of common technological devices such as computer and television monitors. Thus, the ocean’s surface remains radically empty but also simultaneously replete with abstract detail and multitudinous metaphoric associations. At once a projection screen for the psyche and a palimpsest of cultural connotations, it is an ideal medium for the contemplation of the bewildering circular relationship between reality and representation, materiality and the subconscious, immanence and memory.

Figure 4: Vija Celmins, Untitled (Ocean), 1970. Graphite on acrylic ground on paper. 14 1/8 x 18 7/8″ (36 x 48 cm). Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Celmins, Vija (b. 1939) © Copyright.

However, as I have already suggested another trend has arisen in contemporary art in which the ocean is something other than the compelling expressions of sublime infinity, minimalist panorama, or psychological screen. Following the twentieth-century precedent, the photograph remains the primary medium for artists working with oceanic themes, but the images have become largely documentary-based records with attending social commentary, as opposed to abstracted, metaphorical or symbolic meditations on the aquatic body. In these recent works, the ocean is shown as a practical component of civilization rather than a desolate natural environment or a transcendental metaphor for consciousness.[5] Accordingly, the current trend shares most similarities with seventeenth- and eighteenth- century maritime scenes which reveal the ocean as a crucial medium for commercial exchange and imperial expansion between nations and continents. Nevertheless, this cultural re-turn has its unique causalities, which in reality can only be superficially equated with historical maritime scenes. Specifically, in the immediate post-World War II era, the expansion of capitalist production saw the advent of both the standardized shipping container and the widespread use of disposable packaging, based primarily on non-biodegradable plastic. With the development of the advanced capitalist age, the impact of the throwaway society upon both the surface and the depths of the world’s oceans became palpable and inevitable.

Therefore, this much is clear: in the present plastic age, the ocean and its shores are as much cultural spaces as natural ones. Or rather, the ‘natural’ and the ‘cultural’ have permeated to such an extent that they are now often indistinguishable, as I have asserted before. When the ocean is not manifesting its incredible destructive powers, it is often encountered as just another space available for human manipulation to be entered and inserted into, traversed across, and collected from. Indeed, the ocean has become one of the realms where we are perhaps most haunted by the situation we have lately created for ourselves. As much as one might like to revert to that former experience of boundlessness in contemplation of the ocean, or the self-reflexive emptiness of its façade— the ocean is now frequently a place where we are insistently reminded of the permeation of our quotidian consumer culture through a literal return of the repressed. But at the same time this permeation of the ‘natural world’ by remnants of the manmade has something comforting about it: these familiar objects were lost but are now found; they colonize the hostile habitat and reflect the dominance of the human ego and its drive toward domestication.



One of the primary themes of twentieth-century art concerned the various structures of capitalism, and surely it was the first two stages of this cycle of commerce that received the most attention, from dada, to surrealism to pop and beyond: namely, industrial production and mass consumption. It is telling, however, that contemporary art of today instead resoundingly invests the most interest in the last stage of the production cycle, that of discard and waste. A significant amount of critical literature has emerged regarding this theme, and several critical terms such as informe, the abject and base, the outmoded, and others touch upon this constellation of meanings. Various twentieth-century mediums such as the readymade, the assemblage, the found object, the accumulation, etc., confront our culture of detritus head on.[6] In addition, an intermediary step in that cycle, namely the packaging and transportation of goods, also appears to be gaining in significance for artists in the last three decades.

While the planet’s oceans are certainly also sites of production (oil, power, etc.) and consumption (seafood, tourism, leisure sports, etc.), contemporary artists have proven to be significantly drawn to contemplate oceans as sites of commercial dissemination and excess. In my mind, this is arguably a partial result of the former symbolic and formal associations of the ocean in nineteenth- and twentieth-century art. While the deconstruction of ideology that postmodernism has achieved is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, the breakdown of mythologies linked to the ocean carries with it an invariably tragic ethical message. Whether we like it or not, the ocean is no longer a signifier of boundlessness and self-reflexive emptiness because, like everything else within our reach, we have made full-use of the ocean as just another ‘standing-reserve’ for the prowess of techne, to put it in Heideggarian terms.[7] Although oceans have arguably been a key site for anthropological exploits of all kinds throughout the evolution of humankind, the current state of total infiltration of the human and the oceanic, the near-complete acculturation of the ocean so to speak, has taken on unmatched, super- or sur- natural proportions.

To bolster this point, I will address a selection of works that focus on the ocean’s role as a mega-highway for global capitalism, its role in the incessant transport of commodities. The American artist Allan Sekula and the Canadian Photographer Edward Burtynsky offer two prominent examples of a documentary concern with the shipping industry, wherein gargantuan cargo vessels become the international sentinels of the blue expanse, dramatically transforming global waterways and the many ports that shelter them. Between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s Sekula worked on a remarkable documentary project entitled Fish Story, which took form as large-format color photographs, a continuous slide show of still color photographs, an installation, a book with a long essay by Sekula, and a series of lectures.[8] Sekula continues to work on an extended version of the project and has made two documentary films in the last decade, Tsukiji and The Lottery of the Sea, and one film essay entitled The Forgotten Space (2010) with Noël Burch. One the one hand, for Sekula, Fish Story was a politically-motivated reportage project in which he studied firsthand the impact of maritime economics upon working classes and port towns across the globe. As part of the project, Sekula travelled internationally capturing photographs and video of ships, goods, sailors, ports and markets, even crossing the Atlantic in a cargo ship laden with containers. On the other hand, Fish Story had explicit art historical and sociological implications for Sekula in that he viewed the massive scale of the worldwide shipping industry to be indicative of a shift from a human understanding of the ocean as spatially panoramic, unable to be encompassed, to a view of the ocean as full of atomized details, securely enframed (Fig. 5). On a macrocosmic level, global shipping industries enframe and contain the vast reaches of the ocean through the constant mapping that occurs via crisscrossing routes between different national ports. These routes palpably impact the shifting waters around them, to the extent that the interrupt animal migration patterns and even whale sonar. On a microcosmic level, this containment is epitomized by the standardization of commercial exchange, from the multicolored hues of shipping container boxes to prefabricated product packaging.

Figure 5: Allan Sekula, Panorama. Mid-Atlantic, from Fish Story, 1988-1995. Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica.

Oddly enough, this blunt formal awareness has a direct correlate in an ethical message, hence the distinctly composite nature of documentary-based photography related to the ocean today: aesthetic formality is often intermingled with implicit or explicit political critique, as I have already touched upon. Such technical means combined with pointed ideological ends have certainly been witnessed before in various developments of twentieth-century art beyond the propagandistic, as merely a straightforward mode of sound visual rhetoric that convincingly persuades the viewer. The novel approach of Sekula’s work, however, has more to do with the direct, one-to-one relationship of the formal and the political in the current capitalist culture of most of the world. What begins with an impression of the sheer sensorial and formal fascination of capitalist structures flips over in the next moment of reception to the stark awareness of the social and environmental ramifications of this economic system, hence producing a powerful kind of self-criticism and even paranoia in the viewer. Sekula therefore presents an ominous breed of beauty in his project, which quite stealthily inculpates the viewer as consumer. The sharp eye of the documentary camera effortlessly records the decorative nature of patterning that results from the systematized nature of commercial shipping. This formal play readily computes to the trained eye of the viewer as the language of art and the language of commercial design, creating an atmosphere of visual pleasure. That these means have once again fooled the viewer into reading beauty where disgust instead might lay upon second and third glance, drives home the psychological effect of the amalgam of formal and political all the more stringently.

In related fashion to the reverse-tactic aesthetics of Sekula’s project, Edward Burtynksy’s large-format photographs of the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh made over the last decade also move into the political through the misleadingly beautiful. Images of mammoth ship skeletons stranded in bays emptied by low tide seem to comment that the panoramic potency once embodied by the ocean has been replaced by the monumentality of commercial tankers and cargo vessels themselves (Fig. 6). Even here, at the end of their lives as objects or tools, these ships now seem to be the most foreboding creatures of the deep, and human scavengers come to strip off their siding like organisms picking the bones of beached carcasses. Thus echoing Sekula, Burtynsky’s studies of container ports also reiterate the point that astonishing vastness is no longer the prime territory of the ocean, but rather also that of human commerce, with its endless stockpiles of new and used goods.

Figure 6: Edward Burtynsky, Shipbreaking #30, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001. Photograph. Courtesy of Edward Burtynsky Photographic Works.

However, distribution of goods via the ocean is not the only issue currently taken up by contemporary photographers. There are likewise several contemporary artists turning a perspicacious eye toward the way in which the sea is altered in the final, inevitable stage in the capitalist production cycle: that of surplus and excess. These works follow in the footsteps of the site-specific paradigm demonstrated by Hans Haacke in a work from 1970 entitled Monument to Beach Pollution, a pile of beach rubbish reminiscent of the accumulations of Arman (Fig. 7). Notice however that Haacke’s pile contains mostly biodegradable items as opposed to plastic, indicating, again, the remarkable shift in production and distribution methods even in the last forty years. If once beaches were the organic parallel to the modern category of the found object, their sinuous latitudes inviting the meandering pastime of beachcombing for washed up natural treasures and the occasional manmade intrusion, today beaches have come disturbingly close to the intrinsically urban character of this surrealist activity. Where once artists picked over the detritus of capitalist circulation that flooded their own city neighborhoods, artists today reflect on the omnipresence of our excess as it can be seen on even the most remote beaches. Indeed, the waste that is so assiduously removed from our city streets now might be found in only a slightly degraded state on seashores across the globe or in convergence zones of tidal currents in the middle of the ocean.

Figure 7: Hans Haacke, Monument to Beach Pollution, 1970. Rubbish installation, Carboneras, Spain, August. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

One artist working in this vein is the British photographer Andy Hughes, who photographs beach trash at his home of West Cornwall as well as at beaches internationally. In Hughes’s hands, the familiar beached flotsam takes on a strangely monumental identity, not entirely unlike its precursor in Haacke’s monument to beach trash (Fig. 8). Looming large in the frame, and exquisitely lit, these cast-off commodities become ironic monoliths of this age of humanity, the plastic era. As if seen from the distant future, Hughes depicts them as melancholy relics of a lost culture that consigned itself to doom through overproduction.

Figure 8: Andy Hughes, El Segundo, California, USA, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

American artist Pam Longobardi is likewise interested in this marine version of the game of lost and found, and she has created a diverse body of work called Driftwebs, which documents the effects of the North Pacific Gyre or the Great Pacific garbage patch upon the Hawaiian Islands through large-format photography, video, and installation (Fig.9). Longobardi engages with an isolated area on the Big Island called South Point that, due to tidal action and currents, has become chance dumping grounds for the garbage patch. This vast field of garbage is a Texas-sized vortex of litter swirling in the middle of the Pacific, filled with flotsam from around the world which is captured there in a low-wind zone. This massive conglomeration of garbage from the east and west coasts of the Pacific Ocean has only recently been discovered by sailors, and this last, new ‘continent’ is currently the subject of intensive research by select scientists. There, just below the surface of the water, millions of plastic elements in varying stages of degradation intermingle. Although over decades the plastic items eventually breakdown into smaller particles, the smallest of them being millimeter-sized bits, they never fully biodegrade and remain indigestible for even the toughest forms of algae and bacteria. Nevertheless, various marine animals regularly consume plastics from the garbage patch, packing their stomachs with indigestible plastics that often cannot be released through excrement, thereby gradually imploding their digestive systems and stunting their reproductive systems with chemical toxins. In particular, the albatross seems to be hardest hit by this issue. Parents mistake the plastic flotsam for food and routinely feed their chicks these deathly fragments, thereby consigning them to a slow and tortuous death by starvation.

Figure 9: Pam Longobardi, Sleeping Giant, from Drifters, 2008-2009. Fuji crystal archive digital print on plexi. 36” x 50.” Courtesy of the artist.

Small convoys of plastic flotsam from the great eastern garbage patch regularly invade Hawaiian beaches. Often exploring the desolate coast alone, Longobardi becomes the sole witness to this oceanic regurgitation of human trash from around the globe: sprawled over the volcanic rocks we see a polyglot mass of Japanese fishing nets knotted into Afroamerican sailing ropes, which have entangled Russian water bottles, South American toothbrushes, and Canadian toilet seats, and so on (Fig.10). Facing this tornado, Longobardi’s work articulates a new twist on the mixed emotion of the uncanny. These ‘driftwebs’ cast over the rocks have incredible formal beauty, and yet they are clearly death traps and symbols of the nefarious consequences of over-production. Thousands of jellyfish are mortally ensnared in these flotillas of plastic, as are smaller numbers of fish, turtles and other creatures.

Figure 10: Pam Longobardi, Messages in Bottles, from Drifters, 2008-2009. Fuji crystal archive digital print on plexi. 36” x 50.” Courtesy of the artist.

Longobardi documents these waste conglomerations on site with photography and video, and then painstakingly extracts as much material as she can from the beaches, many of which are accessible only on foot, thereby performing both a partial clean-up as well as the definitive act of ‘choice’ inherent in the paradigm of the found object. Back in her studio, she assembles delicate collections of these sea-worn fragments (Fig.11). Likewise, she strings together huge webs from the found nets and rope, suspending more rescued flotsam objects from their extended limbs. For Longobardi, these webs bespeak the inherent interconnectivity of humans and animals, as well as both the direct and indirect lethal aspects of that symbiosis.

Figure 11: Pam Longobardi, Defective Flow Chart, 2007. Found plastic marine debris, South Point, Hawaii. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Finally, an American photographer, Chris Jordan, has also recently turned his keen eye toward the issue of ocean pollution. Jordan garnered attention for his project Running the Numbers, in which he employs large-format digitally manipulated photographs as a means of performing satirical commentary about our consumer society. One 5 x 10 foot work, Plastic Bottles of 2007, depicts two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes. He has done the same with shipping containers, revealing just how concrete materiality can become an abstraction when multiplied to infinity. This example depicts 38,000 shipping containers, the number of containers processed through American ports every twelve hours (Figs. 12, 13). Currently, Jordan’s work has turned explicitly to the issue of flotsam from the various Pacific gyres. A photograph of an ephemeral assemblage entitled Gyre from 2009 is composed entirely of plastic remnants collected from the Pacific (Fig.14, 15). Another series is based upon Jordan’s recent trip to the remote Midway atoll, a tiny sliver of land in the middle of the North Pacific, roughly two thousand miles from the nearest continent. Jordan captured myriad photographs of albatross chicks that had died from ingestion of plastic fragments (Fig.16). Jordan photographs these remains as he found them in situ. The startling detachment of the formal composition of these works is precisely what makes their political message so powerful. More than just reportage, or something you might see in National Geographic, Jordan’s recent images reveal how our own societal desire for an anaesthetized world of controlled aesthetic beauty has potentially horrific ramifications.

Figure 12: Chris Jordan, Shipping Containers, 2007. 60 x 120.” Photograph. Courtesy of the artist.

Figure 13: Chris Jordan, Shipping Containers (detail), 2007. Courtesy of the artist.

Figure 14: Chris Jordan, Gyre, 2009. Photograph. Courtesy of the artist.

Figure 15: Chris Jordan, Gyre (detail), 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

Figure 16: Chris Jordan, Midway Message from the Gyre, 2009. Photograph. Courtesy of the artist.

To conclude this overview of the trend in contemporary art and photography toward documentary-based depictions of the ocean, it may suffice to say that these manifestations acutely embody the way in which the representation of the real today has its direct correlate in the fantastic—and also an unsettling grotesquerie. Again, such a reference should arouse historical associations with the surrealist uncanny as insolite and merveilleux, but with an important 21st-century twist. This is the case simply because for most viewers, these images present scenes of monumental waste and consumption that are almost as unbelievable as they are literal, and hence their significant power as sites of visual and psychological convergence zones. As we are everyday more distant as participants in the production and eradication of consumer goods through civic waste management, we witness these images as hapless innocents who nevertheless at the same time comprehend our culpable role of passivity and participation. Denial, disavowal, monumental repression— these are the protective measures of the ego that will also make more probable the approach of environmental catastrophe, which will in turn take its place among other ‘natural’ disasters in due time. As a result of this societal orientation, our re-presented experience of the already-known (whether that already-known is commonplace or just more distantly understood as ‘actual’ in the world somewhere) can become shocking in productive ways, as these ocean photographs show. What my discussion has hopefully demonstrated first and foremost, therefore, is the way in which the maritime environment has so strikingly shifted from a space of otherness to one of disturbing familiarity and repressed intimacy, in which we are constantly confronted and crowded by our own material proliferation on both an infinitesimal and a massive scale. Second, I hope to have spoken to the remarkable capability of documentary-based photographs, however distended or distorted their actual relationship to ‘reality’ and ‘objectivity’ might be, in a world in which ‘reality’ itself frequently appears ‘out of order,’ to instigate emotional response and to therefore ultimately catalyze societal perspectives away from passivity.[9]


[1] I am influenced here by Slavoj Žižek’s recent critique of ecology which was in turn influenced by Timothy Morton’s discussion of “dark ecology” in Ecology without Nature. Morton, Timothy.  Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007). Žižek, Slavoj. “Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses: Parts 1 and 2″, (2007). Rather than fetishizing nature as a pristine category separate from the artificial universe of humanity, Morton and Žižek advocate an overcoming of this dualism and an understanding of culture as part of nature. This expanded understanding of technology as natural is how I would begin to define the concept of “supernature,” which could also be termed “hypernature” or “next nature.” Thus, I am not so much interested in pursuing here an ecological critique of the oceanic pollution caused by consumption and production (partly because I think that critique goes without saying), but rather in analyzing the role of the photographic work of art as a catalyst for individual and societal agency.

[2] I am greatly simplifying this art historical overview of these important artists for the sake of brevity and economy of argument. Much more could be said about the maritime scenes of each of these artists. In particular, J.M.W. Turner’s Slave Ship of 1840 has divergent associations that depart sharply from his less overtly politicized maritime scenes. I do not take this work into account here, but rather refer to Turner’s other maritime works.

[3] Mallarmé, Stéphane. A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance: Poem (Santa Cruz: Greenhouse Review Press, 1990).

[4]Verwoert, Jan. Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous (London: Afterall Books, 2006).

[5] It might seem tempting here to compare this distinction in styles in contemporary photography of the ocean (empty vs. replete with detritus and objects of commerce) to Michael Fried’s recent application of his categories of theatricality vs. absorption to this medium in the recent book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008). Indeed, Fried himself discusses the ‘Seascapes’ of Sugimoto as examples of theatricality in that they persistently deflect the beholding action of the viewer through their serial sameness and their insistence on surface. However, I want to avoid engaging in depth with this dichotomy of repellent vs. immersive primarily because I see it as tangential to my thesis. My discussion focuses more on shifts in broad iconographic categories and the pictorial strategies that render these shifts dynamic and persuasive, rather than phenomenological issues related to reception and the gaze (although reception is important to my argument in a different way).  I do think that Fried would probably deem most of the cluttered maritime scene by artists like Sekula and Burtynsky as theatrical rather than absorptive given their emphasis on space beyond the frame and the agency of the depicted objects themselves. However, I do not think this assessment particularly impacts my argument here. For Fried’s discussion of Sugimoto, see: Fried, Michael. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998) 294-98.

[6] I will refrain from detailing the theoretical background of these complex terms here. The most helpful text for this line of thought is: Bois, Yve-Alain and Rosalind Krauss. Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997). Likewise, my dissertation of 2009, deals extensively with such themes. Susik, Abigail. The Vertigo of the Modern: Surrealism and the Outmoded (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2009). Following are just a few of the recent texts on trash: Knechtel, John. Trash (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007). Kennedy, Greg. An Ontology of Trash: The Disposable and Its Problematic Nature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007). Vergine, Lea. When Trash Becomes Art: Trash Rubbish Mongo (London, Museo d’arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto: Skira, 2007).

[7] I refer here in passing to Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” which was first given as a lecture in 1955. Other essays by Heidegger such as, “The Age of the World Picture” [1938] are also relevant to the discussion. Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977). Heidegger’s writing on the interaction between technology, nature and humanity informs my discussion on multiple levels, in particular with regard to his notion that humanity puts forth a challenge to the forces of nature and that as modernity marches forward this challenge becomes more and more successful (which not necessarily a bad thing for either Heidegger or myself, although it is often an alarming one). This thread of thought requires a much more extensive commentary than I can allot here, unfortunately, if I am to spell out the connection entirely. Interestingly, Michael Fried also engages extensively with Heidegger in his recent book mentioned above, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. Fried is particularly interested in Heidegger’s distinction between the concepts of ‘readiness-to-hand’ and ‘present-at-hand’ and how representational strategies reinforce the absorption in the world by Dasein. This discussion has some relevance to my topic in that the photographs of ocean flotsam show ‘equipment’ that has become deficient in ‘reliability,’ and so is more about a problematic ‘present-at-handedness’ in its useless state. However, again, in my mind this line of thought, which would engage more deeply with the ontology of detritus and photographed detritus, is not crucial to the current discussion which has a reception focus.

[8] Sekula, Allan. Fish Story (Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2002).

[9] In a longer discussion, other artists, such as the French watercolorist Yvan Salomone or the British multimedia artist Terry Setch might also enter into this conversation, thus confirming even more concretely the emergence of a new trend in artistic production and symbolic contemplation related to the ocean, one reflecting the invasion of both the shipping industry and waste flotsam into the oceanic environment.

Abigail Susik is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Willamette University. Her interdisciplinary work traces metahistorical shifts and transference across material, textual and visual cultures in European and American contexts in between the 19th and 21st centuries.