John Hansard Gallery

Presenting works created during Rona Lee’s residency at Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre, That Oceanic Feeling explores our relationship with the ocean, in particular its deepest regions, which are home to some of the most inaccessible environments on Earth.

Lee presents a sensitive, unassuming collection, often using scientific methods traditionally beyond the reach of the artist such as geophysical mapping (where electrical pulses are used to record objects and topography beyond our physical or visual reach). Lee’s films, drawings and sculptural works gently remind us of the vastness of the seas, while simultaneously taking elements of those locations – silt dredged from the seabed, for example – and literally putting them into the hands of others, to create some delightfully delicate works.

The artist’s residency took place aboard a royal research ship, the RRS James Cook, and it was from the ceiling of her cabin that Lee strung a pen to create Ten Atlantic Drawings, a piece that, once set up, removes the artist from the equation to record the ship’s movement on the ocean’s surface. The serendipitous element of these drawings – the pen swinging to the discordant rhythms of the sea – is echoed in the audio piece, Mid Atlantic Sonata, a vinyl record which plays a composition derived from a geophysical profile of the longest mountain range on the planet, the subaquatic Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The ridges on the vinyl disc invoke, rather than represent, the ridge; composer Tim Olden takes his note value from the x position and time from the y position in a set of data from a geophysical survey to produce a lilting, off-key melody, which plays on a loop. It is a constant reminder that wherever we are and whatever we are doing, the seas remain; to-ing and fro-ing, ebbing and flowing.

A New Set of Borders for the Kingdom is a plaster cast of a miniature United Kingdom. In it Lee uses geographic and political information to redraw the boundaries of the UK to encompass its jurisdiction out into the Atlantic Ocean, English Channel, and North Sea. The same information source is used for And all the seas were ink, which produces a strange but familiar globe. It turns out to be the Earth, with seas and land inverted, reminding one of that eternal shift of earth from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the mountains, and back again.

The Captain’s Bird Table is a tranquil video piece featuring the many open spaces aboard the James Cook, from which the film’s conspicuously absent characters have either recently departed or are about to enter. A contemplative piece, it at once invokes the eeriness of the Mary Celeste, the loneliness of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the serenity of an uneventful channel crossing.

In That Oceanic Feeling, Rona Lee translates the dimensions of the oceans superbly, and pulls off the balancing act required when scientific data and art collide. She takes ancient geographical features, against which is revealed man’s insignificance, and puts them in your hand – you can sense the softness of the silt and in the films hear the lapping of waves.

Art that addresses the forces of nature can leave a viewer feeling small, as is often its purpose. Lee’s work, however, reminds us that it is through our presence, our interpretations, and our relationships with these natural phenomena that they are given meaning.