Southampton City Art Gallery

Four times I’ve been to the Bodies of Water exhibition at the Southampton Art Gallery and enjoyed every work, so why was I so averse to returning for my fifth visit? Was it wrong of me to want to go back with my magnifying glass and Calabash pipe, with a view to deconstruct and then reconstruct the relationship between artist, viewer, media, subject matter, location and context? Long before I could make it back to the gallery I started to have second thoughts, but I brushed them off and proposed that I would indeed return to plunder below the surface and make manifest my insightful observations. On no previous occasion had l had this niggling and uneasy feeling surrounding the disassembling of that which I was so appreciating on a visual level, so why this time?

I could be building up the conception of this review to be a bigger deal than it is, but none of the standard reasons why I was so drawn to this exhibition i.e. that water falls from the sky, that it’s incredibly soft yet it can carve out mountains, that I can’t live without it yet nearly died because of it etc, etc… seemed sufficient to contain the foundation for my apprehension to express my thoughts about it. I’m quite aware of what a body of water is, so what was the basis of my trepidation in exploring the values of this exhibition?

The works on display by Hughie O’Donohue, Michael Porter and Susan Derges manifest absorbing images that tell of the motionless fluidity, the deceptive clarity, of the uniform textures and of the power that it is both deep and shallow at the same time. When I think of Michael Porters works I’m transported to the microcosm and macrocosm of a shore or seaside, his work is as interesting to view from meters away as it is from millimetres, as is the sea itself.

The techniques used by Susan Derges translate perfectly to the viewer the purity of water, its movements as well as the variety of textures produced through its constant state of flux. The rhythm and interference of water, now turned to ice, still generate a depth of shape and tone irreproducible by forced processes.

Each artist speaks about the different properties of water through their works and each is successful in their chosen form, but Hughie O’Donohue provides the aperture from which the gravity of this exhibition keeps drawing me back. The tranquillity implied by his use of soft light, colours and shapes, is undermined by the images of ships that appear to be ghosts and of women that are either dead or somehow asleep underwater. His peaceful yet disturbing, tenebrous but inspirational images create an irresistible edgy contemplation of the power and beauty of water.

In my overly brief descriptions of their works I’ve not once felt the need to think about water in any literal sense yet when I consider an aspect of their work they reveal another quality that augments my understanding of what water is. The exhibition itself acts as an effective presentation of its qualities, by not going anywhere near water I’m shown that I’m lacking in my understanding of it; moreover I have been shown this via the display of non-literal images. To elaborate my point a little, I’ve learnt about water from this exhibition, but over and above that of my own experiences. The combined power of the work on display has revealed properties of water that in my own experiences I might never have recognised, and this has left me asking, is it possible to never have encountered water physically but still appreciate its characteristics?

And here in lies the source of my trepidation to begin the process of this dissection; tomorrow I’ll return for my fifth visit, but now in place of the appreciation for the implicit power and visual beauty I’ll be more concerned about its revelation of the other qualities of water that I might have missed during my own experiences. I should be inspired to discover bodies of water for myself but instead I’m going to an art gallery.