The Cultural Significance of the Sea

On 12th of May we attended the symposium British Waters and Beyond at the Royal West Academy (full details here).

The first keynote presentation was The Experience of the Sea by John Mack, author of The Sea: A Cultural History. From an anthropological point of view, John’s presentation offered a quick view into maritime related traditions from native people of different and remote parts of the world, different approach from different non-western cultures. One of the most interesting points of his talk was the interconnection between land and sea, those elusive moments where both worlds come together, literally (a curious case of burying a large ship in a mountain to fulfill a peculiar request) or metaphorically (churches built in the shape of ships).

The day was divided into sections, so Lorna and I split to be able to attend more sessions and share our notes afterwards. I attended the session on Literatures of the Sea, which presentations focussed on the use of the sea as metaphor, form Shakespeare to Melville, from Joyce’s work to contemporary poetry’s take on maritime trade. Lorna attended the session on Maritime Communities which looked at some specific communities linked strongly with the sea, from practicalities (from types of fishing jobs to clothes) to sculptures (looking at the figureheads from 18th and 19th centuries).

In the second session we both attended the talks on contemporary sea travel. It was specially interesting, after just having finished reading Rose George‘s book Deep Sea And Foreign Going, to listen to Andrew Linington from Nautilus International about sea blindness and the realities of the shipping industry. Sea blindness is a concept that has grabbed my attention, in reference to the vastness of shipping industry and its invisibility in popular imagination. It was also great to listen to two artists talk about specific aquatic, very different, projects. Casey Orr‘s experience of travelling in a container ship resonated after Andrew’s talk and Rose’s own experience. Max Mulhearn’s Aqua Dice was intriguing and brought up many questions about ownership of the sea and globalisation.

The last session we attended was on Ships, Art and Archives, which is where I presented myself. The other two speakers talked about war at sea painting and the Sea and Ships Pavilion at the Festival of Britain 1951.

The symposium coincided with the exhibition The Power of the Sea, which contained some fantastic works influenced by the sea. My highlights of the show were the works by Anne Lydiat, Rona Lee, Annie Cattrell and Jo Millett. Funny how I picked all female artists, it was completely circumstantial, but perhaps there is something to their execution and point of view that I feel attracted to and that I can recognise in my own work…

Overall, it was a great way to start our research, we met some very interesting and knowledgeable people who we definitely hope to encounter again and follow up our upcoming lines of enquiry.

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