SILENT WORLD is a meditation on the undersea realm as an oneiric atmosphere: a space that is central to our imagination precisely because of its unfamiliarity and indistinct aspects. Marshalling photography and video, the exhibition stages encounters between human outlines and their visible dissolution. The works include images of free-divers captured inside an aquatic cave in Mexico’s Cenotes, half of their bodies obscured as they penetrate what is known as a chemocline, entering an opaque layer of bottom water—a soup of sulfurous bacteria. Through the iconographic unconscious of these images, the divers’ descent into a literal abyss conjures up a sea of metaphorical allusion. Despite this profusion, however, it is a silent world—as no individual can comprehensively speak for it. Yet that does not stop us from trying. Charrière’s exhibition borrows its title from an early underwater film by Jacques Cousteau, the first of its kind to bring moving images from the ocean depths to screen. Since this important opening-up of the visual imaginary of the undersea realm, consolidated by today’s high-definition broadcast documentaries, it is tempting to think that we (including those who have never practiced scuba) know this place. The fact is, however, that the ocean is largely still mystery. As Charrière’s new work seems to suggest, deeper engagement with this space may yet reorder perceptions of who we are.
SILENT WORLD debuts a series of photographs of free divers disappearing into liquid obscurity. Naked and, in pictorial terms, dissolving, his figures physically enter another layer of the ocean imaginary. These are lakes and rivers within oceans; unique micro-biological universes. Contributing to a picture of the oceanic system that has grown significantly more complex in recent decades, such worlds within worlds are relatively recent discoveries. As we come to better understand the sea, domains from evolutionary theory through to climate science are being revolutionized. Sliding into this previously silent (unseen and unthought) realm, Charrière’s free-divers seem caught in some kind of dance; a graceful fall. From where—and to what?
Accompanying the photographs, a ceiling-mounted projector beams video onto a screen lying on the gallery floor, from which vapor emanates: footage of the sun’s rays breaking through the water’s surface, streaming down from above. During filming the camera was positioned looking skyward, towards the light. In terms of spatial orientation, the installation proposes an inverse scenario—whereby the sun occupies a submerged position, shining up from the deep. The conceptual gravity of the gesture is heightened by this reversal. As well as turning down into up, and up into down, fire appears to be present in water. Moreover, the apparently falling divers (in the photographs) may yet be ascending; and the audience, according to this logic, not upright but flipped. Everything has undergone a sea-change.
The ocean is an ancient well of metaphor that has served religious thought and philosophy from the beginning of recorded history. Commonly, it represents an ungraspable magnitude; an infinite. This mystical idea delivers colonial hubris—for how can one expropriate what is seemingly unlimited? How can depths, unfathomable in their vastness, be exhausted; and is there not always another fish in the sea? We are only now being disabused of such ideas. The ocean’s monsters are our own, not animals; and its atmospheres are ours, too. Charrière’s images complement the revelations being developed by the oceanographic and biological sciences.. Proposing a deep dive into real things, his exhibition reminds us that this sea is the furthest thing from a metaphysical ideal.