New York

Pawel Wojtasik

Alona Kagan Gallery

The statistics that inspired Pawel Wojtasik’s twenty-two-minute video, The Aquarium, 2006, according to gallery literature, are so predictably depressing that they might seem to barely warrant repeating: The normal life span of a beluga whale in the wild is between twenty-five and thirty years while in captivity it is a mere seven; Rincon Beach, in Santa Barbara, is frequently closed due to elevated levels of bacteria from sewage and “urban runoff”; 65 percent of the coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico have been destroyed. But as climate change increasingly makes headlines, and scientists warn that we have entered the “Anthropocene” era, in which humans have a significant impact on the environment, such facts are more relevant than ever.

Filmed in Alaska’s Resurrection Bay, near Prince William Sound (where the Exxon Valdez dumped eleven million gallons of heavy crude oil in 1989), at the Alaska SeaLife Center aquarium in Seward (built by Exxon in 1998 in an effort to repair its public image), at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, and at the New York Aquarium, The Aquarium coolly examines the domestication of marine life. Given its weighty subject matter, the work might have adopted a tone of moral authority. Fortunately, it manages to avoid appearing sanctimonious, largely because of Wojtasik’s careful treatment. Although the voice-over rattles off a litany of data, the voice fades in and out of the sound track (which includes electronic ambient sound by Tim Partridge as well as more upbeat music taken from an informational video), functioning more as background noise than hectoring pedantry, and the images themselves approach abstraction.

In The Aquarium’s most shocking moment, a beluga whale is shown wedged into a tiny feeding cell filled with water. It is a murky, ambiguous shot, and since the camera peers through an adjoining glass chamber, where another beluga circles aimlessly, it is impossible to get a clear sense of the setting. But the camera doesn’t dwell on the episode, quickly moving on to a close-up of a third beluga, wearing what can best be described as an endearing grin. (As though to cap off its charm, a cloud of bubbles bursts from the airhole at the top of its head like a cheery exclamation point.) Showing such peaceful creatures in such a grim setting might make for heavy-handed commentary, but Wojtasik clearly intends that this juxtaposition should communicate more than the standard environmentalist doctrine. Shunning a linear narrative, and approaching a topic with honest curiosity, The Aquarium transcends its material.

Not that the camera doesn’t linger, understandably, on plainly beautiful scenes of the mountains surrounding Resurrection Bay, or water running next to a patch of ice, or sea mammals darting around while humans press their faces and hands against the plate glass separating them from this strange underwater world. But at other times the sea creatures seem less friendly, and appear desperate, even threatening. Strangely evocative of religious iconography, a sea lion floats to the surface of the water, its body slack and heavy, resembling paintings of the Deposition of Christ. In a similarly bizarre and haunting moment, a walrus, its flippers resting on a rock, begins convulsing and pounding its head against the glass until it is surrounded by a cocoon of bubbles.

Arriving at a time when so much art strains to be fashionably cynical (we’re all doomed anyway), Wojtasik’s video would probably inspire no more than a groan from some corners. But this is not a “message movie” transposed to a gallery setting; its formal strategies set it firmly in the realm of art, and ultimately the message, if there is one, is tantalizingly ambivalent. The final image is that of a startlingly bright orange octopus being lifted out of a tank of water by a latex-gloved hand. The octopus immediately wraps its tentacles around the hand, and each time the human tries to remove it, the creature attaches its suckers ever more tightly, refusing to let go or to give up.

Claire Barliant