Jochen Lempert, Untitled (Aquarium, Toronto), 2017, gelatin silver print, 19 × 15".

Jochen Lempert, Untitled (Aquarium, Toronto), 2017, gelatin silver print, 19 × 15".

“La Mer Imaginaire”

Villa Carmignac

Situated on the island of Porquerolles, with views of the Mediterranean, the Villa Carmignac lends itself naturally to a marine-themed exhibition. So titling an exhibition “La mer imaginaire” (The Imaginary Sea) seemed a bit obvious, but curator Chris Sharp overcame that trap with a selection of artworks—bringing Yves Klein, Dora Maar, and Henri Matisse together with the likes of Allison Katz, Mathieu Mercier, and Alex Olson, among others—crafting a pointed rebuke of anthropocentrism in Western culture, science, and politics.

This overarching theme was most plainly and painfully articulated by Michael E. Smith’s Untitled, 2018. Made from several spindly dried-out starfish, broken and reassembled to form the outline of a Minimalist cube, this sculpture illustrated how—wittingly or not—we abuse the natural world to suit our human needs, desires, and frames of reference. Hung very high on the wall, the reconfigured sea creature was literally and figuratively hard to look at. Smith’s sculpture, together with other works on view—notably Lin May Saeed’s large aquatic scene carved into nonbiodegradable Styrofoam (Teneen Albaher/Sea Dragon Relief, 2020) and Bruce Nauman’s fountain made of bronze casts of catfish, bass, and other fish, from whose hollow punctured bodies water spurts into a pool below (One hundred fish fountain, 2005)—outed culture, whether in the guise of formalism, industrial waste, or overfishing, as a threat to nature.

Throughout the exhibition, the environmentally sensitive perspective was reinforced by clever juxtapositions. Deceptively cute and cuddly, Cosima von Bonin’s Killer Whale with Long Eyelashes 2 (school desk version), 2018, a large plush orca wedged behind an old-fashioned school desk, ridiculed the atrocious practice of capturing and training highly intelligent animals to perform—and, by extension, the human urge to domesticate, control, and remake nature in our image. In the presence of this work, Jeff Koons’s ostensibly lighthearted Acrobat, 2003–2009, a cast-aluminum replica of an inflatable lobster precariously balanced between a garbage can and a wooden chair, suddenly evoked a new kind of instability—that of marine life vis-à-vis plastic pollution. This sentiment was reiterated by Yuji Agematsu’s delicate, grimy sculptures made from trash collected by the artist in Mexico. Pinned to the wall, dark gangly forms such as 2019.04.01. PM 3:21 La Merced, San Miguel and Jon Hormiguero suggested sickly jellyfish and acted as a visual foil for Micha Laury’s colorful installation Sans titre (Les méduses) (Untitled [The Jellyfish]), 2006. Laury’s smack of twenty-nine vibrant silicone jellies suspended from the ceiling was wondrous but also worrying. Jellyfish are a harbinger of unhealthy oceans, their ballooning population a direct result of overfishing and global warming.

Not entirely grim, the exhibition included some more optimistic works, notably by two artist scientists: Jean Painlevé (1902–1989) and Jochen Lempert. Painlevé, who filmed hundreds of sea creatures over the course of his career, captured the amazing intelligence, dexterity, and emotional resonance of an octopus on film in La pieuvre (The Octopus), 1928. Never demystifying their nonhuman subjects, Painlevé’s films appealed to early fans such as Surrealists Man Ray and Georges Bataille. The combination of compassion and curiosity in La pieuvre is indeed fantastic and humbling. Following in Painlevé’s footsteps, contemporary photographer and trained biologist Lempert stood apart in the exhibition as one of the only artists whose works bore any human presence. In Untitled (Aquarium Toronto), 2017, a man holds a baby up in front of an enormous glass fish tank, capturing what appears to be a human’s first encounter with sea life. The sheer awe encapsulated by this small moment inspired some much-needed hope for the future.