The Invisibility of the Sea

Projects at Brigstow

Find out more about other established and upcoming partnerships at Brigstow Institute.

The Invisibility of the Sea brings together an English literature scholar (Laurence Publicover), an environmental law scholar (Margherita Pieraccini) and other academics from arts and sciences with Bristol-based artist Rodney Harris to produce a series of maps that explore the political, social, cultural and environmental implications of our relationship with the sea, which will be included in an exhibition aboard the MV Balmoral as it makes its summer cruises around the waters of the United Kingdom.

As Laurence Publicover reflects in The invisibility of the sea working paper (PDF, 542kB) "Working on literature, I am often thinking about the sea as a symbol or metaphor; and so working on this project has meant thinking, to a greater extent, about the thing itself—about declining fish stocks, bleached coral, rising temperatures, increased acidity, pollution from plastic, and so forth. But it is important to stress that the former influences the latter: our way of thinking about the sea influences the sea itself." 

Click through to see the next project: The Life and Death of Food Chickens

Barometer of Superstition of the Sea by Rodney Harris

Barometer of the Sea by Rodney Harris

Marine Environment by Rodney Harris

Southern Ocean by Rodney Harris

This fascinating article; Unless we regain our historic awe of the deep ocean, it will be plundered, by Laurence Publicover and Kate Hendry, was written for The Conversation

Over several weeks, Rodney spoke to University of Bristol academics from the departments of Earth Sciences, Biological Sciences, Law, Anthropology, English Literature, and Chemistry about their research on the sea. His exhibition brings together these specialists’ overlapping knowledge and interests, as well as their concerns for the future of the sea.

Rodney’s two barometers, which quote an instrument he encountered on the MV Balmoral, the ship on which two artworks are currently exhibited, offer a symbolic catalogue of the sea’s ‘pressure points’. The images in each section begin to capture the conversations he had about the sea – and our relations to it, past, present and future – with colleagues from various disciplines. The two maps are primarily concerned with representing the deep sea; they are partially formed of materials from the deep sea – red sand, coral – donated to Rodney (legally, of course!) by project members. 

Reflections on the artwork by project members: 

'The physical, chemical, biological, historical and legislative diversity of the oceans is largely hidden. As researchers we aim to bring that hidden diversity to the fore. Rodney's work is suggestive of one of the ways that this can be achieved, through maps, such as Southern Ocean, that reveal the bathymetry of the region. Rodney also presents more abstract pieces - they make me think about how the oceans and marine life interact with our lives. Perhaps as the hidden diversity of the sea becomes more visible, we may learn to value that diversity more.' Dr Martin Genner from the School of Biological Sciences.

‘What Rodney’s barometers beautifully capture, for me, is that our research areas are adjacent (they have all to do with the sea) but they don’t quite overlap. What we see depends on the questions we ask; all our seas are different. This is partly, of course, a result of how academic institutions and training are structured. But if we really want to help the sea, and to understand it and our relationship to it, we need to try to do what Rodney’s tried to accomplish in his work – to layer our thoughts, to seep into one another’s disciplines, to look at the sea from more than one angle.’ Laurence Publicover, Department of English

'By picking out the different nature of the natural deposits of sediments in the ocean around Antarctica, Rodney's work makes me think about what we're doing to change the balance, as there have been more and more reports coming out about the increasing human fingerprint on the Southern Ocean and Antarctica e.g. Plastic pollution in the Antarctic worse than expected' Kate Hendry, School of Earth Sciences. 

'Our imagining of the sea is as a vast and powerful entity, unknowable and capricious. But Rodney's painting of Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean elicited a different feeling from me - here the sea looks strangely fragile. The blue pastels of the waters, intercut with blue-tinted planks, themselves latticed or veined with greys and whites, are evocative of ice forming on a window, something beautiful but also brittle. Centred in the painting, in stark white, Antarctica itself seems imperturbable, and I'm not sure that impression is amplified by the ambiguous ocean around it or if it is revealed also to be an illusion, that Antarctica is as fragile as the seas around it. Our oceans and the great ice sheets do change, they have changed. This image seems to be a depiction of the last ice age, when ice shelves would have extended far out into the Southern Ocean, disrupting ocean circulation and biology all over the planet.  But in showing how the ocean was different in the past, it shows how it could be different in the future. For all of human history, the ocean has dictated human life. Now it is humans who are dictating the future of the oceans.' Rich Pancost, School of Chemistry and Director of the Cabot Institute

Critical Reflections on the Sea:

'The last fallen mahogany would lie perceptibly on the landscape, and the last black rhino would be obvious in its loneliness, but a marine species may disappear beneath the waves unobserved and the sea would seem to roll on the same as always.' G. Carleton Ray, in E. O. Wilson (ed.), Biodiversity (1988)

‘The sea’s ancient role as the ultimate place of catharsis is prominent in many religious traditions. It makes terrestrial existence possible by keeping it “pure.” Historically, many cultures have revered the sea, and at the same time they have made it to bear and wash away whatever was construed as dangerous, dirty, or morally contaminating.’ Kimberley C. Patton, The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)

Australian comedian and writer Andrew Denton shows how quickly our impacts on Antarctica have been felt: "If Antarctica were music, it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it." 

This quotation from Coleridge captures the absolute power of ice and the ocean relative to the fragile humans on their fragile boats:

"And now there came both mist and snow, 
And it grew wondrous cold: 
And ice, mast-high, came floating by, 
As green as emerald. 

The ice was here, the ice was there, 
The ice was all around: 
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, 
Like noises in a swound!" 

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