Out to sea – exploring Hull’s fascination with water

Here in Hull, it’s fair to say that folk have a bit of a preoccupation with the sea.

Oceans, rivers and waterways are never far from Hull’s collective consciousness. That’s most likely why the sea is playing such an important part in the events and exhibitions happening across the city this year.

In April alone, you can head to Offshore: Artists Explore The Sea at Ferens Art Gallery and Maritime Museum; catch Spencer Tunick’s much anticipated Sea of Hull photos at the Ferens’ Skin exhibition; explore the impact of plastics on our oceans at Chris Dobrowolski’s Washed Up Car-go; watch the second instalment (and first live element) of Slung Low’s epic Flood in Victoria Dock; before stopping by Humber Street Gallery to experience Somewhere Becoming Sea.

An exhibition of work from international artists, Somewhere Becoming Sea touches on Hull’s historical relationship with the sea, whilst looking ahead to the threat posed by climate change.

I spoke to curator of Somewhere Becoming Sea and Director of Film and Video Umbrella, Steven Bode, to find out what the exhibition’s all about.

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Hull has always had a deep connection to the sea. How does the Somewhere Becoming Sea exhibition explore that?

Hull’s identity has been clearly shaped by its relationship to the sea – routes to and from Hull have often historically been maritime ones. But when I was invited to curate this exhibition, I was even more interested in exploring how Hull’s identity has been influenced by interaction with other countries bordering the North Sea (and beyond). It felt important to highlight how the sea is a channel that connects people rather than a gulf that divides them – especially at the moment.

Can you talk through some of the artists involved in the exhibition?

It’s an international line-up, featuring artists from across the wider North Sea region. This international character is echoed by the different locations that are visited and represented in the works, which take us on a journey from Icelandic fishing waters to the beaches of Belgium, while always circling around themes that have particular significance for Hull and the East coast of Britain.

Most of the works have been made in the last year or two (including some that are premiering in Hull). There are fifteen different pieces in the exhibition and visitors to the gallery will, I hope, see some clear connections and correspondences as they move between the different elements in the show.

Somewhere Becoming Sea will celebrate artists’ work with ‘the moving image’. What can visitors to the exhibition expect?

I’d like to think that the exhibition will highlight a variety of approaches to contemporary work with the moving image, and reveal how artists regularly deploy the popular media of film and video in incredibly distinctive and original ways.

There will be works, like Nikolaj Larsen’s Quicksand, which have a strong narrative and an immersive, cinematic quality, while there are others, like the short video of an apparently disoriented fishing boat by Gunnar Jonsson, which are more straightforward visual cameos – but with a twist.

Not everything in the exhibition is moving image however. There is photography from Christine Clinckx and Guy Moreton and text-based and audio work from Alec Finlay, Hanna Tuulikki and Lucy Duncombe.

How does the exhibition examine climate change? Is there a central message we all need to respond to in this exhibition?

The title Somewhere Becoming Sea is a steal from the last line of Philip Larkin’s famous poem, The Whitsun Weddings. But it’s also an allusion to the fact that, in a time where melting ice-caps inevitably mean rising sea levels, there is bound to be somewhere on the planet where what was land is being claimed by the sea.

That rising tide may be a gradual one but, over time, it is likely to become a threatening one, especially if we turn our backs on what we know about the sea, or do not act on these increasingly tell-tale signs.

Simon Faithfull’s Going Nowhere is a wonderfully graphic illustration of a man walking in diminishing circles until the little island he walks on is overwhelmed by a surging floodtide, while Isabella Martin’s semaphore pieces can be read as warning messages in a language we have lost the ability to interpret. Both are key pieces in this exhibition.

Elsewhere, Esther Johnson’s two films focus on the Holderness coast north of Hull – a rapidly eroding stretch of coastline where up to two metres of cliff-face is lost to the sea every year. Esther was born and grew up in Hull, so knows this area well. Her graduation film from the Royal College of Art was shot there fifteen years ago, and she’s gone back to Holderness this Spring to record how far the edge of the land has retreated and how several of the places where she filmed previously have disappeared.

How do you think this exhibition will resonate with people here in Hull, whose city was once so dependent on the sea?

Hull has been at the sharp end of some recent economic changes – the decline of the local fishing industry and shifting patterns of maritime trade – but it is also potentially at the forefront of a new relationship to the sea, through things like the green energy of wind turbines.

I think that the exhibition will help to illuminate some affinities between Hull and its neighbour countries, while also reminding us that there are issues on the horizon that are universal. As the effects of climate change start to permeate, this will be one battle that we really are all in together.

You’re one of the first curators to bring work to Humber Street Gallery. What do you think it means for Hull to have this brand new contemporary art space?

I have the pleasure and privilege of curating the first group exhibition at Humber Street Gallery, and in a space whose setting near the waterside only adds to the resonance of the show. In the year or so that I have been travelling up to Hull to research it, I have seen huge, visible changes to the city in the lead-up to 2017. Humber Street Gallery is a symbol of that transformation, and I am sure it will continue to be a feature of Hull’s cultural life for many years to come.

Somewhere Becoming Sea is a free exhibition open from 5 April – 17 June at Humber Street Gallery.