The emotional and conceptual complexity of artist Dana Matthews’ The Reign of Medusa (a Sea of Boneless Fish) is reflected by its visual intricacy. It invites, even demands the viewer to step closer, to inspect, scrutinise and observe, but also to marvel.
The central element of the installation consists of a custom-made metal table with two shelves. On the shelves are carefully arranged curious and exquisite objects: old magnifying glasses which invite the viewer to bow down and look closely, vintage photographs of sea life, fragile human hands in prayer, gleaming silver hooks, hurricane balls of grass and seaweed rolled up by the sea during a hurricane, giant tree mushrooms, glass jars filled with water and floating jelly fish (Medusa), antique thermometers and rusty anchors.
The magnifying glasses, thermometers and preservation jars place the viewer in the position of an external, scientific observer. An abundance of silver hooks stands upright in front of a haunting contemporary photograph of barely visible boats in a foggy harbor. The hooks and fishing boats suggest the plunder of the oceans, yet are presented to reflect emptiness. The jelly fish rise up as the thermometers dangle downward, poised in an uneasy balance offset by the giant anchor at rest underneath the piece. The thermometers are delicate and beautiful messengers of the dreadful data of rising ocean temperatures, the tree mushrooms are the ears that are turning away in disbelief.
We are also engaged as aggressors and appropriators: its meticulousness has a sinister and disturbing edge. The menacing hooks and the cold, industrial metal shelving reflect our commercial and often detrimental relationship to the sea. The installation alludes to the devastating human destruction of marine life. The medusa are rising up to replace the fish, which are represented only by way of memory through empty hooks, boats at rest and fading black and white photographs of bountiful catches of yore. The piece speaks directly to “ocean acidification” due to global warming. It is a physical/visual manifestation of the past, present and future states of the oceans and marine life.
The three metal doors that stand looming behind the installation also suggest the presence of industrialization and unstoppable development. Hinged together as a triptych, the doors’ function has been rendered useless. The left door suggests an aerial view of the atmosphere. The door on the right brings to mind a hurricane dropping from the clouds and stirring up a wave of water. The centre door features a direct imprint of the artist’s body, made by soaking herself in salt water and then lying on the door for an extended period of time. The surface of the doors is treated with sulphur, salt and acid. The initial chemical reaction has created a powerful visual effect and the process continues at a slower rate without an end point.
Despite its grievous message and menacing undertow, the installation is also, and above all, an altar to the ocean and its evanescent beauty. It asks us to bow down in wonder and appreciation, not just in order to observe and appropriate. It captures a rare sense of stillness behind things, the poignancy of beauty and the mystery of an ocean infinitely older than us.
In addition to the ecological questions raised about the death of the ocean is conveyed another portent: the death of photography. Among the magnifying lenses that invite the viewer to look at the photographs is a lens removed from a nearly obsolete enlarger. The decaying hands symbolize the loss of the human touch in printing and the glass containers and thermometers are reminiscent of the mixing of chemistry and measuring of temperatures so crucial to silver gelatine processes. The vintage as well as contemporary photographs seem to be slowly vanishing and it is no coincidence that the piece reeks of silver.