Many years ago, while at sea (literally though perhaps also metaphorically) as an oceanography graduate student, I had a chance to visit the hold of the ship where two portholes provided an underwater view for the scientists on the cruise measuring bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is a fascinating biological process in which a pigment, luciferin (bringer of light), interacts with an enzyme, luciferase, and oxygen to release light.
Sea creatures that emit light often do so when they’re disturbed, like when a wave breaks or a ship passes. Marine bioluminescence was an active area of research during the cold war because each side wanted to detect the other side’s submarines, and for their own to navigate undetected.
As I stood in the small room at the bow of the ship, I watched constellations stream by, pinpoints and contrails of light. It was mind-boggling.
Inside or out?
I haven’t been fortunate enough to see the work of Joana Vasconcelos in person, but the images of Trafaria Praia in the 2013 Venice Bienale swept me into an ocean that is both familiar and alien, both deeper than I can remember and more intimate than I could possibly imagine.
Combining the traditional crafts of crochet and embroidery with ultra-modern LED lights, she populated the interior of a classic ferry boat of Lisbon, a cacilheiro, with, well, the exterior: an oceanscape of sea creatures. Any concept of scale is confused as microscopic organisms expand to larger than human dimensions.
So many contrasts…
The soft woolen texture of the crocheted and sewn textiles versus the cold hard LEDs. The inside of the ship and the water surrounding it. The womb-like dark studded with light. A symphony of shades of blue. And all the while, like a heartbeat, the very ground heaves gently with the motion of the waves.
A myriad of fantastical creatures, with counterparts captive in nets and under microscopes and swimming throughout the seven seas, hang around the viewers inviting them to consider their role in the ship, in the ocean- and to question, again: inside or out?
Of time and origins
All the elements of Trafaria Praia conspire to make us see, and think. The cork lining that softens and rounds the sharp edges of a utilitarian metal structure. The use of crochet and embroidery- predominantly female endeavors, to populate a boat- historically not welcoming to women. The futuristically small LEDs. And, always, the ocean waters right outside, their sound muted, their inhabitants often invisible to the naked eye.
Jellyfish are over 90% water, but is that so different from us, apparently so much more solid, at 60%? Our very blood is salty, we come from the sea. The moon pulls the tides, and if we get very quiet, it speaks to us, too.
Trafaria Praia reminds us of our marine origins and of our kinship with saltwater and brine. It speaks to traditional roles and how we imagine ourselves, to our concepts of beauty versus utility. It suggests that not thinking about where we come from can imperil where we want to go. Most importantly, it challenges us to think.