Troubled Water. From Aesthetics to the Global Economy.

The 10th Baltic Contemporary Art Biennial focuses on the cultural, philosophical, economic and ecological aspects of the sea and its representation in art.

At least since the age of Romanticism, inherent qualities of mystery and horror have made the ocean a transcendent symbol in the canonical topos of the European imagination. Artistic presentation, often metaphysical and melancholic, makes it possible to trace these semantic meanings and cultural entanglements.

From the pragmatic approaches taken in the 17th and 18th centuries that portrayed the sea chiefly as a medium for developing trade and military conquest, today’s artistic treatment depicts the sea as a „global highway” which ensures the continuity of consumption. As such, the sublime associations that provided the foundation for phantasmagoric content have given over to practical consideration about the effects of exploitation.

There is little mystery in the destructive consequences, with awareness of environmental horrors creating a political consciousness that is changing artistic perception, experience and presentation. As a result, the trend in art at the beginning of 21st century locates the sea less as a projection screen of the human subconscious or an inspirational source of the transcendent but more as economic expansion’s disconcerting testament.

The goal of the exhibition is to examine the multi-dimensionality of contemporary maritime iconography through the presentation of works referencing idealistic aesthetic categories, such as the concept of the sublime, with critical analysis by artists who openly declare their political commitment.

Contemporary artistic notions exhibited within the frame of the Troubled Water project include echoes of classical aesthetic categories absorbed by visual culture (C. Lambermont, E. Ledure, S. van Malleghem, P. Hüttner, M. Wendelski, D. Horvitz, A. Christiaens, T. Chable, D. Lejman, J. Nepper, B. Plossu, J. Silomäki, J. Toomik, J.-L. Vanesch, P. Herbert, G. van der Werve); inspiring social observations skillfully placed in intimate, personalized registers (F. Bodeux, B. Grignet, S. Noël and T. Simoens) and critical views of the sea on the macro scale (A. Sekula, Ł. Skąpski, N. Hannes, J. Struyven, Superflex, P. Wyrzykowski).

There is a dynamic relationship between these areas of artistic activity that is based on their particular merger of sensitivity and commitment.

Organizers: Fundacja Mare Articum, Muzeum Narodowe w Szczecinie, Akademia Sztuki w Szczecinie, Miejska Instytucja Kultury 13 Muz, Centre Wallon d’Art Contemporain "La Chataigneraie", Flémall, Wallonie-Bruxelles International, Delegatura w Warszawie

Venues: Muzeum Narodowe w Szczecinie – Muzeum Sztuki Współczesnej (ul. Staromłyńska 1), Muzeum Narodowe w Szczecinie (ul. Wały Chrobrego 3), Galeria 13 Muz (Plac Żołnierza Polskiego 1) 


From Aesthetic to Economy… and Back?

The sea is without doubt one of the most mesmerizing cultural toposes, and one of fundamental importance for the development of Western imagination and identity.

The strong presence of the sea in European culture can be explained in part as a product of geographic location. Writing on the historical and cultural contexts of Europe’s maritime identity, Michel Mollat du Jourdin makes this observation: “An inhabitant of Western Europe does not have to travel more than 350 kilometers to bathe in the sea; this distance is doubled for an inhabitant of Central Europe; for a peasant from the Russian plains it reaches 11,000 kilometers; while nomads of Central Asia in their endless wandering through the steppes and deserts never reach the sea, nor they see it at all.”[1]

This easy access is certainly one of the most important elements in determining Europe’s history, as well as its specific, cultural distinctions: the sea was integrated into the European project, in which, following on from Denis de Rougemont, Zygmunt Bauman sees as a conjunction of curiosity and chronic adventurism, synthesized in an incurable need to exceed the familiar.[2] The sea evoked sequences of images, visions and ideas about distant lands, stimulating imagination like no other source. Thus, it served as a phantasmagoric gate, opening the way to extraordinary places where everything was possible.

The cognitive urge and the passion to take risks invariably went hand in hand with less idealistic motives, mainly the desire to get rich quickly. From antiquity to the Renaissance, Europe’s collective imagination kept inventing overseas countries – unusual and depraved, wealthy and strange – and their mirages kept tempting explorers and adventurers to go beyond familiar horizons.

Political and commercial expansion permitted ideas and desires to confront reality, with thalassocracy – dominion over the sea – the key to rapid development of profitable trade routes. Moreover, marine activities facilitated a nourishing circulation of ideas. Initially such systems developed in the Mediterranean, and later in the North, for example, within the medieval Hanseatic League.

This first phase of maritime exploration was merely a prelude to the global expansion that since the 16th century and thanks to mercantile and political initiatives has become ever more intense. It changed for good the areas and cultures that fell under Europe’s influence, as well as the face of Europe itself as its peoples searched for various tools, however subtle, to legitimize the mission civilizatrice they’d undertaken.

The late 18th century and the entire 19th century saw the solidifying of divisions between the rich North and the poor South – concepts nowadays understood more broadly as “North Atlantic culture” and the “Third World.” The colonial divisions of the past have a tremendous impact on today’s global relations, and the side-effects continue to shape the destiny of billions of people.

Beyond the sea’s role as expansionist tool, these complex semantics are present in its attendant legends and archetypes. The elaborate aquatic myths and symbols found in Greco-Roman tradition are also evident in the pagan North. Rich symbolism of the sea and water factor strongly in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Antiquity and the Middle Ages considered the sea as much an empire of evil and misfortune as the source of wealth and conquest. The ambiguity of this recurring cultural motif – the sea as both destructive and creative force – resonates in the Biblical vision of the flood: water causes destruction and death and in doing so cleanses the earth, permitting renewal of man’s covenant with God.

In his analyses of fear in modern culture of the West, Jean Delumeau stresses that the sea, with everything deep and dark in it, has been recognized for millennia as an anti-element, as a dimension of the negative, and as a place of destruction.[3]

Until the last decades of the 18th century, when technology began producing the verifiable knowledge that renders it less so, the sea commonly was considered dangerous and inhospitable. As such, the sea proved a challenge for small groups of daredevils – explorers, adventurers and risk-takers. For most, it was a source of fear and chaos.

The sea’s vastness induced reflection on infinity – an aspect of reception that gained its fuller dimension in the Romantic period, when the mechanistic model in force until the end of  the 18th century was replaced by the concept of nature as a living, sentient and often cognitive organism. Maria Janion, a scholar of the Romantic era, says that prior to this “revolutionary” shift, nature simultaneously did and did not exist. “In previous world-view systems, nature generally was not equipped in an independent form of existence; nature somehow was not nature, because it did not live its own separate, secret life.”[4]

The Romantic approach introduced a more significant transformation: threatening nature as fascinating spectacle. Analyzing the concept of nature as being “socially and culturally constructed,”[5] Phil Macnaghten and John Urry emphasize that development of visual discourses were crucially important for this spectacularization, with the concept of the sublime enabling reinterpretation of the terrifying into aesthetic experience.[6]

This changing perception of the sea was accompanied by emerging social practices that tamed old fears and prejudices. Among them, the construction in the 19th century of quays and boardwalks that permitted “promenading” and with it the “visual appreciation of the sea.” Equally, sunbathing flourished and risky swimming stunts became popular.[7] The rampant popularity of photography in the period made the sea a fashionable location; a leitmotif of collected and consumed views. According to Theodor Adorno, it was in just this way that modernity transformed nature into a space for recreational and aesthetic entertainment.[8]

While the modern era has made the sea an object of consumption per se, the present day has seen it become the guarantor of consumption in the main. At the dawn of the 21st century, shipping – buttressed by the adoption of international standards, the liberalization of trade and the tech-enabled exchange of information at ever faster speeds – is considered “one of the four cornerstones of globalization.” By constantly conforming its infrastructure and legal regulation to the demands of globalization, the maritime industry deepens the importance of the sea to the functioning of global markets. Open waters now are primarily routes for the transfer of goods that are produced where labor costs are lowest and consumed where purchasing power is highest.

This economic exploitation remodels symbolic structures of the past, shaping a new, pragmatic and mercantile image. This re-ordering is German philosopher Max Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” limited to reification and narrow “rationalization” reaching its painful extreme.[9]

Framed in a broader, ecological perspective, this exploitation is opening an important new chapter in contemporary discussion and possible future scenarios. In this debate, the concept of “nature” gives way to that of “environment,” which – as posited by Macnaghten and Urry – had to be “invented” as a consequence of the loss of the obviousness of what could be considered “nature” today, as well as its deepening degradation and the increasing awareness of the resulting risks.[10] By identifying causes of imbalance in the biosphere – among them, pollution of marine waters – contemporary environmentalism coalescences with the radical voices of the opponents of turbo-globalization, corporatism and the neoliberal ideology, who see the free market as the stimulus for over-consumption.

In the 1980s, neoliberal ideology gained the status of obligatory doctrine, even as it had been analyzed critically before. Today, it is fiercely attacked by leftist circles, not only in the context of systemic devastation of nature. But also as the source of erosion in the public sphere – of social mores and the increasing poverty that deepens neo-colonial inequality.[11] Attempts to confront “integrated global capitalism”[12] increasingly extend beyond university campuses and into the realm of anti-system, Alter-globalists – such as the Occupy movement – or other forms of activism and artistic initiatives.

These critical examinations share the same conviction: The formulation of a coherent alternative to the valorization of nature through human activity will require a radical change, both of awareness and in consumption patterns, to profoundly recast our relationship with the environment. Removing financial gain from the paradigm demands that we identify new parameters of “profitability” – those no longer narrowly understood in the area of economy, but in the social and aesthetic sphere.[13]

Do we stand at the threshold of a crisis after which new aesthetics – in particular, the aesthetics of nature – will significantly re-shape human cognition and experience, as happened in the era of “Romantic revolution”? The issue appears as a key research problem in the Humanities, which increasingly claim the advent of an aesthetic reversal is underway.

Beata Frydryczak shows how the aesthetics of nature reappear in the context of aesthetic inquiry after a long period of hibernation thanks to Hegel’s exclusion of natural beauty from this domain. At the core of this process she sees Adorno’s rehabilitation of the concept of the beautiful in nature, as well as the contemporary aesthetics of the environment cited by Gernot Böhme and Arnold Berleant, among others.[14]

Both Berleant and Böhme posit the return to an understanding of aesthetics in terms similar to the original aisthesis as the basis of sensory cognition. Berleant relates the restoration of aesthetic experience with overcoming the disinterested contemplation of nature typical in the post-Kantian aesthetics that have dominated for more than two hundred years. By breaking with the convention of distance, the aesthetic experience is grounded in a sense of continuity, assimilation and involvement.[15] Böhme analyzes the current situation in a similar, revisionist spirit, emphasizing the need for emotional participation in restoring a perception of nature built on the awareness of being part of it.[16]

Whether eco-aesthetics will be able to “disenchant disenchantment” and to create cognitive and axiological premises for social mechanisms that will generate a real paradigm shift is a question that remains, for the moment, unanswered. Should it happen, a powerful repository of existing images and ways of perceiving of the sea will be substantively compiled.

Emerging in this interesting and perhaps transitional period, the Morze. Troubled Water[17] exhibition takes as its focus contemporary artistic notations of the sea that embrace voices critical of its mercantile instrumentalization, as well as those attempting to update the potential of the aesthetic categories that developed in philosophy. We are convinced of a dynamic relationship, based upon a merger of sensitivity and commitment, in these areas of artistic activity.

Contemporary artistic notions exhibited within the frame of the Morze. Troubled Water project include echoes of the classical aesthetic categories absorbed by visual culture (Thomas Chable, Alexandre Christiaens, Philippe Herbet, David Horvitz, Per Hüttner, Catherine Lambermont, Elodie Ledure, Dominik Lejman, Joël Nepper, Sébastien Van Malleghem, Bernard Plossu, Jari Silomäki, Jaan Toomik, Jean-Louis Vanesch, Marc Wendelski, Guido van der Werve); inspiring social observations skillfully placed in intimate, personalized registers (François Bodeux, Brigitte Grignet, Stéphane Noël and Titus Simoens), and critical views of the sea on the macro scale (Nick Hannes, Allan Sekula, Łukasz Skąpski, Jo Struyven, Superflex, Piotr Wyrzykowski).

To be sure, the triumphant return of the concept of the sublime, developed on the basis of classical aesthetics, is important for the conceptual background of the project. This category was restored in the 1990s as a key analytical tool and today it is intensively exploited not only in the field of art criticism, but more broadly within theoretical reflection on contemporary times. The concept of the sublime has an extremely long and tortuous history; one rooted in antiquity (Pseudo-Longinus), developed in the era of Enlightenment and Romanticism (Burke, Kant, Schelling) and updated in contemporary philosophy and cultural criticism (Lyotard, Jameson). Over the centuries, it has been a subject of important shifts in meaning and interpretive procedures, and nowadays its operating power is tested with extreme intensity.

The sea as a sublime theme resides in the classical canon of the concept. It is expounded upon both by Edmund Burke, who placed it among the phenomena of nature able to produce the strongest feelings that the mind can experience, and Immanuel Kant for whom the image of the sea belonged to objects able to so stimulate imagination as to get closer to the ideas of reason that are impossible to be imagined objectively. Guaranteeing the sea strong representation within the aesthetic discourse are a scale that exceeds human cognitive powers, its mystery and impenetrability, and its ability to inspire feelings of rapture and awe.

In contemporary times, Fredric Jameson uses these same qualities in acknowledging the close relationship between the experience of the sublime and the postmodern condition; contending they are evident in the feeling of bewilderment engendered by the opaque mechanisms of multinational capitalism.[18] Analyses of the “contemporary sublime” cite the same motif as among the reasons behind the concept’s over-representation in current artistic practice. Pointing out the historical convergence of the aesthetic and financial revolutions, Luke White suggests that “if we find ourselves tangling with the sublime again today, the reason for this might be our embrace within a capitalist modernity whose form of capital has come once more to bear uncanny resemblances to the imperial, hyper-liquid and perplexingly spectral capital of the 18th century.”[19]

In the context of the Morze. Troubled Water exhibition, there are reflections of phenomena that by their sublime nature cannot fully be understood, evoking contradictory feelings of discomfort and admiration. And regardless of whether they are placed within the natural order, or rather within the social order, referring to the global structures that we have created to organize our lives that now operate largely out of our control. In them, the image of the sea can be a subject of sublime experience, both as a sign of transgression exceeding our cognitive capacities and as a key link in risky global processes, propelled by elusive, borderless capital, that are changing our reality.

The first model refers to the Romantic vision of the sea as a metaphor of infinity that developed at the threshold of modernity. Infinity as a notion had moved at that time from the area of science to the borderland of scientific, philosophical and poetical discourses. It also was closely linked with the category of the sublime. In this perspective, images and descriptions of the sea breached the border of the knowable, with the mystery that lay beyond identified with God, the Universe or Nature. And with the human psyche, which was observed as a vast mare tenebrarum (sea of darkness) with depths ripe for self-discovery; a mental landscape and projection screen for every emotional state. As Romantic themes gained in outstanding poetic and painterly articulations, they once and for all established associations that manifested themselves repeatedly, returning either in cliché, neoclassical mutations or in original, inspiring formulas, such as that of Surrealism.

Today, this symbolic and iconographic resource continues to be reworked creatively. However, rather than returning to artistic practices of the past and their attendant, often long-outmoded dilemmas, artists are filtering these culturally embedded images through current experiences and methods of perception. Filled with readily understood connections, the results can be seen in contemplative images of the confrontation of man with nature presented in the exhibition that refer to romantic iconography and arrangement.   

The meanings of the presented works manifest themselves fully when placed in the context of modernity and its relevant tensions: Wendelski’s works gain a more concrete frame and more disturbing nature along with it; Hüttner’s poetic language is complicated by contexts of globalization;  Chable’s photographs take us into the heart of the most pressing contemporary problems; van der Werve’s monumental movie becomes not only a brilliant update of romantic themes but also an inspiring opinion on the “collisional course” of technology and nature.

In David Horvitz’s treatment of Dutch conceptualist Bas Jan Ader’s 1975 performance In Search of the Miraculous – one that ended in tragedy when his pocket cruiser was lost in a single-handed attempt to cross the Atlantic – the speculative and extreme discussion with the romantic experience of the sublime grows still more complex. Horvitz’s film adds one more mystery (or, in fact, a mystification) to Ader’s mysterious disappearance in the form of a previously unknown film, allegedly by the artist, that was found at the California university where he lectured. Released on the Internet in 2007, the very short, black and white, silent movie resembles a fragment from a slapstick comedy. Horvitz’s film is on one hand a tribute to the late artist; on the other an analysis of Ader’s working methods and the “translation” into Horvitz’s post-conceptual artistic practice that results. Its key elements feature reinterpretations of romantic landscape motifs and a smart, pugnacious dispute on the issue of authorship that touches on modern mechanisms for the dissemination of images.

The incorporation of the sea in the world-system that is taking place before our very eyes inspires many artists to adopt fundamentally anti-idealistic attitudes as they replace strategies of critical testing of concepts from the past with analytical observations of social and economic realities in statu nascendi. In this context, Allan Sekula’s artistic oeuvre is of fundamental importance. Sekula was among the first promoters of visual and discursive research – conducted from an openly materialistic perspective – on the historical and cultural determinants of representations of the sea. Sekula did not conceal his skepticism of romantic metaphors. According to him, they led to social escapism and the strengthening of well-preserved anachronisms. In the late 1980s, he developed an original program of critical realism. His in-depth, theoretical treatment placed contemporary maritime reality – in which the sea is subjected to capitalism’s dictates – at the center of interest. Sekula focused on images of physical work and the slow transfer of goods on maritime routes – topics overlooked in contemporary visual culture. He placed them in counterpoint with the unfettered flow of information and capital – unseen elements that are free of the pressures of time and space – and observed the transformation of vibrant ports into deserted logistics centers by the resulting standardization and automation. And with it, a correction of “social coordinates” of port cities. In the past, those had built their identity on the relationship with the sea and the maritime economy. Today, they restructure their industries in accordance with the realities imposed by the prevailing neoliberal regime and the dynamics of global changes.

Łukasz Skąpski’s project also is explicitly left wing. Skąpski analyzes the recent history of Polish Szczecin, in which political transformation has seen replacement of a socialist economy by wild privatization and free-market rhetoric, resulting over the last two decades in the de-industrialization of the city almost in its entirety. Skąpski’s unique, subversive initiative reanimates a local shipyard – once successful; now bankrupt – through legal acquisition of its trademark via the Patent Office and using the name to market a line of luxury scents under the Stoczniowiec [Shipyard Worker] brand. Based on paradoxes, Skąpski’s project deals with a number of issues: the debate on market mechanisms and product placement; protection of trademarks, and the rights of the local community to the symbolic capital associated with the shipyard.

Sekula’s works, based on material collected in almost every corner of the world, show the intimate relationship between the deindustrialization of the North, where factories like those in Szczecin have grown moribund, and the accelerated industrialization of the South, where low cost of labor offers greater profitability. Relations between the northern and southern hemispheres shape another branch of the economy closely linked with the sea: tourism is no less globalized than the maritime industry and is having a huge impact on contemporary lifestyles and consumption patterns. Bauman analyzed the processes of globalization and singled out two basic modes of participation in today’s world: as tourists and as vagabonds. In this concept, the valorization of existence is based on mobility, in the case of the tourist, and is stigmatized by the lack thereof, in the case of the vagabond. Having at their disposal the financial means that allows them access to the attractions of the available world, the tourist class is recipient of a gigantic and still-developing infrastructure filled with destinations both luxurious and exotic. Be they in the Western world or in the “virgine” sanctuaries of escape from civilization’s turmoil.[20]

Bauman’s “tourists” and “vagabonds” appear in Nick Hannes’s photographs of decadent lifestyles in Monte Carlo, and in those documenting the existence of people trapped in Tangier. Many of them inspire conclusions not far from the opinions formulated in post-colonial criticism, which identify tourism as a hedonistic aspect of neo-colonialism. Contemporary forms of commercialized tourism transform not only relationships and patterns of behavior, but also the visual environment. Many coastal towns adapt to the new standards of upscale leisure; Jo Struyven’s cold, panoramic photographs perfectly illustrate this process.

Perhaps there is no better emblem of the hyper-consumerism that propels contemporary global culture than the junk food offered by the McDonald’s restaurant chain. Superflex’s   faked apocalypse of a gradually sinking McDonald’s restaurant is a spectacular and brilliant play with the language of the disaster-film genre. Although it features several surprising comic scenes, the work discusses a wide range of very serious issues, including the dangers arising from deregulation and the climate-change driven onset of the Antropocene epoch to which we have given birth. In the context of growing fears of ecological disasters, nature reappears as a blind, uncontrollable force without conceivable boundaries and guided by a sense of purpose absolutely indifferent to human will.

In this way, returning to the motif of untamed nature as a classical object of the sublime experience, we seemingly go round in circles. In fact, our route is not circular but spiral. We are at the threshold of an encounter with contemporary nature – a strongly hybridized and culturally re-configured entity. Eco-aestheticians predict that it will soon become our most important challenge and the flywheel of future changes.

 Magdalena Lewoc 


[1] English translation based on Polish edition of the book: M. Mollat du Jourdin, Europa i morze, translated from French by M. Bruczkowska, Warsaw 1995, p. 14.

[2] Z. Bauman, Europe: An Unfinished Adventure, Polity, 2004, p. 1.

[3] J. Delumeau, Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries, Palgrave Macmillan, 1990, p. 37.

[4] M. Janion, Gorączka romantyczna, Selected works of Maria Janion edited by Małgorzata Czermińska, vol. 1, Krakow  2000,  p. 277.

[5] Ph. Macnaghten, J. Urry, Contested Natures, SAGE Publications Ltd, 1998, p. 30.

[6] Ibid, p. 114.

[7] One of the early spectacular feats of this kind was the stunt of Lord Byron who swam across the Dardanelles (Hellespont) in spring of 1810.

[8] T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Berg Pub Ltd, 2013, s. 112.

[9] Max Weber, who studied the issues of Western rationalism, in part gained fame as the author of the concept of “disenchantment of the world,” which he perceived as a process of rationalization of world-view in the beginnings of modern capitalism.

[10] Ph. Macnaghten, J. Urry, Contested Natures, op. cit., p. 21.

[11] These issues appear, among others, in analyses by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Michael Hardt and Zbigniew Bauman.

[12] Integrated World Capitalism (IWC) is a term promoted by Felix Guattari to mark the current phase of socio-economic relations.

[13] F. Guattari, The Three Ecologies, Bloomsbury Academic, 2008, p. 50.

[14] B. Frydryczak, Estetyka przyrody: nowe pojmowanie natury, in: “Estetyka i Krytyka” 2008–2009, № 2–1 (15–16).

[15] A. Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment, Temple University Press, 2010, p. 77.

[16] G. Böhme, Filozofia i estetyka przyrody w dobie kryzysu środowiska naturalnego, przeł. J. Merecki, Warszawa 2002, p. 6.

[17] Representations of the sea as a subject of the 10th edition of the Baltic Biennale of Contemporary Art was inspired by the exhibition Bouteilles à la mer (2013), Centre Wallon d' Art Contemporain “La Châtaigneraie,” curated by Emmanuel d'Autreppe and Alain Delaunois.

[18] F. Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1992, p. 6.

[19] L. White, Damien Hirst’s Shark: Nature, Capitalism and Sublime, in: Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, [accessed Nov 2nd, 2015].

[20] Z. Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, Columbia University Press, 1998, pp. 77–78.