The sea is said to speak to us in an amalgam of mysterious and alluring analogies, which are drawn from its depths and, at times, swallowed all too easily by the contemplative desires of artists, poets, and theorists alike. The metaphors are countless, yet invariable—from the reflective surfaces of still pools to the boundless temperaments of open seas. However, such romanticized figures of speech would seem to have capsized with the onslaught of post-industrial capitalism and its concomitant economies, giving way to more intangible seascapes, which present information, knowledge, and research as equally boundless and immersive landscapes.

In literary scholar Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire’s book on the work of French author Marcel Proust, Proust et le miroir des eaux: Ou le thème de l’eau dans La Recherche du Temps Perdu [Proust and the Reflecting Waters: Or, the Theme of Water in In Search of Lost Time], the significance of allegorical self-reflectivity is rescued at sea, so to speak.11
Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire, Proust et le miroir des eaux: Ou le thème de l’eau dans La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Paris: Éditions de Paris, 2006).
In her reading of Proust’s 1913–27 novel, which the press release of Galerie Chantal Crousel’s recent exhibition cites, Barguillet-Hauteloire suggests that research mimics water’s capacity to mirror the world as a reflection of the reader’s life—much like water operates as a frequent trigger for memory in Proust’s first volume Swann’s Way. The gallery takes this analogy at both poetic and speculative value, producing an exhibition that seems to define contemporary production as the intellectualized (and globalized) culmination of an idealistic trajectory. The works illustrate the sea’s generative capacity as both a progenitor of subjective meaning and a producer of knowledge. With mutual proximity to the sea, the exhibition’s procedural and personal narratives attempt to abstract the theme into a theoretically compelling whole. The sea emerges as an allegory that allows us to speculate on the cultural and political histories underlying not only the works, but also the lives of the participating artists.

Danh Vo’s Untitled (2014), for example, consists of four ink drawings made entirely of calligraphy. The vellum sheets, lined with repetitive rows of scripture, are devoid of legible syntax, and pick up where Vo left off in a previous work, in which he retraced calligraphic drawings made by his father. Primarily based on his own rescue in the high seas after escaping his homeland of Vietnam on a handmade boat that capsized, Vo’s work seems intent of deciphering a code inscribed within his own personal mythology. One must pause to consider—does his globalized practice truly analyze anything deeper than a self-portrait of the artist? Or, does personal narrative become all too much conflated with reflexive outputs, contributing perhaps more to a knowledge-based economy than to the distribution of knowledge? By combining the intangible values of narrativity and experience with commercially seductive and interchangeable form, the works in the exhibition thus reflect upon and participate in the market’s liquidity.

Equally perplexing are the contributions of Gabriel Orozco, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Rasheed Araeen, which reveal the difficulty of creating agency through entirely subjective accounts of experience. Orozco’s two photographs, Water Drop and Clay Bubbles (both 2012), for example, are blithely poetic conjectures that hover between forms and surfaces, where multiple images represent a whole, or in the artist’s words: “1+1=universe.” Tillmans’s Buenos Aires (2010), a photograph of a city gutter, aims to suggest a world faced with advancing technologies and a global economy. Araeen’s Chakra IV (Discs in River Seine) (1970) are objects that the artist set alight upon the Thames River in order to examine their interrelation with the water’s surface tensions. Here, water seems mostly circumstantial; it mirrors the trajectory of the artist in a fluid loop, and achieves greater depth by its connection to specific experiences and narrative procedure. In these works, self-reflexivity becomes imperative to artistic inquiry; they are a part of the artist’s productive drive, trapping significance within the correlative space found between the artist’s self-image and the market’s desires.

As alluring as such works might be to a market that is dependent upon the proliferation of research and information—and continues to make use of dead metaphors and repetitive imagery—they do little to increase the exhibition’s intellectual depth. However, pieces such as Jack Goldstein’s Under Water Sea Fantasy (1983–2003), David Douard’s MO : need (2014), and Tim Rollins & K.O.S.’s Dark Water IV (after W.E.B. Dubois) (2014) challenge the streamlined, productive ethos of the works seen in the first half of the exhibition. Each work contaminates one another in slippages of eroded language, using liquid as a material coating rather than mere allegory. Goldstein’s ominously unfolding stock footage of the deep seas suggest the hyper-proliferation of commercial imagery as a cataclysmic dead-end, whereas Douard’s closed-loop fountain seems to secrete a viscous nectar that binds its embedded iconoclastic cultural elements together like a circuitously hyphenated language. In this way, water dissolves discursive techniques into a disjointed and fragmentary economy, serving as a material lubricant for the image-based, communicative world in which we are completely entangled.

One might also think of Barguillet-Hauteloire’s essay as foreboding. In an information society, where “reverie” quickly becomes a product of the globalized marketplace—and thought and experience are liquefied into value assets—the act of research itself becomes a selling point regardless of its actual depths. This is not to dismiss the poetics of the exhibited works, nor discredit their capacity to exceed mere artistic self-reflection, but rather to acknowledge the risks of confusing observation with critical intent. Ultimately in this exhibition, the “strange and funerary murmurs” of Barguillet-Hauteloire’s gloomy waters are all too easily equated with the stifling of criticality under a capitalist market that prefers its waters to remain still, reflective, and unobtrusive.22
Ibid., 126.