Underwater art exhibition on Porquerolles island is submerged in intrigue

Underwater art exhibition on Porquerolles island is submerged in intrigue

At Fondation Carmignac on the island of Porquerolles, new sub-aquatic group show ‘The Imaginary Sea’ (La Mer Imaginaire) frames the sea as a source of inspiration, imagination, longing and loss

There are many ways to view art, most of them above sea level. But this is not the case on the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles, France. 

At Villa Carmignac, an aptly titled new exhibition ‘The Imaginary Sea’ (La Mer Imaginaire) is being staged indoors, outdoors and underwater, transforming the foundation’s galleries into a sub-aquatic museum that plunges viewers into the bond between humans and the underwater world. From Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Dora Maar to Lin May Saeed, Jeff Koons, Camille Henrot and Allison Katz, the participating artists are as varied as they are committed to their common subject – one of mystery, immensity and endless intrigue. 

Humanity’s relationship with the sea is complex: a source of fear, exploitation, eco-anxiety, peril and mystery. With its fusion of modern and contemporary art and site-specific installations, ‘The Imaginary Sea’ frames the marine world as a precious and evocative resource, swarming with known and unknown lives; a place of vastness, inconceivable depth, unexpected things, and also an eco-system of acute fragility. 

Micha Laury, Untitled (Les Méduses), 2006, Silicone part of an underwater art exhibition
Micha Laury, Untitled (Les Méduses), 2006, silicone. Courtesy the artist © ADAGP, Paris, 2021 – Fondation Carmignac. Photography: Marc Domage

This exhibition was the brainchild of LA-based curator Chris Sharp, co-founder of the Lulu experimental art space that is destined to become a satellite of the X Museum in Beijing. ‘The Imaginary Sea’ was inspired both by the aquarium-esque effect of the Villa Carmignac’s architecture – its spaces submerged under the building’s expansive water ceiling – and by iconic works from its collection, including Bruce Nauman’s kinetic fountain with a hundred bronze fish. 

Fondation Carmignac Porquerolles opened its doors in 2018. This relatively nascent museum on a forested island in the Mediterreanian is far removed from crowds, noise and the daily grind. No more than 50 people at a time are ever permitted in the foundation’s villa, sculpture park and grounds, and as coronavirus continues to grip the world, the setting provides a natural haven for those ready to dip their toes back into the waters of the art world, quite literally. 

Jeff Koons, Acrobat, 2003-2009, Fondation Carmignac Courtesy of the artist. Shimabuku, Leaves swim, 2011, Film, underwater art exhibition
Jeff Koons, Acrobat, 2003-2009, Fondation Carmignac courtesy of the artist. Shimabuku, Leaves swim, 2011, film. Courtesy of the artist and Air de Paris. Photography: Marc Domage

Elsewhere, Miquel Barceló has transformed the vaulted gallery into an organic underwater grotto, and Jeff Koons’ inflatable lobster sculpture engages in some chair-to-chair gymnastics. In another episode of sea life-meets-furniture, Cosima Von Bonin’s fabric Killer Whale sits eagerly at a school desk. In another striking intervention, Bianca Bondi presents her new The Fall and Rise, 2021, a life-size whale skeleton created in resin and salt. Beyond the foundation walls, in a 15th-century fort, photographer Nicholas Floc’h’s exhibition entitled ‘Invisible/Parallel’ is a literal take on submersion. In partnership with the Port-Cros National Park and the Villa Noailles, the photographer has transformed the seabed into a landscape, documenting the more concerning aspects of oceanic change.

‘The Imaginary Sea’ is also a potent reminder that our undersea world, 95 per cent of which is still uncharted, is now endangered. Without action, we are facing a world where many marine creatures and organisms may exist only in our imaginations, or that of artists. §

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