The exhibition WHEN THE SEA LOOKS BACK (A Serpent’s Tale) works as a series of evocations and a radio magazine with international contributions. The show engages the sea and intercultural mythology, merging them with contemporary issues.
WHEN THE SEA LOOKS BACK (A Serpent’s Tale) is a polyphonic oracle that takes the form of an exhibition, a series of evocations and a radio magazine curated by The Many Headed Hydra. Engaging the sea as a mirror and the serpent as a trickster The Many Headed Hydra surfaces at Nida Art Colony to weave a tale from the crossings of landscape, body and power.
Meeresspiegel (lit. sea level), sea mirror is a notion that challenges the perception of the sea as a surface where the gaze finds its horizon. To look back with the sea is to move below and to acknowledge a different dimension of time and space: The oracles in WHEN THE SEA LOOKS BACK (A Serpent’s Tale) fabulate that the desert landscapes of South and North, of the parched Aral and the Curonian ‘dead’ dunes are connected beyond and before the aftershocks of an ecological modernity formed by colonial land use. They whisper of fishermen from Kazakhstan and other places across the Soviet Union who were relocated to the Curonian Spit to reactivate the fisheries and serve in the army after the second world war. They tell of female and interspecies transformations, of diaspora and border cultures and of (post-)military masculinities with the help of the popular Lithuanian folk tale Eglė Queen of the Grass Snakes – a story that has migrated across centuries from India via Kazakhstan to Lithuania as well as to Turkey and Germany.
“Give me back the sea” shouts the camel in Amalgul Menlibayeva’s video work Transoxiana Dreams. The camel is an inhabitant of a fishing village that lay at the shore of the Aral before its desertification caused by the Soviet agricultural project. In her dreams a fishermen’s child follows the journey of her father to the faraway waters of the Aral. She sees four-legged women becoming foxes that devour the rusty hulls of fishing boats stranded in the desert that had once been the bottom of the sea.
Looking back with the sea from the Curonian Spit peninsula is to image a forest becoming a sand dune while ships are built from trees to sail between Atlantic shores under an imperial flag. The continuing tension between the desert dunes and the forest is a living trace of entangled histories: the Prussian expansion of colonial sea fare and trade, the touristic and artistic economy of the peninsula with its exoticized ‘dead’ dunes and fishing villages, the replanting of the forest carried out by generations of women while the sea and spit remained borderland claimed by four different nations across two centuries.
From here, from elsewhere –and from the elsewhere within here– many of the contributions for WHEN THE SEA LOOKS BACK (A Serpent’s Tale) resonate the voices of subaltern agents within post-imperial ecologies. A Serpent’s Tale is the subtitle of the most famous version of Eglė Queen of the Grass Snakes, a story of losing home, encounters with strangers, love, betrayal and death, written by the poet Salomėja Nėris in 1940. Drawing from its reptile-human and human-tree shape-shifting and its historical relation to the nationalised culture and migration, the Vilnius based collective Cooltūristės and the performance artist Bryndis Björnsdottír offer subversive re-readings of the myth. Together with Sondra Perry’s Black Girl As Landscape they complicate and disrupt patriarchal representations of landscape as a body to be exploited and surveyed, appraised and nationalized. Virgilijus Šonta’s 1970s and 1980s photographs from the Curonian Spit explore the borderland dunes incorporating mirroring surfaces, bodies and feathers as tokens of a longing: Perhaps I have come to this world in the wrong country, in the wrong social environment. Nevertheless, I believe in the existence of the country that would correspond to my inner state (Virgilijus Šonta).
Following the sea’s serpentine markings of future, past and present coast lines, WHEN THE SEA LOOKS BACK (A Serpent’s Tale) spills out from the exhibition space into the surrounding landscape with a public program of readings, performances, radio broadcasts. Dune dances, post human poker games, cyborg oracles, lucid dreams and a deep time mythology app open out multiple narratives that slide from a forked snake tongue. By way of imagination, memory, oral and visual modes of transmission, WHEN THE SEA LOOKS BACK (A Serpent’s Tale) approaches the waters as historical topographies and political collectivities.
The Many Headed Hydra is a shape-shifting collective interested in myths and practices that emerge from bodies of water. Founded by Emma Haugh and Suza Husse at District Berlin in 2016 and developed with people from different islands, continents and peninsulas, The Many Headed Hydra is a queer, hydrofeminist, post-colonial art project. Involving research, art making and publishing based on collaboration and modes of storytelling The Many Headed Hydra uses publication as a performative device and surfaces in the form of magazines, exhibitions and evocations.
After its itineration at VAA Nida Art Colony WHEN THE SEA LOOKS BACK (A Serpent’s Tale) will re-surface at District Berlin in fall 2017.
Artists: Bryndis Björnsdottír, Cooltūristės, Ieva Epnere, Daniel Falb, Sonja Gerdes, Ulrike Gerhardt, Golden Diskó Ship, Emma Haugh, Suza Husse, Almagul Menlibayeva, Sondra Perry, Virgilijus Šonta, Elsa Westreicher
Curators: The Many Headed Hydra (Emma Haugh, Suza Husse)
The exhibition is open for visitors daily except Mondays from 12AM to 8PM at VAA Nida Art Colony on 16 July – 27 August 2017
Photography: Emma Haugh