Review: Underwater at Towner

28Apr10

Exhibition: Underwater, Towner, Eastbourne, until June 20 2010

In the landscapes paintings of Eric Ravilious, the South Downs look like green waves in a rough sea, at least they do so after a visit to Underwater at Towner.

The Eastbourne gallery has a reputation for landscape art and the local painter is one of many whose downland works feature in the permanent collection.

Ravilious doesn’t qualify for the new show, which takes the boundaries of the landscape genre and drags them into the depths. But it might have pleased him that his hometown can now stake a place on the UK map of contemporary art.

The big name at the current show is Bill Viola, whose 2005 video Becoming Light turns a non-specific body of water into an inky blue starry night.

Floating just below and occasionally above the surface are an entwined couple whose struggle to remain buoyant resembles an improvised dance. They come up for air and look ecstatic. They sink away from the camera out of sight and end life as a luminous bubble of oxygen, or perhaps carbon dioxide.

In a second video, by Dorothy Cross, the artist films herself afloat among a swarm of jellyfish. This is a nude, as much as a landscape, and a scene of painful exposure. But the creatures appear not to harm her. They merely investigate, along with our gaze.

Klaus Osterwald also takes us below the surface of a lake, with a five speaker audio installation. Donatus Subaqua reveals a mysterious world of noisy fish, bubbling gases and overheard human calls. Space, depth and topography are rendered in sound.

Another subaquatic landscape is provided by Seunghyn Woo, whose plaster and wire mesh sculptures look both organic and alien. Dripped with acrylic the colour of exotic milkshakes, they get even more interesting close up, like coral.

Perhaps the underwater realm is, after all, unknowable. Detailed photographs of the sea bed here, taken by Daniel Gustav Cramer, show it as dark, murky and utterly impenetrable. Eric Ravilious would surely have been fascinated.

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