I am fucking terrified of water because, you know, water is terrifying. But my fear is specific. I'm not particularly afraid of drowning (or its opposite—dying of thirst); I don't have a tangible grasp of what a flood looks or feels like; undertow seems mildly perilous but unlikely; is a whirlpool even a real thing?; I'd rather not dive into a shallow pool and crack my head on the bottom, but it doesn't keep me up at night (however, on that note, I DO still have visceral spasms pertaining to Greg Louganis hitting his skull on that diving board in 1988 because FUCK!). Specifically, I am frightened of very deep water—of floating, tiny and foreign, on the surface, with uncounted gallons of black possibility beneath me. You guys, anything could be down there! Which means, I guess, that I'm afraid of monsters: teeth, tentacles, gullets, maws, lurking, swimming, brushing against legs, bleeding, decaying, feeding fish, sinking into invisibility. Just thinking about the Jaws poster gives me the vapors.
There aren't really any monsters in Underwater, currently on display at Western Bridge, but it banks on that limitless, thrilling possibility—the show's vagueness is almost silly. It's just about water. Anything to do with water: what it looks like from far away, what it looks like frozen, the way it looks when you're in it or out of it. There's water as a weapon, as recreation, as flood, as mud, as a life-ruiner, as a terrifying yet world-sustaining bigness. It seems dumb to think you could possibly cover the breadth of this subject in one gallery show, but who says Western Bridge is obligated to try? One can look at water without comprehensively grasping it—there are millions of heretofore-unidentified-by-science fishes in the sea. Underwater picks and chooses quite nicely.
The clunky obviousness of this analogy is embarrassing, but it feels true: Underwater is like easing into a cold pool. At first, you're not convinced. The salon wall is very dense, very long, and incoherent. Mark Wyse's photographs of paddling surfers outmatched by scarily immense gray seas (for fun, can you imagine?!) hang adjacent to Tony de los Reyes's silhouetted sailing ship and Kathleen Johnson's chlorine blue underwater pool steps. Somewhere, from another room, comes a bleating, knocking sound that might be whales (it's not). What is the point? Water is not enough, you think. But Underwater pulls you into itself gradually; the thing that finally caught me was Jeppe Hein's Ice Cube.
It sits on the floor. It is a block of ice, probably about 18 inches cubed. It is melting (because Western Bridge is not a freezer); each one takes three days to melt and then is replaced. The puddle it creates oozes calmly, imperceptibly outward, revealing the floor's secret biases. You could walk in the puddle, but you don't (but maybe some of you do!), and you don't really know why. If you stood there long enough, it might touch you. You can feel the chill. Being close to it is exciting.
From there I was sold. Let's go swimming, Underwater! Show me what you've got. Marco? POLOOOOO!!!
Like a lot of terrifying things (heights, the wilderness, Nicole Kidman), water is also ridiculously beautiful and being in it can be so, so wonderful (wait—did I just imply that I've had intimacy times with Nicole Kidman? Because prove it). There's beauty in Underwater. Gary Hume's immense painting, hanging on the south wall of the main gallery—the least literal piece in that room—shows the gentle distortions of a human reflection or possibly the shaky, fragmented contours of a body submerged. Or both. An ultrabig, horizonless photograph of the surface of the ocean (rough, abrasive) recalls the ultramicroscopic surface of a flake of skin. From the ceiling, Olafur Eliasson's Neon Ripple (it's a neon ripple) reflects serenely in Daniel Roth's River Styx—an appropriately mythic and funereal box of black water.
Sometimes, water is also boring—an aerial photograph by Amir Zaki of a pool (empty or full?) wedged in a weird industrial nook seemed off-topic, claustrophobic, forced. Upstairs is more figurative (and by that I mean the opposite of literal) and less serious: Joseph Park's sad little elephant at the Korean bath; Morris Graves's Greeky mysticism; Hiroshi Sugimoto's obscure, beckoning ocean surfaces.
By the time we got to the end of our circuit, lines had blurred. Water was everywhere. I looked through an open door into a nearby bathroom. Was that a real bathroom? Should I go look at it? Was my brain needed for this? I examined, for a moment, the contours of the tap, the curve of the toilet bowl, and then I realized it's just a regular old mundane human bathroom—probably where we interact with water the most, every day, where it cleans us and whisks away our waste and where, in one paralyzing childhood episode, it brought a large rat bubbling up from the unknown depths of our toilet to run around the house leaving streaks of foul mud. Still, water is awesome. Thanks for everything, water.