THE aim of a new exhibition in the Millennium Gallery is for visitors to step into the gallery from the inland city of Sheffield and become immersed in an underwater realm beneath the oceans.
Under the Sea, in the Craft and Design Gallery, brings together a collection of contemporary and historical art, design and craft, inspired by the mysteries of the deep.
Artists and designers have long been fascinated by the shapes and forms found in marine plants and animals but it is comparatively recently that they have become truly visible and even more recently that people have become away of the plight of the fragile ecosystem beneath the waves.
The pressure on the oceans from the population on land is threatening not just the fish species we exploit for food, but global mass extinctions. Under the Sea explores the beauty and importance of the oceans, their significance for our planet and what we as individuals can do to help protect them for the future.
Visitors will see a life-sized charcoal drawing of a captive Orca by local artist Paul Evans, a new commission for Museums Sheffield which covers the gallery’s back wall. Other contemporary works include Danish artist Steffan Dam’s mysterious sculptures, evoking unidentified sea creatures petrified in glass, and Dorothy Cross’s film Hildegaard – Octopus Hunter, made in a remote community in the South Pacific.
Visitors can also see Jenny Llewellyn’s silver and silicon jewellery which glows in the dark, inspired by the fluorescing and colourful creatures of the underwater world, and contemporary glass by Katherine Coleman inspired by the illustrations of the 19th-century biologist and illustrator Ernst Haeckel.
There is a display of Edward Bawden wallpaper designs depicting aquatic myths and animals from the Thirties which have been restored especially for the exhibition. And above the doorway hang a shoal of papier mache fish made by local youngsters.
“The exhibition carries an underlying environmental message,” says Rowena Hamilton. Museums Sheffield’s Curator of Craft and Design, and that was the main motivation for creating it.
“People care about land animals but not so much underwater creatures because we don’t see them all the time and actually until modern times no-one had seen them before the advent of scuba diving. So people don’t feel the same level of sympathy and yet the issue is far more serious than rainforests.”
The exhibition draws on the visual arts, decorative arts and natural history collections, as well as the contemporary work.
“With most of the objects we are trying to combine a design story with a natural story,” says Hamilton. Sheffield boasts “an amazing” natural history marine collection from Victorian times, she points out, notably those acquired by Ecclesfield vicar’s wife Margaret Gatty which were donated to the City Museum.
So we can see the jaws of a great white shark and from the world culture collection comes a swordfish blade from Kiribati in the South Pacific dating back to the 1930s and a scrimshaw sperm whale tooth with the picture of a sailing ship etched on it.
The exhibition combines Hamilton’s two abiding passions, for most of her time off from curating art is spent scuba diving in different parts of the world.
“There is more reason to do it in a landlocked city because it’s easier for us to forget because you don’t see it every day, but the sea is what affects our climate. It absords half of the C02 we generate.
“Millions of years ago this would have been sea anyway and our education department is doing projects with schools designing a prehistoric coral reef.”
Which brings us to the wonderfully colourful hanging along the length of one of the gallery walls.
The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef is a project created and curated by two Australian-born sisters in America, Christine and Margaret Wertheim, one a mathematician, the other a writer and artist, who began crotcheting as a means of exploring hyperbolic geometry (as opposed to conventional geometery on flat planes) and realised it looked like coral. They founded the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles which established the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef created by enthusiastic handcrafters.
Combining mathematics, marine biology, handicraft and community art it helped to spread an environmental message about global warming and the escalating problem of oceanic plastic rubbishh.
Other groups around the world were encouraged to create their own crochet coral reefs and the UK version, which started in the Hayward Gallery in London, and supported by the Crafts Council has been ‘grown’ by thousands of craft makers across Britain. It now comes to Sheffield where it will be added to in the duration of the Under the Sea exhibition with special workshops being organised to demonstrate the techniques.
“It’s all about presenting the beauty of the sea while trying to suggest what some of the issues are,” rounds off Hamilton.
Under the Sea opened in the Craft and Design Gallery of the Millennium Gallery this week and continues until June 10.