The City That Lost Its Sea

An arts project commissioned for the Southampton Science and Engineering Festival (SOTSEF) in collaboration with the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre. The work considers the paradox of the modern sea’s increased importance, but virtual invisibility, via Southampton: the second largest container port in the UK in which the sea is hardly visible.

The work includes a two-screen video narrated by the English writer and Southampton resident, Philip Hoare, along with new photographs and archive material sourced from the National Oceanography Centre. The work was exhibited at the John Hansard Gallery during the 2018 SOTSEF festival.

About:

Southampton owes its existence to the sea, but how many of its citizens even see the water, from day to day? The development of the city’s port has seen its settlement successively recede from the sea. In its economic success, the city has been disconnected by its own expansion from the element that sustains it.

Since the arrival of the railway in 1840—cutting off the central city from its Georgian shore—and the inauguration of the steamer docks in 1843, Southampton has offered an important exemplar of the sea’s conspicuous inconspicuousness. In the nineteenth century, Southampton’s primary boast as a port was the speed with which goods might depart from it—fruit arriving from South Africa in the morning would be in London markets by afternoon; gold bullion arriving by ship could be whisked through tunnels to the railroad, bypassing the city altogether. This continues into the present: Southampton is now a major cruise terminal, but not a destination for tourists, it is the primary point of entry for vehicles shipped from overseas, but these are largely unseeable. Across Southampton Water, the Fawley refinery, the largest in the UK, supplies 20% of the UK’s oil, much of it invisibly, by direct pipeline.

Yet the Southampton sea is most apparent in its striking absence and literal inaccessibility. The ports are operated by offshore consortia and off limits to the public, the city is a transit point rather than a destination for containers, oil, automobiles, and cruise passengers—a self-styled ‘Gateway’ that is paradoxically closed off from view.

With this context in mind, this project sets out to record and analyse the history of maritime representation in Southampton, while also rendering that history newly visible, and adding meaningfully to it.

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View installation shots here