Simon Patterson: the Undersea World and Other Stories

The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Exhibition: 1 May–26 October 2008

'The Undersea World and Other Stories' investigates Simon Patterson’s consistent explorations of the sea, stars and time – themes central to the collections and research at the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The Museum unpacks the material cultures that result from human attempts to find their place in the world, be it mapping the skies above, the ocean depths below, or seeking relationships across time and space. Such structures form frameworks of understanding that are bounded by limits of knowledge and distributed through language.

Cousteau in the Underworld by Simon Patterson in New Visions exhibition space, spring 2008'Cousteau in the Underworld' by Simon Patterson in New Visions exhibition space, spring 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Haunch of Venison © Simon Patterson

Patterson’s artistic practice uses wry humour to question the ways language is used and misused in a flawed network of knowledge, power, doubt and affirmation. Language is built on consensus, yet in Patterson’s hands the register shifts to one of dissensus as he negotiates between universal solutions and failures that are, paradoxically, essential for language to do its work.

'The Undersea World and Other Stories' presents an anthology of Patterson’s works alongside a new commission 'Cousteau in the Underworld' which takes as its first layer mid-19th-century Admiralty charts of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean where the sea is necessarily represented through its limits: soundings show the depth to its bottom; rocky outcrops and sandbanks mark where its surface is interrupted; details of landmasses, such as coastlines and buildings seen from seaward, its edges. Into these empirical documents Patterson folds Greek mythology – a belief system in which the adventures of gods and goddesses were used to interpret existence and conduct.

Not content with setting these two descriptive structures in mutual confrontation, Patterson further complicates the matter by drawing the figure of the French oceanaut Jacques-Yves Cousteau into his network. The pioneering scientist’s long-running television series 'The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau', first screened in 1966, turned the TV set into a porthole through which world-wide audience could explore the deep, aided by the crew of his ship, Calypso. Naming is an act that concerns Patterson: Cousteau’s ship adopts that of a nymph from Greek mythology, which in translation means ‘I will conceal’, quite the opposite of Cousteau’s mission. In his systematic stratifying of incompatible vocabularies, Patterson occludes assumed meaning, revealing the obfuscatory nature of language itself.

'Manned Flight 1999-', 2000-1 by Simon Patterson, Neptune Court, NMM, spring 2008'Manned Flight 1999-', 2000-1 by Simon Patterson, Neptune Court, NMM, spring 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Haunch of Venison © Simon Patterson 

This new commission is not the first time Patterson has made reference to Cousteau. In 1987 he began a series of name paintings in which, very simply, a name is silk-screened in black ink on to a white portrait-format canvas, transcribed in the 1974 font ‘American Typewriter’, known for its legibility and associated with an era of mechanism rather than automatism. In 1988 the roll-call included Jacques Cousteau. In 1992 Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova stand side-by-side – the former, the first man in space, the latter the first woman cosmonaut.

Gagarin is another figure to whom Patterson returns. 'Manned Flight 1999-' is an itinerant sculpture taking the form of a giant kite manufactured from the same white ripstop material used in spinnakers on yachts. Emblazoned across the surfaces, using black-vinyl yacht lettering, is the name ‘Yuri Gagarin’. The sculpture is designed on the principles of the Cody War Kite: patented in 1901, it was invented by Samuel Franklin Cody, a showman who financed his inventions by performing in Wild-West shows. In 1906 the War Office officially adopted the kite as a means of lifting a person high enough to observe enemy strength and positions.

 Untitled (Sails), 1996, before Cosmic Wallpaper, 2002 by Simon Patterson in New Visions exhibition space, spring 2008'Untitled (Sails)', 1996, before 'Cosmic Wallpaper', 2002 by Simon Patterson in New Visions exhibition space, spring 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Haunch of Venison © Simon Patterson

For 'The Undersea World and Other Stories', 'Manned Flight 1999-' will be released into the glass roof spanning the internal courtyard of the NMM, as if it has stretched out of the confines of the exhibition spaces, and with this installation adding new bruises to the artwork’s fragile surfaces as it continues its journey until it is shown just outside of Moscow, on the exact site where Gagarin died in a routine flying exercise as he retrained to become a fighter pilot.

While 'Manned Flight 1999-' stretches to the edges of the Museum, Patterson’s 'Untitled (Sails)' (1996) seems to be primed to race across the waves right out of the gallery space. This set of three fully rigged racing sails, each with class mark letters and a number, points to three writers: ‘Raymond Chandler 1888–1959’ (whose Philip Marlowe stories set the standard for hard-boiled detective fiction), ‘Laurence Sterne 1713–68’ (the author of the nine-volume picaresque novel Tristram Shandy) and ‘Currer Bell 1816–55’ (Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym). Marooned on dry land, the three sails allude to the countless metaphors and narratives projected on to the sea in literature, and to the vocabulary of sailing.

Sister Ships, 1995 and Monkey Business, 1993 by Simon Patterson in New Visions exhibition space'Sister Ships', 1995 and 'Monkey Business', 1993 by Simon Patterson in New Visions exhibition space, spring 2008. 'Sister Ships', courtesy of the artist and Haunch of Venison, 'Monkey Business', collection Jack and Nell Wendler © Simon Patterson

Two other of Patterson’s works in this exhibition directly refer to movement across the sea –' Monkey Business' (1993) and 'Sister Ships' (1995). The latter is a constellation of four industrial-scale sculptures bearing the names of ships from the ill-fated British shipping company the White Star Line – SS Olympic, Titanic, Britannic and Gigantic. The company was one of the first lines to provide mass passenger travel, and in 1911 it launched a new ‘Olympic’ class of ocean liners named after races of gods and demi-gods from Greek mythology – the Titans, Olympians and Giants. Titanic sank on its first voyage, causing the Gigantic to be renamed the Britannic, which in 1916 hit a mine in the Aegean Sea on its sixth voyage, while serving as a wartime hospital ship. The wreck was first explored by Jacques Cousteau in 1975.

Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, 1993 by Simon Patterson in New Visions exhibition space, spring 2008'Yuri Gagarin' and 'Valentina Tereshkova', 1993 by Simon Patterson in New Visions exhibition space, spring 2008. © Simon Patterson

As often happens with Patterson’s practice, links forge their way across works. 'Monkey Business' is a large wall drawing inspired by the Marx Brothers’ 1931 film of that name, recounting the exploits of the four brothers as stowaways on a large ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. 'Monkey Business' takes the form of a section through a vessel, showing below-deck spaces classified by geological time, animals, leisure spaces and ports.

Measurements of time frequently occur in Patterson’s work. As with his conflation of language, rather than showing such consensual structures as functional aids, he highlights the subjectivities at the heart of perceived objectivity. 'Time Machine' (1993) is a set of slide-rules that proclaim a misplaced authority, posing as descriptive narratives offering the potential of perceptual travel through time layering on top of each other religious, philosophical and biological scales.

Different measures of time are again explored in Patterson’s one-minute film Timepiece (2005), where a pair of pocket watches move in and out of sync against the sounds of a man and woman breathing as they push their bodies to physical limits, thus intertwining mechanical and experiential time. This work is on show during the exhibition in the South-West Parlour of the Queen's House between May 1–18 (except 10 May) and 20–26 October 2008.

The Great Bear (New Visions)Simon Patterson, 'The Great Bear', 1992. Courtesy the artist and Haunch of Venison © Simon Patterson and Transport for LondonReworkings of diagrams and maps are a regular occurrence in Patterson’s practice. 'The Great Bear' (1992) departs from Harry Beck’s London Underground map, inserting a rupture between information and its representation.

In this instantly recognizable chart, physical distances are inaccurate yet navigational relationships are communicated with the greatest clarity. In this artwork, named after the Ursa Major constellation, the East London Line becomes ‘Planets’, the Victoria line ‘Italian Artists’ and British Rail ‘Thirty Comedians’. One can travel from Venus to Captain Cook with only one change at Kate Adie, or from Columbus to Kierkegaard to board the mainline train at Oliver Reed. In reading these seemingly unlinked names, one cannot help but draw on memory and imagination to try and make sense of this renamed world where time, space and understanding collapse and reform anew.

Visually the map appears to be familiar but inspection reveals an entirely different system. This, though, is a second untruth: the map today is obsolete. In 1992 the East London Line ran from Shoreditch to New Cross and the DLR stopped at the north bank of the Thames. A similar subversion takes place in 'Cosmic Wallpaper' (2002) – seemingly a star chart communicating a school-book representation of cosmology in wallpaper form. Scrutiny shows that it is not the skies above that are being communicated but a portrait of the heavy-rock band Deep Purple, charting their line-up changes, spin-offs, groupies and outputs. In 'The Great Bear' and 'Cosmic Wallpaper', Patterson reveals the ways both his sources and modified versions portray objectivity as an approximation that is hampered by an inevitable future obsolescence.

Lisa Le Feuvre
Curator of Contemporary Art

Supported by

Henry Moore Foundation Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation Arts Council, England logo





About the artist

Simon Patterson was born in the UK in 1967. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1996 and has exhibited widely in solo shows and group shows in the UK and internationally. His work is included in the Tate Collection, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and many other many international collections.

 Contemporary Art at the National Maritime Museum

About New Visions

New Visions is the contemporary art programme of the National Maritime Museum. Working with British and international artists, New Visions encourages and broadens access to the arts and deepens the National Maritime Museum’s engagement with its core exploration of the sea, stars and time and the significance of Greenwich as a World Heritage Site. The Museum is a rich source of inspiration to artists, from the depths of its collections to its magnificent listed buildings. In autumn 2008 the New Visions programme will commission a project with the artist Renée Green.

The Curator of Contemporary Art is Lisa Le Feuvre.

For further information contact

New Visions is funded by the Arts Council.