Fish Out of Water
Tim Mitchell’s Fish Out of Water series which was recently exhibited at the National Glass Centre Sunderland comes from a 2 year collaboration with academics in the Durham Geography department. It is a study in obduracy, perdurance and disappearance. Ships, objects, places and people are all cast in the light of what is transient and what is enduring. It is a light that reveals much that is often hidden, unnoted yet essential.
Although, the ostensible subject of the series is the naval ship the Grey Rover, it is in some ways the most attenuated presence in the pictures. In the time lapse sequence, we see her arriving at the dock painted in what the navy call ‘No See Grey,’ becoming visible in her destruction and then disappearing. Indeed, such a muted presence seems fitting for this unassuming workhorse of the military. Built at Swan Hunters on Tyneside and launched in 1969, it served as the fuelling tanker for more glamorous ships for 37 years. It is a reminder that so much of the military is about support and providing infrastructure for others. In this the Grey Rover is no less anonymous and no less essential than the 27,000 or so merchant ships and their sailors that plough ceaselessly across the oceans to sustain our societies – bringing the oil, the grain, the chemicals, the materials and the products that are the stuff of modern life.
For a maritime nation, that depends on goods brought and sent by sea for almost every part of our lives and economy, such a muted presence is emblematic of how the ocean has receded from society’s view. These images render it visible once more but at the moment of passing and decay. The dock is a piece of decaying Victoriana, once intended to launch and maintain ships, now used to end their lives. The workers who stare so resolutely back into the lens are what remains of the shipbuilding workforces and communities, so diminished and still exhibiting both a pride in physically handling the material of our economy yet also the costs of such hard labour. And yet these are not the epic celebrations of industrial modernism, like early twentieth century pictures of vast machines, towering buildings and infrastructure being assembled. The work done here is not sacralised by creating something. Instead, it is about destruction and disappearance.
Yet the ship is loathe to disappear. The pictures render the ship visible through its very substance that enabled it to endure the ocean’s might – the metal plate, the pipes and the rivets. Hard metal and hard work are coupled with dirt and disorder to show a messy end as eventually it succumbs and is pulled apart. Its interior workings made visible, in the ripped open cabin, the pile of scrap material or the boiler cast down on the ground. Instead of the ordered symmetry of the ship, there is the tangled, twisted and torn fabric that made the vessel. It is ship shape no more. The raw metal of the interior refuses the melancholy pleasures of nostalgia. For four decades these spaces rang with bustle, hopes and fears of ordinary lives of a community encased in steel and cut off from the land. The closed in view points of the pictures stage a vision of that confinement – of life surrounded by steel. In the unsentimental world of material recovery there is little room to hear to the echoes of the crew’s laughter, their fears or their comradeship. Instead of the bittersweet language of reminiscence for lost community, the pictures speak to the ongoing life of the metal of the ship. Instead of the haunting silence of abandoned ruins, here is noisy destruction, detritus on its way to being salvaged. The centre piece then is the timelapse of the ship disappearing before our eyes, through fire , wind and rain it is rent apart.
These pictures offer a voice for the places and people who earn hard and precarious living from destroying things so that materials may live on. This is the dirty work and dirty world that we call recycling. It is the end of the ship but a new beginning for the masses of scrap. And yet the true subject in these pictures seems not to be the people who made, sailed in or even broke up the ship, nor the place of her destruction, but the metal itself. This metal shown in all its lumpy, obdurate and intractable forms that is being prized apart and sent onto new lives to be remade. The ship is dead, long live the steel.