Mitigating Real Nightmares: Richard Lewer, ‘The Custom of the Sea’

Richard Lewer, The Custom of the Sea

ST PAUL ST Gallery 2, WM Building, AUT Campus, Auckland.

Thursday April 17 –  Friday May 22, 2015.

Mitigating Real Nightmares

I first discovered Richard Lewer when my partner was at Art School. She was doing an assignment and had selected to deconstruct, among other stuff, Lewer’s painting Family Dispute. The painting detailed what appeared to be a dinner scene, plush, well-to-do; except the family sitting at the table were represented only as amorphous fleshy smears – blurs of irritation and self-interest, the hot colours of irrationality and familial psychosis. There was a level of sadism in the delivery; it seemed to me that Lewer liked painting this, that he’d revelled in the depiction of upper-middle class misery. What were they fighting over? Inheritance? Whatever it was, the painting appeared to invite the audience to enjoy looking at the pain. And I did. I wanted this work on my wall.

It was because of this past experience that I was excited about Lewer’s new ST PAUL ST exhibition, and so I was there on opening evening, sipping wine and double-dipping my bread in the hummus.

The work is a big one. Assembled with the help of a group of supporters in a community-oriented approach, The Custom of the Sea takes up the whole gallery wall, a charcoal sketching of another dark moment. The title refers to the sailor’s unwritten code that if you’re lost at sea and you can’t catch fish or seagulls and you’ve run out of rations and the fat kid is starting to look like steak, you’re allowed to make him steak – provided he’s the weakest in the group. The work itself attempts to represent a real event – a documented instance of cannibalism from 1884, where four shipwrecked sailors found themselves adrift thousands of miles from land. The first one to get sick and wretched was a young man named Richard Parker (you see what The Life of Pi did there?). Inevitably, two out of the three surviving castaways got hungry enough to let all their civilizational baggage about morality, ethics and humanity slide, decided his flesh was up for grabs, and hoed in. There’s no mention of what the third did once the others started chewing intestine. No doubt he looked awkwardly out to sea and thought of England. Possibly sausage.

The work is great to look at: a big beast of collective action. But, as per my glib description, it doesn’t possess the kind of dark that causes you to re-examine the human soul. Maybe it’s the temporal distance and the setting: it’s hard to empathise with the plight of nineteenth century sailors without the 200,000 words of Moby Dick to force it (Call me Ishmael…? Yeah man, totally, I will!).

Because of this unavoidable emotional distance, The Custom of the Sea has the same aesthetic appeal as a zombie narrative. It lets you dive into the darkness and enjoy it as surrealism or hypothesis, but it’s hard to transport yourself enough to experience it at the visceral level of true or authentic human feeling. That’s not a bad thing, by any means. In fact, it’s actually appealing. It makes the work ‘light-dark’ rather than ‘dark-dark.’ And that’s also not to say that Lewer isn’t capable of the kind of hard-hitting misery that makes you flinch a little, the kind of sadness that lingers days later as a nightmare you know is potent because it will eventually reify in your own life, whether you like it or not. If you want to see Lewer peddling that particular brand of pain, have a look at his video Worse Luck I Am Still Here. Both its narrative and delivery destroy the modern viewer because they reflect what we truly fear; we know that some version of what Lewer describes is coming for us eventually.

All this puts The Custom of the Sea in an interesting place in relation to not only modern art but to popular culture and the concerns and values of contemporary society. It would be fair to say that if you’re living in the first world and you have a job and you can feed yourself, times are pretty good. It’s very much okay being alive. In times like these, we seek versions of the dark – we seek out the human extents and see how bad things can get – maybe because we know that now is the right time to do it. That is, from the safety of socio-economic comfort. In Depression-era America, Superman was popular precisely because times were bad. Superman was an ultra-positive, idealistic escape from the privation and pessimism that its audience had to encounter on a day-to-day basis. For us, in the relative comfort of 2015 New Zealand, hunting out nihilism or the edges of human capacity is attractive as art because that’s exactly what we don’t have to deal with.

Interestingly, The Custom of the Sea is a collective work. Yes, it was Lewer’s idea and he directed and facilitated its execution, but he put it together with the help of a team. An ostensibly bleak piece was constructed with the positive energy of a community. As a team, they worked with charcoal to depict in grand scale the moment that Dudley and Stephens took a knife and began to slice into Parker’s stomach. When you think about it, that tells us a lot about who we are right now. It’s also through this framework that what Stanley Kubrick said about his own relentlessly bleak art comes into focus, and why we make this black stuff at all becomes a bit clearer: “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

What’s the takeaway then? Maybe this: When friends sketch ghosts together, they begin to lose the power to haunt.

Alec Hutchinson.

Photographs: Mathew Kent.