IIn June 1972, Scottish farmer Dougal Robertson was sailing across the Pacific Ocean with his family when a group of killer whales attacked their schooner Lucite. Robertson was about to drink his morning coffee when the hull suddenly split apart under his feet to reveal the unfathomable ocean. The family had about two minutes to gather everything they could and board the lifeboat before the ship sank into the blue. And on this fragile canoe, four adults and two children managed to survive without maps or a compass, against 20-foot waves, round sharks, thirst, heat stroke, and starvation for 38 days.
A coffee cup appears at the beginning of a presentation by American artist Nina Katchadurian, raised on a pedestal like a modern sculpture. The original is lost beneath the waves, of course, somewhere off the Galapagos Islands. But Kachadorian worked hard to find a replica, constantly checking to see if she had properly dealt with Douglas, Robertson’s eldest child, 18 at the time of this trauma. Accuracy is vital. Because this is nothing less than an attempt at imaginative entertainment.
Kachadorian first came across the story at the age of seven in Dougall’s world bestseller Survive in the barbaric seaHe has read the book almost every year since then. Now, 54, she is highly admired for her quirky and hilarious inquiries about our place in the world, which are interpreted in every medium from sculpture, painting and film to sound and performance. One of her most famous works is photography Flemish style toilet selfiesall in one long trip with paper towels and other plane wreckage, and it never ends The genealogy of the supermarket, which connects all the people who appear on popular grocery products as if they were all one big family. Think Taxonomy, Anthropology, and Comedy: Susan Heller with Humor.
How do you convey the incredible ordeal that Robertson endured, if you weren’t there? The Katchadorian begins with the whale and its size. Hanging on the wall is a life-size painting of Orc, which runs the length of the first gallery. It carries absolutely no danger – until you notice the outline of the canoe on the ground. Robertson started with two ships, but the raft soon deflated and they were trapped in a canoe just 9 feet long. Kachadorian paints elegant contrasting diagrams showing how the body intertwines with the body, awake and asleep, huddled together like a human sardine.
Dougal Robertson was heroic, imaginative, and incredibly stern. Recordings from his book are audible on headphones through the show. The moment they saw a ship that did not see them (full of “the bitter aggression of a predator”). The nightmarish plan to drift into recession, because at least there is a chance to calm down temporarily. Systematic hunting and destruction of ocean creatures, rage when anyone allows such a creature to escape.
But these are interspersed with the words of Douglas, whose story differs from that of his father in the most moving ways. He remembers the terrible quarrels between his parents, the strange hunger that faded with time, and the beauty of the vast sky above the boat. He also speaks with extraordinary eloquence about the moment when a Japanese fishing vessel finally appeared, saw and rescued it. A fisherman handed a lifeline and Douglas took it. “To feel something that wasn’t from us, wasn’t from our world, that was fine.”
On the ground below is a blond cord spiral formed in a disk, like a great yellow moon. Kachadorian enters the ordeal with beautiful humility. I made the most beautiful wireframe sculptures of the creatures they hunted: sea turtles, flying fish and dorados, which seem to float on the walls of the blue gallery as if submerged halfway between skeleton and memory.
She interviews Douglas by phone, text, and WhatsApp from her studio in New York and his home in Barnet, and their messages are often printed to add to the growing narrative on the wall. The Robertson family had to hunt turtles, drink their blood for fluids, and eat their eggs for protein. How did the eggs taste? Douglas, in his evergreen memories, describes the slight crunch followed by a dash of soft sweetness. Kachadorian stacks a pile of Lindor Lindor truffles on a pedestal.
Although this show is deeply committed to knowledge — how to navigate and survive in the wild ocean, how to catch a flying fish without capsizing a boat, how to make an enema with turtle oil — its ultimate concern is human empathy. What it felt like for Dougal, Douglas, his mother, and his nine-year-old twin brothers, not only to eat the food that bleeds raw but to be so close to death and somehow remain hopeful.
The gallery is crowded in the basement of the towering Pace London headquarters when it could have expanded across several floors. You have to bend low to see the news snippets of Robertson’s rescue alongside Elvis’ divorce, and you had better chop up the canoe scheme in some oceanic upper gallery. But Kachadorian made the most of the space allotted to her and her ideas. Art always asks what he was, what he looks like, how he felt, and seeks to show the answers. This show – which includes her own attempts to contain the ocean in a small watercolor painting – achieves this in the most original and innovative way. It ends with breakfast on a Japanese trawler: a story suspended between two cups of coffee.