“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
- Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince
At the distance of the elevator exit on level two at White Rabbit Gallery High Seas by Shi Zhiying is an unremarkable fuzzy patch of grey in our periphery partially obscured by a wall. On cornering the wall and encountering the work is its hulking entirety (2mx8m), conversation gives way to a deep inhale and your legs rivet to the floor as you stand awed by the apparent contradiction of a photo-realistic impression of a boundless ocean with a painterly texture, and for a moment you are transfixed.
To render a viewer transfixed is perhaps harder today than ever. In a culture awash with visual stimuli we are constantly scanning, our focus flitting across the surface of things seldom fully coming to rest incase we miss something. For the most part advertising vies for our attention but, generally speaking, in the context of a gallery, the larger the collection the faster we move through the space and the less time we give to each work. This cursory mode of viewing suggests contemporary viewers, fattened on a surfeit of visual stimuli, have forged a new modus for experiencing visual culture and arguably the world.
We live in a culture where advertising falsely empowers us to think we are the center of the universe. Lulled into acceptance of this false agency we assume a terrifying responsibility for our path in life with consumer goods acting as the correctives if ever things don’t seem to be running to plan. In this way, gazing out into the nothingness depicted in High Seas transports the viewer away from the messiness of life. With no central focal point just boundless ocean, High Seas envelops the viewer and to be made to feel small, insignificant even, is a distinctly refreshing experience – albeit only for so long.
For an ocean vista with a seemingly infinite reach, utterly bereft of life, High Seas paradoxically induces a sense of intense claustrophobia. The painting came into being from a photograph the artist took of the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. From the shoreline we can look out to sea with the pulsating city in safe reach behind us – on an impulse, when the austerity of the ocean grows eerie, we can turn on our heel and retreat back into the city. Similarly, in the gallery we can move on to the next work. But in order to fully appreciate High Seas one needs to engage with it beyond this pithy threshold. Held captive in the work’s embrace for a moment too long and the experience shifts from instant calm to wonderment to discomfort to anxiety. There comes a point when solitude sours to loneliness.
In a contemporary arts scene suffering from a preoccupation with bigness, where size is too readily equated with profundity, High Seas’ form/content balance justifies its monolithic dimensions. Were the canvas of more conventional dimensions the work would not be able to envelop the viewer and affect the illusion of suspended space. In an age where most people, myself included, consume most of their art online this is a work that can only truly be appreciated in real space and in the fullness of time.