At the end of the main gallery of the Cultural Center of the Philippines lies a journey beyond the shores. As part of this year’s 13 Artists Awards, Dutch-Filipino artist Martha Atienza presents her tour de force, Endless Hours at Sea.
The audio-visual installation is her project that combines four residencies’ worth of experience. “I was able to get residences from four different port cities, Singapore, New York, Melbourne, and Liverpool and I proposed to them a big project connecting [all of them together, instead of making one project for each of them.]”
The result is a chilling and accurate recreation of what it’s like to be on a ship at sea. The dark room set up specifically for Martha’s work serves as a perfect backdrop for the light projected through water to recreate ocean waves on the walls. These are accompanied by the sounds of ship’s horns, birds calling, the crashing of tides, and the sound of the deep undercurrent. To Martha, however, the sea is her home. She admits that her fascination for the sea is due to the fact that her family has also been involved with it. “My father was a sea captain, while my brother also works on board. My other brother is also in shipping while my grandfather was a lighthouse watcher,” she tells us. Hence, her dream to know more of the family heritage also became her life’s work, “In 2010, I got a chance to do my dream project. I have all these connections to the sea, and I got funding to follow seamen on their journeys. I went on a container vessel from Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, I went for almost a year filming with pressure divers, fishermen, all kinds of fishing to make this green screen simulation.”
But other than enjoying (and fearing) the many wonders of the sea, Martha uncovered certain things that not even the currents can wash away. “[I also focus on the issues] facing international seafarers and local fishermen.There’s a big disconnection [between them] because of the gap in income. There are so many topics [that they are dealing with from] economic to social. Their kids are growing up without their parents. [There’s also] environmental problems: The fishermen can’t fish anymore because there’s no more fish in the sea because of the damage, so they become seafarers.” She continues, “I wanted to focus on other issues that I was also interested in so I wanted to see the physical aspects of the sea. I kinda went crazy dealing with all these sounds. I’ve had an emotional and physical experience of it all.”
Standing in the room and imagining yourself facing nothing but water for days can be quite unnerving, even if it was just simulation in a gallery. I stood amid Martha’s work and thought of all the things she said, and felt what it was like to be stripped bare of the necessities living on land imposes. At sea, as many poets have said before, you have only what you truly are. You cannot deceive yourself and avoid the things you don’t want to deal with. It’s terrifying, but it’s not bad at all. “I feel safer on ships than on land. Because on a ship, it’s only the people you are with and the sea. You have to watch out for each other and everyone has their task on board so you feel so safe,” admits Martha.
Photos courtesy of Ateneo Heights