It was a longish walk from Penzance through the English mizzle (something between mist and drizzle) to the neighboring town of Newlyn, famous for the fish and crab sold by its fishermen. Our goal was the Newlyn Art Gallery, where we hoped to see works by the famous group of twentieth-century artists called the “Newlyn School.” This was our morning exercise outing—but with a goal in mind. Our walk was along the seaside. The harbor waters were choppy, and there were low-hanging clouds and a stiff wind that blew spray onto our faces. After stopping by the imposing bronze statue dedicated to fishermen who had been lost at sea, we entered a stone building that advertised both a café and art museum. When we asked at the desk about the Newlyn School the clerk seems puzzled, saying that they had no information about them. We would need to call at the Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance if we wanted to see those paintings. Instead, she offered a brochure describing the Newlyn Art Gallery’s latest exhibit—“In Search of the Miraculous”—an exhibition of international artists who have made works that have a yearning for the sublime. It wasn’t what we were looking for, but you never know what you will find.
The first room was a large empty space showing Guido van der Werve’s film, “Nummer Acht: Everything is going to be alright.” This strange piece of performance art shows the artist walking toward you, the viewer, across an ice field—and he’s walking just ahead of a 3500-ton icebreaker ship, The Sampo. It is strangely hypnotic. The artist, dressed in a dark suit, walks away from the ship, and the ship behind him breaks up the ice covering the Gulf of Bothnia in Finland. There is a sense of impending doom and suspense, although, as the title states, “Everything is going to be all right.”
In another room, we watched a video of a man using a GPS to guide his obsessive walk along the Greenwich Meridian in England. He walked through people’s gardens, parking lots, over fences, and climbed through nearly impenetrable hedges. The work is titled “0.00 Navigation.” It is an interesting concept, but sort of an exercise in futility.
Another video presentation, called “Blind Date,” shows artist Mat Collishaw traveling blindfolded from England to the Prado Museum in Madrid to view “Las Meninas,” by Velasquez. His idea was to shut out visual input until he confronted the “alternative reality” of the painting. He then unveiled his eyes for 3 minutes and took it all in. The video presented a mosaic of images of the artist at various points in his journey, with a running narration streaming below. It is an arresting commentary on how we perceive works of art.
The coffee bar had an exhibit called “What You See,” which is a set of various telescopes, binoculars, and trick glasses through which to view the outside world. My favorite was the glasses that had interchangeable colored lenses.
The exhibit marks the 40th anniversary of a voyage made by Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, who set out alone in July 1975 in a 12 ½’ dinghy from Massachusetts. This was the 2nd part of his planned 3-part “performance art” piece called “In Search of the Miraculous.” He was bound for Falmouth, Cornwall, and disappeared on the way. I wonder if he found anything miraculous or filled his yearning for the sublime…. I wonder if there was anything sublime, or miraculous, about his death in the middle of the ocean….
The Newlyn Art Gallery seems a fitting place to commemorate being lost at sea, with the statue of the fisherman just outside. And the works shown in this exhibition are in keeping with that theme, being performances that push human limits in various ways.
We left the museum with numerous conflicting visual impressions. Somehow the phrase “yearning for the sublime” seemed strangely appropriate, since we had walked all the way from Penzance to Newlyn in the rain to see art that wasn’t there—but that we could have viewed two or three blocks from our hotel.