Sink or Float

Aspex Portsmouth has a new summer exhibition by sculptor Jessica Wetherly, responding to issues of water pollution and environmental damage on the South Coast. Sink or Float opens at Aspex during the Summer until the 25 September 2022 and is the latest solo exhibition by Jessica Wetherly, an alum of the Royal College of Art. The exhibition will consider the most urgent issues affecting our waterways. Since 2009, only 14% of UK rivers met Good Ecological Status under the Water Framework Directive; and in 2020, all English rivers failed to meet standard quality tests. Vital habitats with healthy and biodiverse ecosystems are being lost by both contamination of the waters and by the extraction of resources from the habitat.

To inform her work, Wetherly has been meeting local researchers and ecologists, including Dr Gordon Watson at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Biological Sciences and Richard Jones, Countryside Officer at Portsmouth City Council, to gain an insight into localised climate change. Watson and Jones will also contribute to a special publication, launching alongside the exhibition at Aspex, combining artistic and scientific research.

Talking about the project, Wetherly says, “During site visits to Portsmouth I have been fascinated by the rich ecologies surrounding Portsea Island, the marshland, mudflats and seagrass meadows. These habitats are marginal spaces. We use words such as barren, disparate, waste, and desolate to describe such places; a place for drifting, floating, and failing. But it is anything but, the ebb and flow of this tidal territory is full of life, providing abundant resources for birds, aquatic cultures, and humans. The human impact on this wild landscape has created artificial borders that stop the natural movement of coastlines, but now without them these environments would be erased. Whilst the new sea walls are built around the island to protect ourselves, the surrounding marshes are left to bear the tidal forces. This project aims to encourage connection between people and place in a regenerative exploration of the depleted wilderness and polluted waterways.”

The exhibition’s title, Sink or Float, refers to a game in which players guess whether an object will sink or float in a jar of water, reflecting an undercurrent in the artist’s work, as a critique of boom or bust capitalist economies. The exhibition addresses the hypocrisy of our desire to extract resources unsustainably, to reap financial rewards without investing in the preservation of these resources or the ecosystems they are taken from. Through storytelling and personal reflection, Wetherly aims to restore a sense of agency, to confront contemporary challenges of ecological breakdown, creating new mythologies as a radical agent of deep, lasting change.

Wetherly’s practice reflects a fascination with science and symbolism, presenting creatures in curious and surreal landscapes. Following her participation in Aspex’s biennial international group show Emergency in 2021, Wetherly was selected for the summer solo show by artist Helen Cammock; Director of Gasworks, Alessio Antoniolli; Copperfield Gallery’s Will Lunn; and Aspex’s Joanne Bushnell. Sink or Float will mark the final exhibition of Aspex’s Emergency programme.