"This paper will examine the resonance of the shipwreck motif within selected visual art practices since the 1960s by reflecting speculatively upon how it has been reclaimed from the vaults of Romanticism and reinvested with critical significance within a conceptual lexicon ... Here, the shipwreck motif serves to articulate/represent the suspended potentiality of the ‘irresolvable or unresolved quest’; teleological imperative forever poised at the point of non-attainment or anticipation, a disrupted narrative in which closure or completion is indefinitely deferred. The shipwreck belongs to the borderlands; like the ruin it has a liminal status where it remains ‘no longer and not yet’. It is also a curiously ambivalent anti-monument – a contradictory or inconsistent signifier. Shipwrecks possess the complex aporetic properties of an adventurer’s deflated dreams, functioning both as evidence of endeavour/resignation; hope/failure; possibility/impossibility; the trace or remainder of something now absent, the paradoxical visualization – like the phantom – of a disappearance or of loss. The paper thus shifts from ‘locating’ interest in the shipwreck motif within the context of Romantic Conceptualism, towards attempting to posit that it is its dislocated or unstable conceptual properties that form part of its ongoing fascination for artists"
Context: Background to the conference
Ever since human beings first began seafaring, they have been fascinated, and haunted, by shipwrecks. For maritime societies especially, these tragedies at sea have been a constant source of anxiety, since they are disasters that potentially devastate not only individuals but also the community or nation as a whole. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that shipwreck is also one of the oldest motifs in art and literature. It can be traced as far back as the second millennium BCE, when a fragmentary Egyptian papyrus tells of a sailor shipwrecked on an island that is home to a giant snake. Thereafter it becomes a key topos in the romance genre, from Heliodorus to Shakespeare and beyond, and recurs frequently in poetry, from Homer's Odyssey and Horace's Odes through to Byron's Don Juan and Hopkins's 'The Wreck of the Deutschland'. It has a Biblical presence, for example in the account of St Paul's shipwreck. In painting, meanwhile, shipwreck and its aftermath have been taken up by artists ranging from Vernet and Gericault to Sydney Nolan. And the shipwreck scenario may fairly (if a little paradoxically) be said to have launched the modern novel, in English at least: shipwrecks are of course central to both Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Swift's Gulliver's Travels. This fascination with the shipwreck scenario continues right down to the present day, notwithstanding the fact that shipwrecks are today much more infrequent than they were in the past ... Over the years, accounts and metaphors of shipwreck have taken diverse forms and served various purposes; the iconicity that attaches to the shipwreck motif has also varied significantly across time and between different cultures. Thus in some forms it is fused with Protestant traditions of spiritual autobiography, and comes to denote a cataclysmic, transformative event in the life of an individual. In others, meanwhile, the topos is informed by Horace's famous metaphor of the ship of state, and becomes associated with an act of collective memorialization and mourning. The aim of this symposium is to explore the shifting and multiple semiotics of shipwreck; to trace the evolution of the shipwreck motif over time and across different cultures; and to trace the circulation of accounts and representations of specific shipwrecks (eg the Titanic, the Grosvenor and so forth) through culture.