Volume without Contour: The Work of Artist Rona Lee

By Andrew Patrizio

‘New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore, increase your necessity so that you may increase your perception.’

Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-73)

Artist Rona Lee has realized a remarkable series of works through constructions of her extended engagement with oceanographic research. In addition, Lee takes on the mantle of the ocean as a metaphor for the female body that can point us in new directions, above and beyond, or perhaps through, the notion of an art/science encounter and into a subtly feminist art discourse. In this essay I reflect on Lee’s work and on how the oceans operate in today’s social ‘imaginary’.

The oceans of the world are a set of spaces that have inspired deep awe in the cultural imagination of the peoples who have lived intimately with them. They show characteristics that are truly too various to capture, from the terrifying and dangerous to the inspiring and nurturing. The oceans of the world are economic, political and cultural spaces and indeed, over many of their parts, deeply unknowable spaces beyond the reach of the illuminating searchlight of Enlightenment science. Until the very recent present, oceans have stood at our feet as a reminder of the limits of human mapping and exploration.

Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility (48º52.6’S 123º23.6’W), the location on Earth furthest from any land mass, Image: Google Maps

Since human culture emerged, our oceans have given rise to special states of consciousness and put us in touch with a reality that lies beyond all given systems of interpretation. They are ‘tremendous’ in the true sense of that term, they overpower us, often literally, with their majesty and force, containing within them energies entirely beyond us. Our recent attempt to tap their tidal force is only the most recent example of how we have sought to extract energy and economic power from this numinous, ever-present body.

Ocean and space exploration have shared the characteristic of offering specific (and often expensive) avenues of traditional knowledge harvesting whilst simultaneously offering much more striking moments when human consciousness feels entirely restructured, changed and inspired, in contact with a world largely beyond direct sensory experience—yet frighteningly, assuredly there. But also here—the dualistic split between our inner lives and the oceans around us is becoming modified to a greater or lesser extent as we realize the ecological impact our own activity is having on the planet. This is leading us to see that ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ are not stable categories and indeed may even be life-threatening errors of perception. One of the great nature writers of the last century, Rachel Carson (whose most famous work is Silent Spring written in 1962), wrote eleven years earlier in The Sea around Us that ‘The tragedy of the oceanic islands lies in the uniqueness, the irreplaceability of the species they have developed by the slow processes of the ages. In a reasonable world men would have treated these islands as precious possessions, a natural museum filled with beautiful and curious works of creation…’[1] In our unreasonable world, the oceans are swallowing up these islands as they become, inch-by-inch, new Atlantises.

Dr. Huvenne, oceanographer
Untitled, 2012. Dr. Huvenne, oceanographer. Photo: Andy Wilson

To the elements it came from / Everything will return. / Our bodies to earth, / Our blood to water, / Heat to fire, /Breath to air.

Matthew Arnold Empedocles on Etna (1852)

Rona Lee’s work as a whole constantly uses an interplay between light and touch one might credit as a reference to Empedocles, who first proposed the idea that we see objects because light streams out of our eyes and touches them. His insight, though it may run counter to modern physiology, speaks of the materiality of seeing. In Lee’s work, these ideas bear a direct relationship to the knowledge we might accrue about a subject like the oceans, ‘dark spaces’ beyond our reach. A number of her large portraits of the oceanographic team in Southampton include researchers holding or playing with lumps of mud, with eyes closed as if meditating on the messy, weighted reality of underwater material. The portraits are set in contrast against a neat backdrop of digitized data-rich renditions of the earth’s oceans.

Old marine traditions blend alongside the new at many points in Lee’s work. The use of connected lead weights dropped systematically from ocean-traveling ships by early oceanographers is echoed in the play of gravity and resistance in the plaster casts based on drawings Lee made by suspending a pen from the ceiling of the ship she traveled on. Like a line dropped to the ocean floor, the paper is marked blindly, generating abstract yet direct information about the haphazard rolling of the ship. The title of this work, Sea / Draw (10 Atlantic Days), itself plays on the relevant double meaning in English between ‘sea’ and ‘see’ and in drawing as both the graphic technique and the verb associated with pulling.

Sea / Draw
(10 Atlantic Days)
(10 Atlantic Days)
– Rona Lee
Images: Rona Lee, 2009

Homage is again paid to the dropping of weights to ‘sound out’ the ocean floor in a particularly complex and ambitious performance created by Lee at the National Oceanography Centre’s waterside campus in Southampton, that has resulted in the video work A sailor went to sea, sea, sea I. Over six hours the artist walked up and down the side of the Empress Dock, a restricted area used to store heavy oceanographic plant, in view of the NOC staff canteen and administrative offices. The 10,923 metres of string that she lay out were enough to reach the bottom of the deepest surveyed point on Earth—Challenger Deep. The work is mainly constituted from dry material laid out in thin strips like a careful drawing on paper. The film, however, is intercut with footage of wet and uncontrollably fibrous string, tossed to the water’s eddies, saturated and heavy.

For an intervention at the John Hansard Gallery in the seaport of Southampton entitled A sailor went to sea, sea, sea II, six miles of thread were wrapped around a column within the exhibition space—evoking complex layers of association, from Ariadne’s thread that led Theseus out of the Labyrinth to the encircled mooring posts of ports and harbors. The primary juxtaposition is of an object (balls of string neatly laid out on the ground at the beginning of the performance) with a phenomenon, a field of entanglement with only faint echoes of its tidy relative.


A sailor went to sea, sea, sea I – Rona Lee performance, 2010; also as a one-channel video installation (8 min.), 2012

Despite its root in oceanographic science, there are clear links in Lee’s work to other artists, such as Eva Hesse’s Hang Up (1965-66), Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967) and Cornelia Parker’s Measuring Niagra with a Teaspoon (1997). Lee shares with them all an interest in boundaries, liminal points and the limits of the quantifiable. From a slightly different perspective, feeling the bottom of the ocean is a process that bears comparison with how blind read braille. Both are learned translations from touch to graphic representations of the unseen. So when Lee works with blind actress Anna Cannings, the resulting work, Ama (2012), offers up a connection that bridges two different practices, oceanographic mapping and braille reading, in order to say something about light, vision, touch and how these come together to remake knowledge.

Hang Up (1966) – Eva Hesse
Hang Up (1966) – Eva Hesse
Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon – Tate Liverpool
Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon (1997) – Cornelia Parker
A Line Made By Walking (1967) – Richard Long
A Line Made By Walking (1967) – Richard Long

The actual text that Cannings delivers, by Belgium eco-feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray (1932- ), speaks of identity and merging with the other. One such section reads:

‘…the man who gets too close to the other risks merging with it.

The man who stays too close to the other risks sinking into it.

The man who penetrates the other risks foundering in it.’ [2]

This might signal a return to Empedocles, whose own legendary death was by hurling himself into Etna, on his home island of Sicily, in order to prove (fatally) a metaphysical point about existence. We have since devised the term ‘Empedocles Complex’, as that strange pull many people feel when looking over vast depths or vertical falls, to hurl themselves, like Empedocles, into oblivion. This is not a suicidal urge it seems, but a primal curiosity about becoming one with the powerful forces of nature that pull us towards them.

I wish to turn now to another inspiration for Lee. The art of mapping can be seen as a first stage towards economic and political exploitation, a process that can speed on rapidly once unseen terrains have become demystified. Many maps are invariably things of aesthetic beauty and mesmerising detail, yet they are at the same time data-rich objects impelled by trade routes, colonialism, exploitation, cable laying, tourism, and energy extraction. Lee has since come across, and been fascinated by, American geographer/cartographer Marie Tharp (1920-2006), a significant map-maker of the twentieth century, who clearly excelled in her art and pioneered as a women in a male-dominated profession. She synthesized research data, produced diagrammatic line drawings of ocean floor profiles and worked with Austrian landscape painter, Heinrich Berann (1915-1999) to depict the great underwater valleys and peaks, seamounts, scarps and canyons, all gloriously exposed. This was the first comprehensive map of the ocean floor, laying the groundwork for proving the then-controversial theory of continental drift.

World Ocean Floor Map (1959) – Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen
World Ocean Floor Map (1959) – Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen, copyright Columbia University

We might say that Tharp was reading the braille of the ocean, in being employed to interpret the soundings produced through sonar signals that measured the ocean’s depths and turn them into graphic art. Such drawings are termed physiographic, in that they are renditions that make the mountains appear in three dimensions, as if seen from a low-flying aircraft. The public impact beyond the specialist realm has been high, as they take no real training to decipher and offer the kind of immediate knowledge that the ‘Earthrise’ photograph taken from the moon by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968 did, raising human consciousness of our floating planet similarly.

Le corps humain et grandeur naturelle – Julien Bougle
Le corps humain et grandeur naturelle (1899) – Julien Bougle

As we have seen above, Irigaray’s theoretical reflections on identity are key post-structuralist reference points, among others, for Lee’s practice as an artist and one of whose essays provides the title of this text. Irigaray proposes a female sexual identity that is radically unique and autonomous from the dominant male position. She challenges a male discourse that defines woman as an Other, particularly in Freudian thought, to further define the male, thereby challenging such structural opposites so beloved of men, such as positive/negative, nature/culture, and the like. In one passage, Irigaray writes (as if she was speaking of male cartographers!): ‘Abandoning his flat surfaces, his clear contours, his unambiguously framed form, his calculations of proportions established once and for all, his immutably reflected unity…’ [3] She goes on to celebrate volutes, helixes, diagonals, spirals, curls, turns, revolutions and pirouettes—very much the forms and figures encouraged in Lee’s own aesthetic.


It strikes me that Lee’s work suggests possibilities of treating the ocean in similar ways to how traditionally trained artists once used the human model in art class. We have come to a point in oceanographic mapping that parallels a point reached some decades ago (and certainly since the completion of the Visible Human Project in the mid-1990s) where the entire material formation of the body is known, coded and recycled back into society as accepted knowledge. Women artists have been highly attuned to the predominately male discourses around anatomical and medical study—Lee herself records in a blog of 2009 that ‘Somewhere in my mind I have the image of the seas peeled away from the earth like the flayed skin of anatomical écorché.’ But they have also sought ways to indicate that bodies have smell, ordure, weight, pollutants and disease, volition and drives, attractions and conquests, rhythms, fluids and materiality, and hidden as well as visible parts. This list can be applied equally to the oceans of the earth and Lee’s work is one powerful way to remind us of this and connect us to new truths of natural perception.
Lee plays with literal, enriched models of the world in order to change our perspective obliquely. Her reversed worlds in both two and three dimensions are the result of manipulating computer visualizations and three-dimensional printing technologies to create an uncanny, inverted world; not so much a ‘world turned upside down’ but one turned inside out. There is a playful politics behind this art, steeped in feminist alterity and daring, a game changing strategy that uses the orthodoxies of scientific rendering to provoke us and affect the vantage point from which we see. Irigaray has written of her disappointment when confronted with women’s art that expresses anguish and horror. Thus she reflects: ‘The experience of art, which I expected to offer a moment of happiness and repose, of compensation for the fragmentary nature of daily life, of unity and communication, or communion, would become yet another source of pain, a burden.’[4] Lee’s work is not comfortable or compensatory but it does set us against fragmentary lives and points us towards fluidity and communication.

The artist Rona Lee. Copyright Marina Abramovic Institute
Portrait of Rona Lee. Courtesy of the artist.

A longer version of this essay appeared in the catalog That Oceanic Feeling published by the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, England in conjunction with Lee’s solo exhibition, which was on view from August 28 – October 13, 2012. Our thanks to the gallery, the author, and the artist for permission to use this text in its edited form.

Above: I want, I want, I want, 2012 – one of eight handfuls of fired silt collected at 4,000 meters below the surface of the sea and chrome plated.

[1] R Carson, The Sea Around Us, (1951) Panther, London, 1965, p.119 [2] L Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche trans. Gillian C. Gill, Columbia University Press, New York, (1993) p.52 [3] L Irigaray, ‘Volume without Contours’, in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitfield, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, p.64 [4] Luce Irigaray, Je, Tu, Nous. Towards a Culture of Difference, translated by Alison Martin, Routledge, London, (1990) first English edition 1990, p.107