Back in 2020, as the world came to a standstill, Nina Katchadourian revisited Dougal Robertson’s Survive the Savage Sea. Based on a true story, the 1973 bestseller recounts the adventures of a Scottish family who survived thirty-eight days adrift on a dinghy in the Pacific Ocean, following an attack by orca whales that sank their wooden schooner, the Lucette. Fascinated by this story since the age of seven, Katchadourian connected with the author’s eldest son, Douglas Robertson, to reconstruct the events of June 15 to July 22, 1972. She did so via daily text messages and phone conversations over the same thirty-eight days in 2020. What started as a simple lockdown-coping mechanism turned into a hearty friendship. Robertson began reading daily passages from his father’s memoir, regaling Katchadourian with the minutiae of his family’s experience, from hunting dorados and sea turtles to bailing water, soothing salt-burned skin, extemporizing imaginary radio broadcasts, and longing for fresh fruit salad. Katchadourian, meanwhile, fashioned life-size watercolor cutouts of an orca, sea turtles, and dorados, which she occasionally mailed to Robertson in Barnet, North London, in exchange for photographs. Together, they slowly built “To Feel Something That Was Not of Our World,” an immersive diary of the events chronicled in Survive the Savage Sea. The exhibition run coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the Robertsons’ ordeal.
In the exhibition, childlike curiosity, imagination, and lived memory coalesced into a multisensory seascape. A painted and vinyl-lettered time line lined the ceiling, tracking the days to visualize the distortion of time at sea: The eventful first day spread over one gallery wall, while the quieter days 32 through 37 took up only a quarter of the space. Exotic marine creatures populated the deep-blue walls below and featured a life-size (yet flatly mounted) orca, colorful cut-out dorados and sharks, as well as delicate wire models of turtles and flying fish. Scattered among the sea creatures was an eclectic array of Douglas’s personal memorabilia: a mug filled with coffee, a pile of used clothes, a tin of fizzy orange juice, and two open books—his father’s Survive the Savage Sea next to his own published memoir, Last Voyage of the Lucette (2005)—revealing personal annotations to compare and contrast. Excerpts from the more than fifty hours of audio interviews, accessible via a QR code at the entrance, guided visitors through the exhibition and decoded the surrounding props; for instance, a coffee mug represents the moment before the orca attack, while, according to Douglas, the gooey centers of turtle eggs taste like Lindor chocolates. The show closed with a rolled-up rope symbolizing the family’s rescue and the end to their ordeal.
Ultimately, “To Feel Something That Was Not of Our World” was more than the product of a relatable yearning for some far-flung adventure after two and a half years of Covid-19 regulations and lockdowns; it bridged Katchadourian’s artistic practice from her beginnings until today. Previous works, including the witty one-liners made of titles on book spines in Sorted Books, 1993–, the elaborate character maps and lineages in Paranormal Postcards, 2001–, and the Morse codes decoded from the sounds of popping corn in Talking Popcorn, 2001 (updated in 2012 and again in 2019), revealed the artist’s fanciful imagination, humor, and talent for storytelling. Yet these works remain formally concise. “To Feel Something That Was Not of Our World,” on the other hand, unfolded in space and time. It bore a particular likeness to The Recarcassing Ceremony, 2016, a video in which the artist made sense of her favorite childhood game with chalk drawings, wire sculptures, watercolor cutouts, and Playmobil figures—reminiscent of a school project—bridging past and present. In such works, imagination and memory become tangible, while storytelling turns into an immersive experience. For instance, a hopscotch-style chalk drawing of the Lucette on the floor invited viewers to explore the schooner’s narrowness in person, while the cold coffee cup, the fizzy orange juice, and the preparation on video of a fruit salad featuring strawberries, melons, grapes, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream conjured appetite. By appealing to multiple senses—not only sight but also hearing and touch—Katchadourian showed herself to be a virtuoso storyteller.
— Maximiliane Leuschner