City Gallery

On the Lure of the Sea

By Experience Wellington Curator Megan Dunn. Originally published on ArtNow.NZ.

Alexis Hunter, mermaids and me

THE LURE OF THE SEA is an oil painting by Alexis Hunter, but I first fell for it as a jpeg. I dragged and dropped it into a PowerPoint called ‘The Muse of War: Mermaids, Hybridity and Feminism in the art of Alexis Hunter’. It was the last slide, the crescendo of my presentation. In October 2017, Hunter was my excuse to attend the Mermaids, Maritime Folklore and Modernity conference run by Island Dynamics in Copenhagen. It was my idea of going to Disneyland. I had high hopes, and even now, years later, I can’t say the conference didn’t deliver. In two days, in a banal brutalist building with scant biscuits and draining coffee, I considered everything from the racial stereotyping of Sebastian, the ‘Jamaican’ sea crab in The Little Mermaid to the metal mermaids of Jung, and Deleuze and Guattari.

One afternoon, a stout woman who looked like Pat Benatar stood up and gave an unillustrated lecture on some writer who once wrote some poems about mermaids. Afterwards, I told her it was fantastic. She had no PowerPoint. Her brown eyes brimmed with gratitude. “Thank you,” she said. Who was she? Who were any of us back then? How had we ended up on this queer mer-tangent together? A swede in a turban contemplated presentations of fey fish boys in Manga. In the break, I asked to photograph his bearded ginger merman doll and he gave his consent. I shouldn’t go on, because this is just the introduction, but I will because I paid $1500 of my own money to attend that damn conference. I wasn’t being bankrolled by a university like most of the speakers. But what’s the hook Megan? I hear you ask. Back then I would have told you the hook was Claire la Sirène, a professional mermaid who was giving a keynote on the final day. But now, I think the hook was Fisherman and Mermaids in the Blue Grotto on Capri…

SEE? THIS PAINTING is by Hermann Corrodi, an Italian artist who died in 1905. And the Blue Grotto in Capri is actually real, a cave steeped in the lore of mermaids and nereids and surrounded by unearthly turquoise waters only reachable by rowboat. But I didn’t know any of that when the image first drifted into my Facebook feed in early 2017. I thought it was simply a reflection of me, treading water in the City Gallery Wellington basement where I was employed as a part time researcher in the archives…

Read the full essay on ArtNow.NZ.

IMAGE 1 Alexis Hunter (1948–2014), The Lure of the Sea, 1988, oil on canvas, private collection, Auckland. Installation view, Megan Dunn: The Mermaid Chronicles, Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, Te Herenga Waka University of Wellington, 2022. Image by Ted Whitaker, courtesy of Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery
IMAGE 2 Hermann David Salomon Corrodi (1844–1905), Fisherman and Mermaids in the Blue Grotto on Capri, date unknown, oil on canvas, 500 x 280mm