snails for eyes is about the sea and its unknown depths. The works in the exhibition are tender studies of; resourcefulness, myth, lost relics, rituals, sunken islands, tourism, bubbling waters and outer space.
The exhibition takes its title from the Buxton Mermaid ‘...made from wood, cloth, wire, carved bone and fish scales. She had snails for eyes’1.
The Buxton Mermaid is an example of the practice of mermaid making popular in the mid-nineteenth century. These sculpted objects were often made by fishermen and occasionally passed as real mermaid relics. Gazing at the dried and leathery body of this merrow2, you can imagine it back in the sea, its skin supple and softened again.
The maker’s choice of snails for eyes seems pertinent too. The eyes enhance the mermaid’s hypnotic power. They draw you closer, the coiling shapes like portals; entrancing and mesmerising the viewer. The merrow’s mouth is agape with a slight smile, as though it can see something we are missing.
The inspiration for the show came from a series of paintings by Kumataro Ito of sea slugs called Nudibranch. Kumataro was the chief illustrator for the USS Albatross, and was aboard the ship for 16 months from 1907-1910 as it surveyed the marine life of the 7,000 islands of the Philippines.
Nudibranchia are jelly-like, soft-bodied, seductively-coloured marine molluscs. Much like the mermaid, when out of water, nudibranch dry out and become rubbery and dull in colour. This, alongside their endless variety (there are over 3,000 species) explains why Kumataro spent so long at sea drawing and observing them, held captive by the alluring array of patterns, shapes and sizes. Nudibranch are checkered, dotted, striped, mottled, marbled, dappled, flecked, specked, speckled, spotted...
Nudibranch are named the ‘thieves of the sea’ due to their cunning ability to rob predators of their poisonous defences. They deflect the blows of approaching jellyfish or octopus and harvest their venomous stings, growing them into brightly coloured barbs on their backs. Like medals or a delicate feathery crown they adorn and accessorize their bodies with this ammunition. Then when a predator attempts attack, these spiny, feathery javelins are fired out in retaliation.
1 Turner, E., (2018), The hidden history of fake mermaids, available at https://emilyjessicaturner.com/2018/03/07/the-hidden-history-of-fake-mermaids/ (Accessed 15 Nov. 2019)
2 Merrow (from Irish murúch, Middle Irish murdúchann or murdúchu) is a mermaid or merman in Irish folklore. The term is of Irish-English origin: Merrow, (2019), Wikipedia, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merrow (Accessed: 15 Nov 2019)
Image at top: Nudibranch by Klaus Stiefel https://www.flickr.com/photos/pacificklaus/3986334600 licensed CC BY-NC 2.0