A Ship Will Not Come

14 Nov 2019 - 25 Oct 2020 | Johann Jacobs Museum

Switzerland is a seafaring nation and at home on the oceans. So much seems proven at least by film footage taken on the voyages of the “MS Basilea” in the 1950s and ’60s. Besides sea spray, clouds, wave crests and troughs, cargo loads of coffee and cocoa, or an entire herd of water buffalo, the images also document strange occurrences on land: In Massawa (Eritrea) an aging emperor descends from a Russian warship. Or the Swiss crew witness a parade during the Cultural Revolution in China – in which airplanes and trains (made of cardboard for the time being) are presented to an astonished crowd.

The “MS Basilea” footage gives us reason to ask about the stories written by ships. What interests us is less the media-exploited epics like the “Titanic” than small stories and rather inconspicuous events. Stories that allow a view of the whole: of post-colonial struggles on the African continent during the Cold War, or (in China’s case), the delicate beginnings of the world power of tomorrow.

The “MS Basilea” footage is framed with artistic works. They tell of life and death on a refugee ship, or the attempt to portray Théodore Géricault’s painting “Raft of the Medusa” (1819) with contemporary means. They tell of the oppressive loneliness of a modern container ship, of winds and ocean currents in the Atlantic as a climatic prerequisite for the slave trade, as well as a cemetery of ships in Gadani (Pakistan), where the daunting steel vessels are dismantled into the individual components that will reenter the global commodity cycle.

With works by Dias & Riedweg, Eza Komla, Hira Nabi, Dierk Schmidt, Allan Sekula and Adnan Softić. The proposal to look into the archives of the “MS Basilea” came from Damian Christinger. Curatorial supervision was provided by Bettina Schuler (JJM) and Adnan Softić.


Title Image: Work Detail by Dierk Schmidt, Sketch of SIEV-X, 2000. Courtesy of the artist.