Richard Lewer: The Custom of the Sea
17 April 2015 - 22 May 2015
Richard Lewer, The Custom of the Sea, (collective drawing), 2015.
Faced with a life or death choice, what would you do? Until we find ourselves in such a situation we can't be sure what lengths we'd go to in order to stay alive.
There are many stories of survival in human history and many of them come from situations at sea. Richard Lewer's The Custom of the Sea is a response to one such story from 1884. It is the true story of four men cast adrift after their yacht the Mignonette was shipwrecked about 1,600 miles from the Cape of Good Hope on the journey from England to Australia. After more than two weeks without food and fresh water, two of the men, Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens, made the decision to kill and eat the unconscious fourth crew member, 17 year old Richard Parker, so that the remaining three might survive. The third crewmember, Edmund Brooks, objected.
The title of the work comes from a custom said to be in operation at sea. In a shipwreck it is deemed acceptable for those shipwrecked to draw lots to see who will be killed and eaten so that the others may survive. It is hard to imagine that this situation was common enough at the time to become an accepted practice with its own rules. In fact, in the end the shipwrecked men from the Mingonette didn't even follow this custom of drawing straws, but as Parker was already ill they made the decision to go ahead and kill and eat him. About five days later the men were rescued.
Lewer, who positions himself within a social realist tradition, is interested in situations of intense personal struggle, he is drawn to the darker side of humanity, and the extreme actions people take when under pressure. He is well known for his work that reflects an interest in people and their stories, of ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Broadly these stories fit within subjects of sport, crime and religion – situations which can be emotionally and physically heightened.
Aside from his subject matter, Lewer is also interested in the ways he can push materials to give himself new challenges and also to explore the properties and boundaries of the materials. With works like The Custom of the Sea, he is also exploring scale as a matter of affect, as a physical challenge, and with the making of the drawing a collective effort, as a social experience. The activity of working together over several days is also a bonding exercise, and the chance to share technical skills.
Richard Lewer and ST PAUL St are most grateful to the volunteers for their time working on the drawing: Evan Woodruffe, Janelle Wills, Virginia Leonard, Orlando King, CocoKing, Abbey Lyman, Sinéad Marsh, Akinori Tani, Paola King-Borrero, Aimée Matthews, Li-Ming Hu, Fiona Lee Graham, Amy Usherwood, Monty Usherwood, Rosalind Usherwood, Stephen d'Antal, Karen Rubado, Rachel Kania, Zoë Nash, Catriona Chan, Cat Chapman.