Strange Aquarium 2002- 2003


The series Strange Aquarium first appeared in the exhibition Something to write home about which also featured the work of  artists Karin Findeis, Annabel Nowlan, and Jo Pursey.

The exhibition reflected on childhoods spent away from inner-cities, and the influence of these experiences on later image-making. Presented by the Sir Hermann Black Gallery at the University of Sydney, the exhibition went on to tour rural NSW.

The following text is an extract from Elin Howe’s catalogue essay Home and Away, first published in the 2003 catalogue for the exhibition Something to write home about.

Cath Barcan’s Newcastle childhood is marked by the family’s ready access to the beach. Her sensual underwater images recall hours of play in the shallows and pools of the beachfront. In adult life she has gravitated to recreational water activities including snorkeling, which she reveals has opened up another universe. For Barcan, play in water is closely linked with the notion of home.

(Barcan) invokes the illusionist’s magic, creating scenes just below the water’s surface which conjure a mélange of theatrical visions. Invoking the aquarium experience, Barcan sets her underwater images behind a layer of thick Perspex. Their enigmatic quality is achieved in a marriage of the incongruous- visually luscious imagery depicting slightly ludicrous and amusing scenarios.

The watery environment distorts every human movement into a slow-motion gesture-  the wave of the magician’s wand, conventionally signaling a lightening-paced sleight-of-hand, decelerates to the point of subverting its original message. In this liquid universe, everyday matter transforms into the stuff of dreams. An ordinary red bed-sheet suspended in its transparent viscous world assumes the image of renaissance drapery. Michelangelo’s Delphic Sybil comes to mind. Nothing is as it should be. A masked puckish character trawls the aqueous midsummer dreamscape in a halo of crystal bubbles; a school of tropical fish encircle a vulnerable androgynous bather in a cage of iridescence. This is an upside-down world, a torpid crystalline world where logic is on hold, and the senses given primacy. It is the world of childhood play, and a world to which Barcan finds she can return, both physically and metaphorically, with relative ease.

Elin Howe, 2003