One self funded artist on a shoestring budget is reaching out globally and getting significant feedback.
In August of 2020 when I started making a six meter long skeleton of a Sea Bass I had no idea that almost four years later its legacy would still be swimming through the public consciousness.
More than any other installation to date, the disappearing fish has effected me profoundly with its message of despair for all species Piscine and Crustacean. Today the oceans and rivers are still being systematically poisoned by humans. Fish like the Bluefin Tuna are still being hunted with the use of satellites and helicopters, while other fish stocks are still being rapidly depleted by factory ships going ever deeper with their nets. Seabeds are still being destroyed by dredging and the E.U. will continue to permit this abuse until 2030.
The Disappearing Fish installation was made by using wire to replicate a fishing net and hold together 333 small plywood fish in the shape of a six meter long fish skeleton. The small fish had been cut from previous installations, sanded smooth and painted with waterproof lacquer. The giant fish skeleton was hauled in across Swanage bay in Dorset, UK and pulled up on the beach by fellow villagers who had helped in its make. This small performance was an enactment of purse seine fishing, an ancient method of community fishing practiced in countries from Brazil to Mozambique and beyond. Unfortunately these countries waters have been so overfished by international fishing boats that there’s little or nothing in their nets these days when pulled up on to the beach.
But the installation did not end there. It was raised up on to the facade of the local theatre, The Mowlem, where it remained for ten days before being taken down and disassembled. All 333 fish, which had been cut from previous installations, were individually set aside ready for their next adventure. Liberty came within a week for some of the small fish; with a clutch of unnumbered ones being released from Kimmeridge bay further down the coast.
Since then each fish has been lightly sanded, re- lacquered, tagged and numbered. Fish have been released all over the world by friends and contacts willing to squeeze two or three into their baggage as they head off on holiday or business trips.
Early in 2021 Fish 14 and 15, released in Antiqua, washed up three months later on the shores of St Kitts within a week of each other. Fish 26 released soon after from Siesta Key, Florida was found two weeks later on Longboat Key by a delighted little girl.
Fish have been released by Kayakers in Alaska, Yachts people in Praslin Island, Seychelles and cyclists in France. Fish have been found by children, grandparents, dogs, fishermen, river beach comers, shore walkers and even horse riders in Morocco. Many more lye languid, still waiting to be found.
In London fish released from Twickenham Bridge have beached at Barnes, Putney embankment and one at Oxo tower three weeks later.
Later fish released in to the Thames have been found on river beaches from St. Marys Battersea to London Bridge. One was pulled out of the water last week at West Indies Quay.
Further afield Fish 107 was released on the Zambezi by game wardens in March of 2023. As yet unfound, perhaps a crocodile further down river has indigestion?
Meanwhile a fish released from a boat crossing to Catembe in Mozambique on the 7th June 2022 was found weeks later further up the coast in the Bazzaruto Archipelago,
Fish 81, released from the Adriatic’s Tremiti Islands, on the 22nd September 2023 was washed up weeks later miles further down the Italian coast at Mola de Bari Italy on 12th November.
More recently I received the following message
“Hi Eilidh I Found your disappearing fish on the Coast of Southern Portugal at Praia d Raposa in June 1st 2023 I was on foot from Spain from Santiago de Compostela. Your fish was a sign for me. I had Eaten too little on my walk and had a disappearing body. With Kind regards M”
Having been released from the steps of Praça Comerçio, Lisbon on the 16th of May this fish had swum down the Tejo Estuary, out to the Atlantic and traveled 63 nautical miles south down the coast to Praia da Reposo. The notification arrived with the following Photographs. The fish was left on a beach bench near where it had been found.
Another fish, also released in Lisbon at Paço Dos Arcos on 14th of May was found more than a month later at Comporta by an American who took it back to the U.S. and released it again at Cape Cod.
Of the 135 fish released 34 have been found, some being re-released again. Some may have been found by people unable to contact me.
Those that find fish and contact me are told the brief story of that fishes journey and of The Disappearing Fish Art installation they had been part of. Ultimately the message of needing to be more conscious of the fish we eat and how they are caught is spreading across the worlds seas and oceans, albeit incrementally.
The remaining fish will continue to be released around the world carrying the message of overfishing and pollution and how we can each do what we can to help our marine species.
It’s heartening to know that while millions are often spent on marketing campaigns such a simple low budget one can reach across the world, giving people delight when they find a fish. The message is strong, often arousing enthusiastic contact; people are delighted to get a reply and be given the history of the fish and its previous life as an art installation.
There’s a lot to making a Lobster pot the traditional way. Constructed in a mathematical formula, when you get it right, its form and proportion fall into place just like a sum! But there’s more than the pot itself to the story.
In Purbeck, the winter seas, proving rough and hazardous, saw the Purbeck fishermen taking a break from Lobster fishing to work in the quarries. In the spare moments from work at the quarries, in a sheltered spot warmed by the winter sun, or in front of the fire, the pot making would begin. Traditionally it was the men that made the pots, however the wives, with their nimble fingers, would make the more delicately woven and smaller shrimp pots.
Each family had its own distinctive construction style. Making any basket pulled out of the sea recognisable and traceable to the fisherman that owned it. Much like an Aran sweater from the west of Ireland.
The basic material used to build a pot are withies. These come from a species of Willow grown for this purpose; cultivated in beds, usually by a pond or river and cut at a specific time of year. January till March are when the withies are at their most flexible and strongest; just right for bending and weaving without cracking.
Traditionally on boxing day the withy beds were visited and the fresh pliable withies cut from the “Mock” or stump of the willow tree and bundled in size order. The stronger chunkier ones called “Ribs” for the vertical structure with the thiner “Tails” wispy and easily woven around them. All an amazing array of tones from yellow to shiny orange to burnt umber: a delight of warm colour in the washed out tones of winter.
The technique of construction
The pot starts with the forming of the mouth: Into a circular timber disc, with a string in the centre, twelve ribs, are firmly inserted into pre-drilled holes. These are over a meter long and 8mm in thickness. Two of the longest tail withies are woven between these and before ending two more are added in, thus keeping two tails going throughout the entire weaving of the pot.
Once 75mm of weave depth is achieved four tails are pushed down towards the timber disc and pulled under and up to strengthen the mouth. The neck continues its weave till about 150mm tall.
The pot is then turned upside down, the ribs splaying backwards to be gathered up and tied above by the string, forming a splendid globe shape.
The weaving continues apace, now working with three thin withies together. These plait naturally as they snake around the ribs, spiralling slowly upwards and forming the pot. Strong supple hands are needed, as the pulling taught of the withies is essential in achieving an evenly round basket. Regular tapping down on the plait with a timber rod as the withies go round ensures a strong firm pot.
The base is the trickiest bit and by now unaccustomed hands are red and sore. This is the part of the pot that sits on the seabed and gets worn by the constant swell of tides.
Originally a stronger “Green” withy was used for the base but these are no longer around, so a combination of long and short ribs are used instead. These are added to the tails in order and passed under the plaited bundles of three. Again and again, around and around, until a coiled matt is formed.
As the coil gets tighter towards the centre, two of the bundles are left out and plaited concurrently. These plaited tongues must extend beyond the side of the pot by over a hands width. Meanwhile the coil continues inwards to almost close. The plaits are then pulled through into the pot and across its base to tuck into the double bonding of the outer frame. The entire pot now has all the wispy ends trimmed off with the snips, making it neat and tidy. Finally the mouth is strengthened with twine right around.
Pots are baited by pushing through a thick pointed withy from the outside. With one hand inside the basket a small fish is skewered on to it and the withy continues inward to get embedded in the central column of the mouth. These lures continue to be added every three inches or so, until a full circle is complete. The pot is then weighted down with rocks, lowered to the seabed and marked with a float above.
Dorset lobsters are particularly sweet and tender due to the fairly unpolluted sea within Dorset’s marine reserves. Being indeterminate growers lobsters can grow to the size of a large dog if they’re not lured into a pot first and then another pot!
In the lead up to my sisters 60th birthday she cycled sixty, 60 mile cycles. “Why don’t you do something that involves 60?” she suggested to me almost a year ago. I replied that I’d enjoy eating sixty cakes or, even better, drinking sixty wines that cost over sixty pounds. Not impressed by either of those ideas she suggested I did sixty drawings of something and that’s where 60 fish began.
In the little movie (link attached below) you’ll see not only fish that form part of my life’s fond memories but also fish that are in peril within the seas; some soon to be snuffed out for good.
In making this little movie I’ve revisited my memories of the joy and wonderment these creatures have given me which I’d like to share with you.
Below is a little background to the inspiration of this piece.
I’ve always been involved with fish. As a tiny child, eating grilled flying fish and squirming at the Idea of creole fish eye soup, watching as an eye got spooned out and sucked with gusto. At five I fished with a stick, natural cord and worms in the swamps of Trinidad for baby Tarpon while the adults scooped up brightly coloured guppies with their fish nets. I’ve fished for Barracuda with hand lines and used spinners to catch stippled Brown trout in brackish water from a small wooden row boat; the spinner setting a minuscule, almost electronic, vibration on the line between my fingers as I waited for that sudden tug and the beauty of a stippled Brown trout, shiny and perfect appearing out of the dark water.
From Java to Oman, Parrot fish, Clown fish and Box fish have mesmerised me. Diving to get a closer view and pushing my lungs to the limit. I’ve wandered the fish markets of Northern Brazil and Kuwait and marvelled at the species on display from Tamuata to Zubaidi. I’ve eaten the earthy tasting Pirarucu with rice for days on end on the hammock boat to Manaus. Leaning over the rails watching in wonder as these prehistoric creatures with huge scales were hauled overboard. Most delicious of all was the “Hamoor” (Orange spotted grouper), grilled Egyptian style and eaten with my fingers in Muscat.
Fish have taught me many things. The little Clown fish couple, I visited every morning on their nest off Menjangan, taught me to have courage as they fronted up to me when I got too close. The Sticklebacks, in a derelict freshwater swimming pool within a quiet wood in Wicklow taught me patience, as I would lye on my tummy squinting through the waters surface. Watching Brown trout rise for flies, in the shadow of tall mountains, with just the sound of the dipping ors, clunk of rowlock and the gentle sway of the Lochs’ willows, taught me to enjoy quietude.
Now many fish are on the edge of extinction. I wanted to include some of these among my 60 fish. The blue fin tuna and the New Zealand tooth-fish along with the terrible by catch fatalities its fishing incurs.
Today I drift over a mirror calm surface in Kimmeridge bay. Looking down on forests of multi coloured seaweed . I could be flying over the amazon. Its beautiful, but there’s not a fish in sight.
Earlier this year I snorkelled across this bay and saw less than half a dozen fish. My old neighbour told me of fishing for Mackerel in the 1970s; in less than half an hour they had more than seventy five of them. No such catch has been recorded by her since. Kimmeridge bay is a marine reserve, so how could this be? I’d expect it to be full of fish. Our seas are almost empty: we’ve eaten and squandered the fish.
Many thanks to Suzy Mcallister for all her help in the post production of the “60 Fish” video
Recommended background reading on the state of our Oceans and Rivers: “Ocean of Life” by Callum Roberts