julian charrière: ‘as we used to float’

Figure 1

   After returning from a second-year university trip to Berlin, I thought about all of the amazing and moving things I had seen. One exhibition which I found very interesting – and one that I wanted to look into further – was Julian Charrière’s, As We Used To Float, in the Berlinische Galerie (27th September 2018 – 8th April 2019).  

Charrière’s installation is meant to give the impression that visitors are underwater, and this is clear when you walk into the spacious white room. The screen at the front of the installation transports visitors to the bottom of the ocean, whilst plastic bags filled with water hang from the ceiling, causing a rippling water effect onto the floor. The underwater effect becomes even more moving when looking at the context of the installation, and also whilst pondering its greater meanings 

This installation is an insight into the Pacific Ocean and the effects of humanity on the world. “Seventy years after the United States began testing thermonuclear weapons at Bikini Atoll, Julian Charrière set off on an expedition to an area rendered permanently uninhabitable for human life as a result of the environmental contamination. As We Used To Float…reveals the legacy of those atomic tests. (Julian Charrière’s Website) The parts of this installation are thought of as “unintentional monuments…[that] mark the point in history when humans became one of the biggest factors influencing biological, geological and atmospheric processes on Earth”. (Julian Charrière’s Website) This here triggers the idea that Charrière’s installation is a political statement about aggression.  

Figure 2
Figure 2

Nuclear testing has made islands in the Pacific Ocean permanently uninhabitable as they are too dangerous due to contamination and radioactivity. These atomic tests, and this installation, shows the wider impact humans have had on the world and the fragility of it. The installation is recognising that politics, aggression and war are depriving ourselves of our most useful and important resource, which is the world itself. It is also important to look at the fact that human habitation of the earth has not been for eternity, and being made aware of the disturbing impact humans have had on the earth is incredibly devastating.  

Charrière’s installation preserves the memory of the testing of thermonuclear weapons at Bikini Atoll, but what I found quite dark was knowing that nuclear testing is still ongoing in the world. It made me ponder on how humanity continues to devastate the earth and think about how the world will be in years to come.  

 At the front of the installation is a screen which shows an unclear, and quite grainy, underwater image. The screen depicts an object at the very bottom of the ocean, which looks like a burned, ruined and rotting propeller. The propeller appears dead still and thoroughly damaged, so perhaps this shows that all hope of progress is dead, due to the lasting and continuing damage caused by humanity. The object, the sea floor and the overall unclear image on the screen depicts the destruction the nuclear tests caused, and this screen takes visitors deep into the ocean to see the ruins 

Figure 3
Figure 3

The underwater screen in Charrière’s installation sits beside stacks of small dark objects, and these are also scattered around the entire floor. When looking at these objects in real life, they appeared heavy and destructive, and I thought that they perhaps signified the nuclear weapons that were tested. But when reading an interview from the Berlin Art Link to Julian Charrière, they asked him to talk about the coconuts’. Here Charrière said, “the coconut tree was providing shelter, providing food, providing drinks. It was crucial to Bikini and its people…[but] the coconuts are now radioactive”. These objects that are clumped and scattered are depicting the coconuts of Bikini, which were once a provider of human essentials, but soon became harmful. The coconuts within the installation perhaps show how human activity can easily destroy the earth’s natural resources. 

Hanging from the roof at the other side of the room, which caught my eye immediately, was the cluster of plastic bags that were filled with water, and glistening with the lights. It almost acted as a chandelier, which caused stunning rippling water effects onto the installation floor. I found the use of the plastic bags incredibly effective. I first thought that they evoked a sense of preservation. People often contain things due to its usefulness; and perhaps this part of the installation reinforces how we have taken the world and its resources for granted for too long, and the consequence of this is that resources, such as water, will soon be a scarce and valuable resource. But then I thought of how the plastic bags could be interpreted out of the installation’s context. In the modern day, the oceans are contaminated with plastic and waste, and this part of the installation perhaps highlights that plastic fills the ocean, but if this continues as it has been, soon the reverse will occur. Plastic will be in abundance, but water will perhaps become scarce.   

Figure 4
Figure 4

After visiting the Berlinische Galerie and walking into this room and seeing Julian Charrière’s As We Used To Float, I knew that this installation would stick with me. This is because artworks and exhibitions that represent how humans have destroyed parts of the earth move me, especially as it is an ongoing problem. I found that the subject of the ocean, and the water-filled bags, raises awareness of the ongoing plastic problem, which most people are guilty of contributing to. Issues within the world have been and are still caused by human activity, which somehow needs to be helped by bettering human activity. I thought that Julian Charrière’s As We Used To Float acts as a memory of the history of Bikini Atoll, but also serves as a warning to raise awareness in the modern day 


Written by Eden Parkinson 


Figures 1, 2 and 3 – taken by Jens Ziehe, http://julian-charriere.net/projects/exhibition-as-we-used-to-float-berlinische-galerie-berlin. 

Figure 4 – own image 

Quotes from Julian Charrière’s Website – http://julian-charriere.net/projects/exhibition-as-we-used-to-float-berlinische-galerie-berlin 

Quotes from ‘Berlin Art Link: As We Used To Float: An Interview With Julian Charrière’ – https://www.berlinartlink.com/2018/09/12/as-we-used-to-float-an-interview-with-julian-charriere/ 

Featured Image – courtesy of https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/tiny-plastic-big-problem


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