Dominique White: Deadweight review – a beautiful, twisted sea monster

<span>Tentacles of history … Dominique White’s split obliteration 2024, Dominique White: Deadweight at Whitechapel Gallery, London.</span><span>Photograph: Matt Greenwood/© Above Ground Studio</span>
Tentacles of history … Dominique White’s split obliteration 2024, Dominique White: Deadweight at Whitechapel Gallery, London.Photograph: Matt Greenwood/© Above Ground Studio

Enter Dominique White’s tolling sea-bell of an exhibition and you will be hooked, then dragged down deep. Four big sculptures are dimly illuminated in a gallery creeping with blue shadows. It is meant to feel as if you are under the sea. Give it time and you will believe you are probing tangled fragments of a shipwreck. Tendrils curl in and out of a sunken cannon. A humanoid hunk of driftwood lashes at you with red swirling tentacles bearing sharp steely points.

Nautical history fascinates London-born White, 31. As winner of the Max Mara art prize for women, she received a six-month residency in Italy to research and develop this show. A film, with the glossy production standards you’d expect of the Max Mara fashion house, shows her exploring the vast harbour of Genoa with its 16th-century lighthouse. It includes interviews with leading Italian scholars of the history of the Mediterranean; one of them quotes Fernand Braudel’s classic work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.

But isn’t this the wrong sea? White’s concerns are with the Atlantic and its sins. She is driven to work with iron, she says, because for her, iron in the sea comes from the chains of enslaved people who died on the Atlantic crossing.

Except there is really only one sea, as any shark that can swim from Sicily to Cape Cod knows. Genoa played its part in shaping the modern, Atlantic-based world. It produced Christopher Columbus, who sailed from Spain to the Americas in 1492: within just a few years, the Spanish were transporting enslaved people from west Africa across the Atlantic. Genoa went on to become a major business partner of Spain, profiting big time from gold and slavery. That’s how it paid for the big lighthouse.

Tentacles of history, forgotten webs of crime decaying and mutating in the sea – that’s what this exhibition is about. The shadow of enslavement is everywhere in the Mediterranean. Genoa’s maritime museum includes a reconstruction of a Renaissance galley, the standard ship of the age that was powered by oars that were laboriously heaved by enslaved prisoners (of all races). Meanwhile, Muslim pirates regularly captured Italians and enslaved them. It’s a sad seascape of cruelty.

What makes White’s exhibition so impressive is the precision with which she transfigures history into poetry. For all her salty enthusiasms – in the documentary she is wearing a T-shirt that says PIRATES! – it would be mis-selling this show to paint it as a Disneyesque undersea experience, or a kitsch entertainment like Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. White is a very serious and reserved sculptor. What she has done is to juggle a few repeated elements, including driftwood, raffia and sisal, in varying yet closely related arrangements like variations on a musical theme. Then she dropped them in the sea.

So the worn, softened feel of these sculptures was obtained by dunking them in the Mediterranean. They are literally shipwrecks, part of a history of sunken vessels and their contents in this most densely populated of seas. The results are weirdly and wonderfully beautiful: frayed fragments of sails wrapped round sea-perforated wood, powdered matter scattered on a sea bed.

Yet the fun fades as fear takes hold. Woven throughout the exhibition is a ferrous thread of hooks and spikes. I don’t know how long White sunk her iron in the sea to get it to rust in such a sinister way, but the key element – in fact, literally the element Fe – in her work takes on a creepily organic life by being corroded into the colours of flesh.

Forged into long curvaceous strands that pierce the softer materials, the iron filaments behave like burrowing eels. They slip in and out of driftwood, stab and rip through rotten fabric. And they seem ready to stab you, too, for the ends of these probing appendages are sharpened into lethal-looking spears and prongs.

This sea iron is the residue of slavery’s chains and manacles. White’s art goes further: the chains of the murdered have bred with deep-sea creatures to give birth to metallic octopoid life. The iron of rusted chains has been swallowed (like plastics) by a giant squid whose curling prongs now have the strength and sharpness of living metal. This new species, organic yet ferrous, is out for revenge. Or, if you want to be optimistic, a new kind of life is evolving.

White’s brilliance as an artist is to suggest all this and more through form alone. In fact, the most powerful of the four sculptures has no wood or fabric but is just a massive entanglement of metal. It is totally bleak and totally compelling. At its heart is a desperate indecipherable knot of red iron, the bloody heart of human history.