How Like a Reef

We Marry You 
O Sea as a Sign of True 
and Perpetual Dominion

Sonia Levy
Sonia Levy is an artist whose work examines Western expansionist and extractivist logics while tending to critical forms of engagement with more-than-human worlds. Her practice investigates filmmaking as a device for site-based inquiries and interdisciplinary collaborations, fostering multiple perspectives to consider new worlds.

Commissioned by TBA21–Academy and TBA21 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary with the support of STARTS, an initiative by the European Commission, and the European Marine Board’s EMBracing the Ocean artist in residence program, an activity contributing to the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030) as well as the local support of the Marine Biology Station Umberto D'Ancona, University of Padova.

Underwater Cinematography
Sonia Levy, with the help of Sam Smith
Sonia Levy
Sonia Levy and Sam Smith
Underwater Sound Recording
Jez riley French, with the help of Pheobe riley Law
Sonia Levy
Choral Arrangement and Composition
Esmeralda Conde Ruiz
E Ensemble
Score recording and mixing
Nick Powell
Researcher and assistant
Chiara Famengo
Scientific Advisors
Heather Anne Swanson
Alberto Barausse
Ifor Duncan

With the kind permission of
SEPOline: a project to apply innovative solutions for artisanal fishing
(EMFF Veneto region – Measure 1.26 INNOVATION – Beneficiary: Scientific Institute CESTHA, Experimental Center for Habitat Conservation)
Archivio fotografico del Comune di Venezia, Fondo Giacomelli
Archivio fotografico dell’Ente della Zona Industriale di Porto Marghera


'We Marry You, O Sea' engages with Venice and its lagoon “from below,” with the aim of focusing attention on the city’s submerged, life-giving, and altered bio-geomorphologies rather than on its often-recounted political and military histories. Underwater filmmaking opens new ways of knowing the materialities of the Venice Lagoon and exposes a fractured and troubled environment that complicates mainstream historical narratives that start above the water’s surface. By attuning to the ebb and flood of the lagoon, we start sensing the interplay between land and water, life and decay, and the intimate processes shaping this environment. Noticing the kinds of life made possible in this damaged watery space compels us to delve into the ways it has been profoundly transformed.
The film takes its title from the words uttered during the Venetian ritual The Marriage of the Sea, which was held annually on Ascension Day between the eleventh and eighteenth centuries. During the event, the Doge, the patriarch of the Venetian Republic, would wed the lagoon by casting a golden ring into the water, declaring dominance over the sea. The artist reframes Venice’s enduring relationship with its permeating waters by reflecting on this ongoing legacy of quests for mastery over watery environments. How, this work asks, might we imagine different futures for Venice if we begin to experience the lagoon as a lively place populated by manifold ways of living and dying?

In the lagoon, a space requiring continuous modifications for human settlement, wetlands and infrastructures have long been intertwined. Venice’s consolidation as a trading hub and epicentre of naval advancement during the Middle Ages prompted major hydrological engineering to maintain the lagoon’s shallow depths for defence purposes. However, in the twentieth century, harrowing modernisation transformed parts of the wetland into petroleum refineries and one of Italy’s largest container terminals as part of an effort to turn the lagoon into an industrial frontier. Urban anthropologist Clara Zanardi has described how these transformations spatialized class divisions in a new way, while also causing irreversible ecological degradation that has profoundly altered the lagoon’s lifeways. The film presents these histories of modernisation by interweaving rare historical photographs from Venice’s Giacomelli Photographic Archive with submerged perspectives of the present conditions of the lagoon. The historical significance of these photographs is emphasized by the negative black-and-white reversal of the submerged perspectives, connecting past and present and unfolding futures within the lagoon’s contaminated waters. An original score, created by a chorus of human voices and underwater sound recordings, further emphasizes the links between submerged spaces and human domains. The composition captures the lagoon’s pulses and the impact of industries—from aquatic sounds drowned out by boat noises to the rhythmic poundings of industrial activity amid surging tides—as it gestures toward the profound interplay between human realms and the lagoon’s shallows

Installation view of Sonia Levy: We Marry You O Sea, Liquid Intelligence, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2023.  
Photo: Roberto Ruiz | TBA21
Sonia Levy: We Marry You O Sea, Cinema Gallegiante, Venice, 2023.
Photo: Riccardo Banfi | Microclima 2023

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