Some preliminary thoughts about the sea as a place of epistemological potential, prompted by my weekend, which featured The Honeymoon Suite‘s exhibition Waves, Kristina Davidson’s beautiful sculptural work Disconnect[i] (pictured), and the first episode of the new BBC documentary series Blue Planet II.
Martin Buxbaum’s oft-cited reflection on the sea goes a long way towards describing many people’s affinity with this great body of water: ‘I have seen the sea when it is stormy and wild; when it is quiet and serene; when it is dark and moody. And in all its moods, I see myself.’
Many of us quote this because when we see the ocean we do see our moods, our behaviours, and our attitudes. Sometimes this “we” is singular: today, I am irritated and here is the sea, choppy and murky, just like me. Sometimes this “we” is extrapolated to mean humanness, but a very particular humanness, such as the flippancy afforded to some humans: yesterday, we stepped out hurriedly to grab toilet paper and milk, we forgot our calico bags, and we returned with an assortment of things including bananas, deodorant, and crumpets. We bought the toilet paper but forgot the milk. We shoved the plastic shopping bags inside other plastic shopping bags we keep beneath the kitchen sink. This morning, we grabbed takeaway coffees because we had no milk to make them at home. Later in the day, we went swimming in the bay and we saw at least two plastic coffee lids floating past, and for a moment we hated ourselves.
Momentary guilt is another type of “we.”
Most often, I think about the ocean as a place I long to be, a place I want to dive into so as to experience a different kind of momentary mood: solace. Lately, I’ve been trying to keep at the forefront of my mind the reality of the ocean as a place that others—Others with a capital O—long to be beyond, a place they want to cross, if they must, and then forever leave behind. When the ocean is this place it displaces both moods and moments. Forever is less of a moment and more of a life sentence when you can neither get beyond the sea in front of you nor put it fully behind you. I am sure this is what it must feel like for my father, still afraid of the sea after being forced by his orphanage Nuns at age five to venture into a great mass of water foreign to him. He ran away and is still running, as far as I can tell.
The sea is both dependable and menacing: carrier, continuum, and connector/ barrier, blockage, and bully. The sea might engulf us or deliver us; welcome us home on a Pacific liner, or refuse us entry on a small orange boat owned by the Australian Government. We can be flippant, but when we look at the sea we also sense that at any moment it might decide it has had enough of our nonchalance and become flippant, as well. After all, the world is mostly water and our bodies are at least sixty percent water, too. This water might become so wild on the last stretch of a P&O honeymoon cruise that we vomit all the way to shore, or so calm during a rescue by the Italian Navy that we can hear First Seaman Saverio Rizzi clearly counting the members of our family as he pulls us to safety after a long and treacherous journey from Syria: ‘One, two, three, four, five, six. Welcome!’[ii] The sea is, therefore, nothing but potential, at all moments, and this potential can disrupt our sense of time and the way our bodies feel moving through it.
Last night, my boyfriend and I watched the first episode of Blue Planet II. During the episode, an encounter between false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins was carefully manipulated for us, the viewers. An anticipated bloodshed became, at the last moment, solidarity and togetherness. Two marine species formed an unexpected alliance. Two humans watching felt their mood transition from dread to relief, despair to hope. Buxbaum was right: we see ourselves when we see the sea—but at the last moment we might also see others. Maybe sometimes we even glimpse unexpected ways of being, an alterity that helps us reframe the world. Maybe if we do not see these slippages when we see the sea, we are not looking hard enough.
[i] Kristina Davidson, “Disconnect”, 2017, wire, paper, glue, plastic. Featured as part of Waves exhibition curated by Charlotte Cornish, The Honeymoon Suite, Brunswick VIC.
[ii] First Seaman Rizzi was captured on film speaking these words to a Syrian refugee family he helped rescue as part of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum in 2014. (ABC, “The Italian Solution”, Foreign Correspondent, 14 October 2014, available: http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/the-italian-solution/5813806)