Elisabeth Schlebrügge — Close to the Surface - 2004

Is it ever possible to have enough of the sea? Saturated, the reservoir of a summer which has to last a whole year. Days spent on stones, encrusted with salt, night-time imagery seen with closed eyes, the sea, which pushes its way into narrow cracks and channels. Sea tomatoes, compact ball form, firey red or a bouquet of flames unfolding, balunids, hidden crabs, rock shells wandering over the grown-over rocks, “crab on a rock,” you cried in your sleep. The body’s memory, how one reaches land again in rough sea, the necessary shifts in weight under water, eyes wide open, the dark spots, blurred contours, avoiding sea urchins, placing hands and feet so as to land safely on a rock.

What the sea writes: an incessant demarcation, marking an area of domination in the fine jagged line, never overlapping, lighter and darker. Fragments of shells, tufts of seaweed, cuttlefish bones, a trace of memory of the waves breaking.

The sea with the indeterminate gender, das Meer, la mer, il mare, el mar and otherwise nothing which is also always the same and never repeats itself. Nothing what is concurrently informed to the same extent by universality and subjective experience. The sea, the smooth mirror, the rough sea, a meditative surface for projection or physical challenge, and the possibility to enter, to push through the surface, submersion accompanied by the imagery of something being wrecked and sinking as well as a sense of being embraced, safe and secure.

And what different realities, as if depending on usage we were dealing with something completely different, a different sea, the “sea seen from the coast” (Michelet) and, at high sea, moving closer to it, land seen from the sea, never converging one-to-one. The ruffles on the surface and the scrawl of the wind or a descent to the depths. Finding one’s bearings between empiricism and idea, experience, imagination, abstraction, a picture puzzle as a map of the sea.

How the sea is reflected in writing: representations, networks of language, systems of signs are drawn over it. Rules that define the usage, save life, the law of the sea, wind forces, tidal amplitude, port regulations, nautical jargon, flag alphabet (flag A: I have a diver down: keep well clear at slow speed!) Capturing it in words, the sea, its being put down in language, the lists of material and provisions of the “scrivanello” on the Venetian galleys, logbooks and compendiums, sea-man’s dictionaries, nautical glossaries and the Baroque sea grammar composed by Admiral and “sometimes Governor” John Smith who was perhaps the first to maintain “no less honor to write, than fight.”

Marine words and words designating the sea: “The Greeks had many words for the sea,” wrote Predrag Matvejević, “hals, the grain of salt, the deluge of salt: the sea as matter; pellagos, the sea level: the sea as scene; pontos, high sea: the sea as space or path; thalassa is the generic term, its origin unknown, perhaps it is Cretan: the sea as experience or event; kolpos is the bosom, the womb and designates intimately the part of the sea that embraces the shore: a bay or a gulf. Laitma designates the depths of the sea, it is especially cherished by poets and suicides.” [01]

The diver has made up his mind, he pushes himself down from above, his weight cutting through the membrane of the surface. Behind him the view, the watersky closes over him again, even in heavy sea, curved baldachin, untorn. Engulfed by an element of desire and fear. Tautological, as it were, the amniotic analogy “maternal water”, “les eaux de la mère”, as Buffon referred to it. And for the perceptive analyst Sándor Ferenczi [02] it turns itself around again, in its phylogenetic speculation on “thalassal regression”, evolutionary as it were, like a Russian doll, one inserted in another one. The sea not as an ersatz for the mother, but rather the mother an ersatz for the sea. As opposed to the swimmer who rhythmically returns to the upper world, the diver is subject to a strict economy, his time is limited (“bottomtime”). A violet sea urchin with white spinetips, presented in lieu of a bunch of flowers.

The use one makes of the sea, which constitutes the different seas. Use of the sea, also for the idler, on gray winter days along the wall of the harbor, along the beach, sea in the air, inhaling salt and iodine, empty gray surface for jotting down a text, or the leisure one finds in collecting shells, pieces found by chance, spit out by the sea, light breaking in the flat reflections in the sandpits and grooves, “blinking”, which the water running off at low tide leaves behind, yet another scallop, yet another sea trumpet. Or those shells that in the wake of 18th century expeditions acquired names that evoke faraway places: “carte géographique”, map, “écriture chinoise”, Chinese handwriting, “soleil levant”, rising sun, as is listed in the illustration section of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie.

A fundamental difference, to live at the sea or not, a distinctive characteristic, sedimented in language in antiquity, difference between the inhabitants of the coast, the inhabitants of the mainland and the inhabitants of the coast and the category of athalattotoi, those who did not have an inkling of the sea, who had never come into contact with it.[03]

Perception and the categorization of the world are informed by it, linguistic “fine tuning” for a differentiated designation of water and wind, nowhere else is there talk of “cloud octopi”, “seppie di vento”, nautical experience projected into the sky. (The often reciprocal reflection of deep sea and celestial space, the constellation of the Poseidon, warm water currents as the “milky ways of the sea.”)

The gentlemen in the maritime old people’s home in Camogli, the cupboard closed not with knobs but with the ends of ropes knotted according to the rules, and the entire day one hears the bolletino nautico from the radio; where, however, does Signora Altomare live, the first female machinist to graduate from the Istituto Nautico in Naples. Having to do without the sea for a long time, dependent on news from faraway. Still even in the sixties in small towns, exhibited in trucks on market squares: the huge whales, brittle the embalming, the long beards encrusted with a yellowish goo. Before it ever saw the sea the child had for many years played “Sea Adventures” under the kitchen table.

But not just the experience of nature but also the imagery that is formative of what will be seen: reports, stories, images and readings, novels and lexicons. Foreign words from books, “tidal shallows”, “tidal amplitude”, “Sargasso Sea”, “transit winds”, the red shark barriers at the end of the bay.

Seas of proximity, familiar to us before we reach them, the island of Ulysses and Scylla and Charybdis and the beach where Aeneas landed, and other seas, for instance, the gray Indian Ocean, faraway lures, adventures and pirates, discoveries and conquests of the world, treasure islands, sea battles (salt strewn on the deck according to the nautical glossary so that one wouldn’t slip in a puddle of blood while fighting), funerals at sea, the bodies sewed in sailcloth and a cannon ball, a weight at the head and at the feet, “to make them sink” according to John Smith. Stabilizing ropes suspended on deck during a storm so that one was not washed away over board, navigare necesse, sinking ships, burning ships, sea-biscuit, salt meat, scurvy, mutiny, and in the depths the wrecks of sunken frigates, the promise of treasure, imponderables, mountains of magnets, huge octopuses, sunken islands. Pearl fishers, letting themselves fall over board with heavy stones, the rotting stench of piles of shells.

Stories read and adventures lived, in the sky and under water, in the future and in the past, Jules Verne’s journey to the center of the earth and twenty thousand leagues under the sea, which does not just face the problem of penetrating unknown depths (vegetation and fauna, copied from the acquariums that had become fashionable in the middle of the 19th century [04]) but also anticipated the invention of underwater photography:

“What a situation to be in!” I exclaimed. “To overrun these deep regions where man has never trod! Look Captain, look at these magnificent rocks, these uninhabited grottoes, these lowest receptacles of the globe, where life is no longer possible! What unknown sights are here! Why should we be unable to preserve a remembrance of them?”

“Would you like to carry away more than the remembrance?” said Captain Nemo.

“What do you mean by those words?”

“I mean to say that nothing is easier than to make a photographic view of the submarine region.”

I had not time to express my surprise at this new proposition, when, at Captain Nemo’s call, an objective was brought into the saloon. Through the widely-opened panel, the liquid mass was bright with electricity, which was distributed with such uniformity that not a shadow, not a gradation, was to be seen in our manufactured light. The Nautilus remained motionless, the force of its screw subdued by the inclination of its planes: the instrument was propped on the bottom of the oceanic site, and in a few seconds we had obtained a perfect negative. [05]

Another contemporary of Jules Vernes, found in a rare books shop in Colombo, drawings torn out of his book on the underwater world of Ceylon as it was still known at that time – the Austrian diplomat and scholar Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez did not content himself during an expedition with artifacts and dead animals as proof of the underwater wonder world. He also had a small diving bell built, under which he sat with dangling feet, holding a pencil and brush, “drawing” the reality around him:

“I immediately opened the iron window cover which had been mounted to protect the glass and looked with a certain excitement into the wide water empire which lay before me for the first time, visible to my unobstructed gaze.”[06]

The sculptor reacts perceptively to floating conditions, the relation of body in space, the freedom of movement around all axes, the liberated field of vision. Attentive also to the behavior of the other bodies and non-bodies, like air bubbles rising to the surface, watching how they spread, assume different shapes and become torn at an unpredictable moment. Aleatoric explosion of forms, surprising booty of the camera (“what informs the possibilities of sculpture beyond solid matter,” he asks himself). For his attention is directed at the surroundings and the images to be captured from it, the segments, suddenly illluminated, suggesting a constellation of colors and forms which at times is able to become apprehended, with the deviations of the camera’s gaze – not immune to illusions just like in certain quarters one can sometimes note a “fictive red” which never appears as such on the surface of the film.

“If you dive down to a certain depth of the sea you soon lose the light. You penetrate a twilight world, in which a dim red is the only remaining color. But then this, too, vanishes and the dark of night sets in,”

as Jules Michelet so nicely yet not entirely aptly describes it. [07] Michelet who has always described what he observed and imagined with indiscriminating precision:

“It is said that the lack of sunlight excludes the possibility of life and yet in the deepest areas the floor of the sea is covered with sea stars. The waters are inhabited by infusorians and microscopically small worms. Innumerous mollusks drag their shells. Bronze crustaceans, ray-formed actiniae, snowy porcelain snails, golden lampreys, undulated sea snails, everything lives and moves. The depths are replete with noctilucta which are intermittently drawn to the top of the water and surface like waving fire and scintillating garlands.” [08]

The depth and the the conception of it which captures the onlooker – yet it is not always the greatest depth that promises the best view: “close to the surface” not just in paradisiacal coral gardens but also in the entrances to harbors, on underwater heaps of garbage. It is here that Manfred Wakolbinger has made his booty with the most spectacular images. Spectacular not in the sense of a gigantomachy but in the fine-tuning to a microcosm which appears bizarre and strange, captivating or frightening.

The fascination exerted by these images is not just derived from the fact that we are dealing with messages from an otherwise not visible realm, seductive this partaking of something mysterious, about which there are otherwise only speculations. It also has to do with the gaze being liberated from conceptuality, in its contact with a world in which the non-distinctive, uncertain dominates, the ambiguity (stone or living being, plant or animal) and variability, polymorphism instead of something with defined contours. Structures, ensembles, more tableaus than portraits of easy-to-identify individual beings (only later to be ascertained that it has to do with a “pyrosome”, but this is irrelevant for the photograph) – to capture them, largely reduced to analogies, approximation only by way of comparisons: jewels, precious stones, insects, birds, exotic plants, “this sugar seaweed looks like jade!” A world of metamorphoses, whose genesis in antiquity was only possible through the conjecture of the Gods (“the lovely Nereids! The plumaged Graien! The sweet-sour Hesperids!”) as Ovid describes in reference to the emergence of corals where wicked nymphs played with the petrifying power of the head of Medusa lying on seeweed: “Even today coral retains this same nature, hardening at the touch of air: that which was aplant when under water becomes a rock when brought above the surface.” [09] Moving in the realm of metamorphoses, of flowing transitions and transformations means to also subvert the definitions, as if it were to go back one step, once again in order to look as far as possible, unbiased, as if Linné had been invalidated and were to take up again the subtle and sensitive view of Michelet who sort of bends down to encounter these alien creatures at eye level, ascribing them “the ability to feel” as he pictures it for the Medusa as “daughter of the sea”:

“Living in her submarine environment whose touch is endearing, she surrounds herself with a jacket of resistant epidermis like we earthly animals. She experiences everything in naked and immediate form.” [10]

Given a different twist to the above, Jules Verne lets his Professor Aronnax dream:

“I dreamt – you cannot pick your dreams -, I dreamt that my existence was reduced to the vegetative state of a mollusk. It seemed to me that this grotto created the double shell of my house…” [11]

The real tension, be it something animate or inanimate, shock when the alleged stone suddenly glides through under the body as a cuttlefish, even the fossil as Bachelard says, only “dormant in its form”, [12] and the fascination derived from diversity, uncertainty about which realm it belongs to or is it more than one realm, are there mermaids in the sea?, questionable taxonomies. Freely driftings plants, firmly rooted animals, chapeaux chinois mimicking the stone, a heart beat, touching it, feeling how the living creature gives signs of its existence from within, closing the edges, clinging with intensity.

Jules Verne describes the “animal plants”:

“Among the animal plants there were some lovely sea anemones, Phyctalis tecta, native to this part of the ocean, a small cylindrically shaped stem, adorned with vertical lines and small dots, crowned by a magnificent nest of tentacles. As for the mollusks, there were the species that I had already observed, tower shells, triangular mussles with regularly cruciated pattern, whose red dots really stood out conspicuously from the flesh-colored ground, bizarre sea butterflies, resembling petrified scorpions, transparent marine butterflies, paper boots, cuttlefish with an excellent taste and certain polyps that the ancient scholars included among the flying fish and that were mainly used as bait in catching cod.” [13]

In Manfred Wakolbinger’s pictures the view of a world that has nothing anthropomorphic about it, openings, membranes, nets, like a fish trap, feelers, arms that fold in and out, eyes, unicellular creatures, left in their strangeness, alienation and peculiarity, no “human comparison” pulled over them. Conventional order and assignment called into question. Creating room for a possible other. “He thinks in terms of animals as others do in concepts,” Elias Canetti said, while also focussing this change of perspective in the animal counterpart: “What cannot be attained in animals: how they look at one,” [14] and only surmises as to their relations among each other, convivences, unknown pact: anthropocentric perspectives called into question and a de-hierarchization staged in the picture. Late in the evening, walking home along the sea: shaking off light bundles in each step, the radiance leaping from the finger tips.

Marcel Broodthaers took an ironic look at the future in the Seventies. In his artist book “Magie. Art et poétique” (1973) he develops a perspective of the guild under the heading “Being an Artist”:

“sculpting. drowning like the son of God. What fame! It is better to simulate. Accessories: Diving suit. Fish. Flowers.”

A child, running on the beach next to the water and drawing a line in the damp sand with a bamboo stick that it is pulling. What it draws is sometimes washed by the sea, erased by the waves. “That doesn’t matter, I’m doing it on purpose! That’s what so nice.”

01 Predrag Matvejević, Der Mediterran. Raum und Zeit, Zurich: 1993, p. 202

02 Sándor Ferenczi, “Versuch einer Genitaltheorie” [1924], in: Schriften zur Psychoanalyse, ed. by Michael Balint, Frankfurt/M.: 1972, vol. II, pp. 317-400

03 Matvejević, op. cit., p. 210

04 Ursula Harter, “Am Grund des Meeres lebt die telegraphische Koralle. Der Traum ist das Aquarium der Nacht: wie im neunzehnten Jahrhundert Unterwasserparadiese zum Sinnbild unseres Innenlebens wurden,” in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 30. 9. 2003

05 Jules Verne, Zwanzigtausend Meilen unter Meer [Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea], Zurich: 1976, II, pp. 216-217 (French first edition: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, Paris: 1870)

06 Baron Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez, Ceylon. Skizzen seiner Bewohner, seines Thier- und Pflanzenlebens und Untersuchungen des Meeresgrundes nahe der Küste, Braunschweig: 1868.

See also Die Entdeckung der Welt. Die Welt der Entdeckungen. Österreichische Forscher, Sammler, Abenteurer, ed. by Wilfried Seipel, Vienna: 2001; and there: Helmut Sattmann, Verena Stagl: “Die österreich-ungarischen Tiefsee-Expeditionen mit dem Schiff Pola”, pp. 155-156

07 Jules Michelet, Das Meer [The Sea], Frankfurt/New York: 1987 (French first edition: La mer, 1861)

08 Ibid., p. 88

09 Ovid, Metamorphoses IV, v. 750-751

10 Michelet, op. cit., p. 130

11 Verne, op. cit., p. 200

12 Gaston Bachelard, Poetik des Raumes [The Poetics of Space], Munich: 1975

13 Verne, op. cit., II, p. 329

14 Elias Canetti, Die Fliegenpein. Aufzeichnungen [Pain of Flies. Notes], Munich: 1992

[All translations from the German editions of the sources used.]