Looking For Helen (2002)

A narrative of the sublime.

To journey by boat cross the Irish, Celtic and Mediterranean seas, to travel with the ebb and flow of the English Channel with excursions into the Atlantic Ocean is to retrace voyages made since the neolithic.

For these earlier civilizations the conjunction of land and sea, the littoral zone, was the focus of cultural exchange. The changing landscape, and the role of the "countryside" , is synergistic with the traffic of the sea the river estuaries and their incursions into the landscape.

Consider those commonplace descriptors; the sublime and the picturesque which often include the coastal view, albeit viewed from the land and rich in formal content. The seascape by contrast, or at least those ten or twelve square miles circles of visibility which surround the observer is often a featureless spectacle. Compared to the extravagant formal devices offered by the land, with it's trees, mountains and those abrupt changes of contour offered by topography, the sea offers little and it remains a mystery to me, that an apparently featureless moving sea, on an otherwise dull day is never without interest.

A few miles out to sea it is uncommon for craft to pass, and apart from the wind and the sound of the sea sliding passed the hull, it is silence. This is not an environment for earnest moral statement. Instead the physical power of the sea, the atmosphere of cloud and wind, the rise and fall of the tide and the corresponding orbits of the moon, sun and earth are the things which define the day.

I am mindful of the endeavours of earlier visual artists to construct a moral narrative in their marine pictures and seascapes, as in JMW Turner's "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhoon Coming On,"or Gericault's "the Raft of the Medusa", even Winslow Homer's heroic small boat sailors strive for something more than the prosaic. By contrast the contemporary "marine" genre, is most frequently represented by a detailed and knowing regard for those insurance certificates in paint, which started in seventeenth century Holland and continue today in technical and lifestyle magazines.

But the sea is not the land, men and women do go down in ships. This element of terror which accompanies the spectacle of the beautiful view is characteristic of the sublime. Not only can the sea be the most beautiful place to be, it can also be the worse.

I concede the difficulty of recording the latter in my exploration of the narrative passed down since the bronze age with it's psychology of fate and the fickle sea, which was made at times when photography was possible or thinkable.

August 2002


Looking For Helen (2002)