A Sea-change

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‘A Sea-change’ is a three part text that brings together the twin deserts of the Pacific Ocean and Peru’s arid coast, the ceremonial ceramics of the Andean Moche culture and the contemporary art work of artist Ellen Gallagher.

This text was published in As is the Sea, an anthology of texts written by Critical Writing in Art and Design students at the Royal College of Art. Read more about the publication and get your own copy at http://www.asisthesea.com/

A Sea-change

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Ariel’s Song, The Tempest1

The Land of the Living

Between the twin deserts of the Pacific ocean and Peru’s arid coast, the town of Huanchaco hovers somewhere between the end and the very beginnings of existence. Time here is as foreshortened as the ashy horizon, closed in on all sides by sea-fog and dust particles trapped in the low-hanging clouds. The only record of the passing of each moment is in the caught breaths of the tide and the soft, reedy murmurs of the waiting tule boats. The fishing vessels’ curling prows unfurl towards the sea, their sterns buried in the grey sand, like wicker ferns rising from the dunes.

Submerged in this murky, perspective deadening haze, the wind patterned sands appear to be the water sculpted hills of an underwater landscape. Now and then, the laconic blue of a distant mountain shimmers into view, before being washed out, the sea greens and turquoise blues becoming a pallid and indefinite grey smirch, like a glass of water spilling across watercolour paint on paper.

The buildings that nest within the crescent moon of the bay appear to be unfinished. They are open warrens; gaping holes and unbalanced walls propped up by boxy columns. The hostels, houses, way stations and restaurants press into the rising curve of the desert hill that surrounds the town like a city wall. As the sea mist closes in, each building hangs on to the next by the knot of wires that protrude from windows, cluster over flattened rooftops and become entangled in metal antennae. One or two of these cords have embarked upon a lonely journey into the unfathomable desert or up the single coastal road, swinging about black lampposts as they go. Not far along this road, shrouded in cloud and tarpaulin, is the ruin of a Huanchaco’s ancient twin. A migration of mud bricks, drying in clumps, line the road between the weathered half-height walls of this massive pre-Inca city and the fragile integrity of the modern sea town.

The memory of the tule boats, stretch far beyond even this centuries old city, to the great desert huacas in the far distance. The bound bundles of dried reeds are strung together into the shape of a great fish, which a man can sit astride in the water with net and paddle in hand. These two-headed sea beasts have been drying out on the Peruvian beaches since the first millennium BC.

Mistakenly called ‘The Land of the Dead’ by archaeologists until the mid 20th century, this time-heavy, fluid landscape owes both its purgatorial stillness and its abundance of life and human history to the continual motions of the ocean currents. Old, cold, but consistent, the Humboldt Current sweeps northward along the coast, subduing the equatorial climate. The Antarctic water chills the western blowing sea winds and causes the topsy-turvy weather phenomenon “thermic inversion”, which halts the normal process of evaporation. Rain falls on the warmer waters further out at sea, while the land is kept cool and dry by the frigid caress of the great Humboldt. However, it is this same icy up-welling that breathes life into the coastal waters, carrying oxygen and rich nutrients exhumed from the depths of the ocean floor. The fishermen compete not only with sea lions, seals, sea otters, porpoises and dolphins, but a plunder of pelagic birds, descending through the fog. Surfing the sea mists are gangs of petrels, pelicans, terns, grey kelp gulls, sooty shear waters, band tails, neotropic cormorants and red-legged shags, black skimmers and blue-footed boobys, ruddy turnstones and sanderlings, seaside cinclodes, whimbrels and elegant, royal terns; free travelers of air, land and sea.

The Land of the Dead

Dead and living women engage in sexual acts with male skeletons. Warriors brandish spears, whilst sacrificial zoomorphic deer-men wait patiently for death. Skulls, sea creatures, nocturnal animals and even anthropomorphic tubers, peanuts or potatoes with skeletal faces. All these become the forms of an assortment of sculpted ceramic vessels. Made to hold water, the essence of life, the earthenware pots of the long dead, long lived Moche culture (100-750 AD) perversely take the shape of nocturnal, underwater or underground creatures traditionally associated with death in ancient Andean cultures. In opposition to the fecund liquid held in the vessel, they illustrate the non-fertile spilling of bodily fluids. The white of the dead is continually paired with the blood red stain of the living, whether human, anthropomorphic or animal.

The Moche ceramics are the corporeal container for the spiritual harnessing of the energetic duality of life and death. They give form to the pre-history Andean symbolism of pairs, doubles, inversions and visual oppositions: death and life, dark and light, sun and moon, mountain and ocean. Dualist devices combine these oppositions as complementary, their confrontation or inversion a symbol of revival and the continual reinvigoration of life through death. Bone white decoration is consistently paired with a bloody red, the stain of life. Some figures formally encompass this duality entirely, such as a deathly white skeleton shrouded in a blood red cape, brandishing a vigourously erect, red tipped penis, that gestures to a continued fertility; a life beyond or through death. Other transitional figures, symbolically between the mortal realms, take the form of the blind or amputees missing arms and legs.  Accompanied by a joyous musical procession of skeletons, they are charged to lead others on a circular journey between life and death around the circumference of a ceramic pot.

A frieze of a funereal rite tells the miraculous story of a deceased male leader’s transformation into a living ancestral figure via a complicated sequence of symbolic inversions. This metaphysical voyage begins in the tomb, pictured on the right hand side of the image. Two figures awaken the dead with copper bells and the insistent clack of a rattle stick. As the corpse rises, the two figures invert and swap places as the transition takes place. Moving from the depths of the temple, up through the interior towards the seat of power at its sunlit peak, the arisen king sits atop a regal staircase on the right hand side of the frieze. A dark incarnation of immortality, he wears a crown in the shape of the crescent moon and the effigy of a great avian creature. At his throne he is gifted with llamas heavily burdened with treasures from the sea, shells covering their backs like molluscs. Ceremoniously the figure that roused the deceased presents him with the strombus shell of a great sea snail. The ocean finds its way to the top of the mountain.

This surreal phantasmagoria pictorially celebrates and guarantees the continuation of life. Universal order is preserved, through the turbulence of deadly transition. The mythical Land of the Ancestors is inverted. It is a contradiction; a place of the past that insists upon the future and is maintained by the present. The reviled leader passes through death to the afterlife to become an ancestor who gives rise to his people in the past, present and future all at once.

Above the temple, a ritual hunt takes place and brutal warriors pursue a flock of wild birds. Snatched from the free expanse of the sky, they are taken captive as gifts for the immortal leader. The flighty animals of transcendent life are caged, held in stasis: an orderly affirmation of universal power. At the same time, in the strata of the interior, human figures are mercilessly sacrificed. Death to prevent death; a paradoxical mimesis that struggles to hold back the transmuting tide.

The Land of the Ancestors

A peg leg pirate holds a brilliant green parrot fast in his one hand. His good foot and wooden stump are similarly trapped in a ring of tentacled branches: a drowned man. However, roots appear to sprout from his body and merge with the tangled trap at his feet. Is he caught, a ghost entangled with the reeds, or is he some kind of man-shaped hydroid, his hair rising in a live swirling mass above? A personified vertical inversion of life growing out of death.

A portentous exhumation, this black pirate portrayed by American artist Ellen Gallagher in her work ‘A bird in the hand’ could be a visitor from the Afro-futurist city of Drexciya, an Atlantis myth inhabited by the descendants of enslaved women and children thrown overboard in the deadly Middle Passage. The futuristic, yet hauntological race of the Drexciyans, are the transformational black descendants of marine water-babies. They are real fictions; lost pasts telling stories of the future.

The tale of Drexciya serves to dislocate and re-signify the accepted narrative of history in a similar way to Gallagher’s abstracted repetitions of ‘blackface’ in her paintings and collages: oily banana mouths, googly toy eyes and big red bow ties or amassed hair curls as negative swirling shapes cut out of layered paper. Each repetition of these amputated shapes is an imperfect, unstandardised rendition. They become individualised symbols that accumulate. And as these forms accrete, they transform. Tendrils of organic shapes emerge. Together they grow into some new molecular life form, but one in which each cell still insists on what it is and has been.

Using a similar method of symbolic abstraction, the mutative fronds of the pirate’s hair and the swimming plant tendrils that surround him are in fact made up of layer upon layer of paper. Tirelessly cut into small abstract shapes that curve like mouths, or twist like hair curls, the paper comes from old magazine advertisements for beauty products. Closest to his head and clustered in his hair are images of black women in wigs, their features distorted, masked or exaggerated with paint and plasticine. Amongst them there are also bits of newspaper, records, maps and sea charts. Representation and record, cut and shaped and re-combined into something other. A new geography. An unfamiliar rendition of a well known story.

Metamorphic, the sailor is an evolving conglomeration of cells. Plant-like and surrounded by what appears to be underwater vegetation, the enigmatic figure is growing, unfurling, his neck or beard a mass of vines. But he is also masked and damaged, a Frankenstein monster of torn fragments; an unquantifiable watery other. The mysterious pirate is a transitional figure: the journeyed persona of worldly experience. Yet he remains rooted firmly to the ground, held by the ocean floor, one eye closed as tightly as his grip on the fragile emerald-like bird in his hand.

Much like scrimshaw, I’m cutting directly into the thick stock of watercolour paper, imagining this other place, but my idea of home is more like this sort of constant return. The voyage itself becomes a kind of origin myth that I’m referring to. So for me, it’s the Middle Passage itself, rather than some version of an origin myth based on a Mother Africa. It’s the passage itself. It’s the concept of mutability that, I think, is the kind of origin myth that I’m referring to here.[1]

Gallagher’s sea-green parrot is a fragile, tentative promise, the richest of the glinting rock crystals and the dashes of silver scales and gold leaf that lurk amongst the mesh of paper and plasticine. No immortal, the mutable figure between death and life holds his feathered treasure fast, somewhere between the triumphant moment of capture and the ecstatic point of release.

In the sea there are mysterious comings and goings, both in space and time; the movements of migrationary species, the strange phenomenon of succession…life is hardy, microscopic, secretive, strange.[2]

The enduring ocean unifies different shores in time and space. It remains a haunted land of the living past that constantly revives us through its strange promise for voyages to unimaginable otherness. The sea’s immense fluidity suggests both constancy and change. It’s mass is complete, yet its currents, cycles and rhythms mean that it is never static, but always in transition. Tides create as they destroy with an insistent action that traces itself, a beginning again and again. It tells the same story over and over, smashing beginnings and endings together in the surf. The mystery lies in the assuredness of mutation through repeated transitions; a continual grasping at life, however transitory. The fiercely clutched bird in the hand.

 [1] Ellen Gallagher:Characters, Myths and Stories, Art21, [accessed June 2013] (para 10 of 20)

[2] Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea, (New York: First Mariner Books, 1998 ) p.39






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