“for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”
It’s a surprisingly cold Adelaide night — cold even for a thick-blooded Canberran. I push through the glass door, from the chill into warmth, from night and pavement and cars into another world.
At first it’s the light I see, the white of the walls intensified by rows of downlights. And then it’s water: twenty or so large photographs, each one vivid with colour, whether it be grey or green or blue or yellow. This is the exhibition, ‘The Sea and Me’ by Che Chorley, a range of photographs that take the viewer to sea level, the catalogue says. But this is not just standing-on-the-beach, waves-lapping-at-my-toes, looking-out-to-the-horizon kind of sea level. This is in the water, out there, deep, water slapping at my face kind of sea level.
I stand in front of one, ‘The Beastly Sea’, a brooding sea swell, up close, just in front of my eyes, the teal green of the water deepened by the purple-blue storm clouds above and the sun that pushes through them in the distance. I’m almost mesmerised, holding my breath and feeling the beginning of panic: an inch or so lower, and my nose would be underwater; any more and my head would be submerged. Below me, just water, who knows how deep, nowhere to stand. No air, just the pressure of all that salty liquid and its endless moving, beating, thrumming in my ears. This is what the Romantics described as the sublime: it holds me there because it’s what I fear and because it’s so deeply beautiful. The threat keeps my breath high in my chest.
A memory forms: the day we went swimming in a thunderstorm, the water warm and quiet, that strange feeling of the rain being softened by the mass of water. I was lulled by it, by the rise and fall, and I let the soft waves carry me. Gradually I realised they had become swell and I was being pulled out into deep water. I was only about ten, and I couldn’t see my mum or my sister, and so I swam, hoping every time the water dropped me into a trough that I could touch the bottom. Eventually I found it — sharp rocks that cut my feet as I struggled onto the beach. No one seemed concerned, so perhaps I wasn’t really in danger, but I felt so much bigger, somehow, because I had encountered something huge by myself.
I walk on. ‘Tension’ is green water alive with waves and spray that dance against the brooding blues and greys of the clouds above — resisting, as the title alludes, the weight of a lowering sky. In many of the photos of storm, the clouds seem to meet the water and I realise that these are studies of both, the immensity of sea meeting the expanse of sky.
The sea calms, turns viscous in ‘As the Air Turns to Ink’. It could be silk flowing and pooling, reflecting back the weak blur of sun and though I’m still at eye-level, my breath deepens, calms. And around the corner, in the far end of the gallery, are two shots of light: the spectacular blend of sun and water, the two merging into a study of liquid blue and yellow. One is called ‘(Found at Sea)’, which seems just right; I feel as if something is given back to me.
That’s a strange thought. Is the sea interested in giving or taking? Neither, of course. And I realise that it’s not the sea itself that gives, but the observation of the photographer in capturing a moment that I would no doubt have seen, but almost certainly not noticed. Always changing, shifting mood and colour, the sea won’t stop so that we can take it in. And so I’ve moved from fear to calmness through Che’s vision.
These photographs offer us a moment.
I remember an advertisement for a camera that told us we could ‘capture the moment’, or something similar. Hang onto it. But these photographs don’t capture so much as give us a glimpse that is the beginning of seeing a little bit more. I’ve seen the sea in storms, in balmy weather, choppy and calm, but I’ve never seen it with as much perception and mood. And overwhelming beauty. I think of poems in the same way: an image, a space in time, maybe even a small story that opens out into something larger if I take time to see it.
And so I walk back to the one I’ve stayed away from: the photograph with the title of the exhibition, ‘The Sea and Me’. Such a liminal image; I breathe in quickly, involuntarily. The water wraps itself around the fingers. Is that hand rising or sinking? Loving the sea or terrified? Not drowning, waving? I hope so. There’s a story there, not just a moment: the sky is dark above, but light in the distance and the sun might be rising as the hand, then an arm, a head and another arm, come into the light. It’s a diver surfacing, emerging into another day. Or maybe not. I haul in another breath.
All photographs used by kind permission of Che Chorley; for more wonderful photographs, see his website at www.chechorley.com
The exhibition, ‘The Sea and Me’ at The Mill, Adelaide, was part of the SALA festival.