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The Green Ray

This essay appeared in the November online issue of The White Review:

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven. (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

AURORA CHASING IS A FAVOURITE SPORT UP IN ICELAND, one of the main draws for visitors. Northern Lights come in all sorts of hues, apparently, but more often than not they are a glowing green – the colour of the equally elusive meteorological phenomenon that gives its title to a lesser-known Jules Verne novel and to Eric Rohmer´s 1986 film Le rayon vert. The dreamy final sequence of the latter, as I recall, dilates the moment when the green flash briefly appears just as the sun sinks below the horizon, contemplated from afar by the mesmerised heroine Delphine and her newfound love, Jacques. Earlier on in the film, the troubled protagonist portrayed by Marie Larivière overhears a conversation at the beach in which Verne´s Le rayon vert is discussed. Whoever sees the fleeting green ray, the story goes, gains an insight into their own and other people´s thoughts and feelings. A clarity of vision.

A week into my month-long retreat in the solitude of Roni Horn‘s VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER, overlooking the harbour in the fishing village of Stykkishólmur and the many islands of Breiðafjörður Bay, I sighted a green ray from the writer´s studio located beneath the library. Minutes before I was up in the library, surrounded by the clear glacier-filled glass columns that have replaced its original holdings. The wind-swept sky that evening had the same pellucid quality. For once no clouds were obstructing the horizon line at sunset; this in itself felt like a rare occurrence, one that should not go unheeded. I was in the midst of preparing supper when the sun started dipping into the sea. These rival claims on my attention kept me rushing back and forth across the room, from the kitchen area to the windows looking out to the West Fjords. The sun´s disk was all but engulfed. Eager to resume my cooking activities, I nearly turned my back on the green ray. Yet before I could pull myself away there it was in a flash, eerily, unmistakenly green. And then, just as suddenly, it went out.

Thanks to Rohmer´s film, which a friend had urged me to see some years ago, I knew instantly what it was. The excitement of seeing the green ray for the first time soon gave way to a vague sense of melancholy, brought on no doubt by the dying of the light that this horizontal band of lurid green hemmed in by whiteness seemed to underscore. And then, unlike Rohmer´s heroine, who has found her match by the time she comes to view the green ray, clasped in her lover´s embrace, I had it all to myself.

To capture the elusive ray on 16 mm film Rohmer and his crew went all the way to the Canary Islands. Stacking the odds in their favour, I suppose. That I should spot it from another volcanic island on the edges of Europe seemed fitting. Iceland with its extreme and unpredictable weather, completely at odds with the Canaries in this respect, made witnessing what is an uncommon sight at the best of times feel that much more precious.

The day when the sighting occurred coincided with my first foray into the wilds of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, named after the snow-capped stratovolcano at its tip. I got up bright and early to catch the school bus bound for Grundarfjörður, departing from in front of the public swimming pool at 7.45 a.m. It was a glorious morning. From the rocky expanse atop which VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER stands, offering sweeping views of the sea and the surrounding mountains, I could see at a glance all the nearby peaks, usually partly obscured by low-hanging clouds.

The two women sitting across the isle from me, one of whom turned out to be the headmistress, gazed out of the window, quietly taking in the breathtaking scenery unfolding before us along the bus journey. It struck me that perhaps they had grown used to it and were seeing the familiar landscape afresh, through a stranger´s eyes. ‘And you do this every day!’ I ventured at last. ‘But we never forget its beauty,’ they assured me, as if reading my thoughts.

On that occasion I only made it as far as Grundarfjöður, the bus‘s final destination. The small fishing town, as one of the women explained to me, lies exactly in the middle of the peninsula; that‘s why the high school catering to all the teens on Snæfellsnes is located there. Grundarfjörður has its own magic mountain, Kirkjufell, possibly Iceland´s shapeliest and certainly among the most photographed. Yet the farther down the peninsula one travels, the more keenly Snæfell makes its presence felt. One of the 24 glaciers whose melted substance is preserved at Stykkishólmur´s VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER, Snæfell is the point of access to the underground realm that Verne‘s heroes stake out in the Journey to the Centre of the Earth. There is no getting away from Verne´s novel in this part of the world; reading it, I confess, is also what initially drew me here.

By mid-afternoon, the wind had picked up and the clouds started gathering, so that a clear sky at sundown was by no means a given. The green ray, when it did happen, took me by surprise. It came to me unbidden and unlooked for, as if to make up for the patent absence of the aurora borealis that I had been hoping to catch all week. The first (and only) time I ever saw the Northern Lights, they too caught me unawares. It was up in Scotland, coincidentally where Verne´s Le Rayon Vert is set. My partner James and I were driving back from St Andrews to our home in the fishing village of Crail. A green veil of light on one side of the road stopped us in our tracks. Neither one of us could tell then and there what it was. We pulled up into a country lane and watched it billowing against the night sky from across a barren field. It was nowhere near as spectacular as aurora displays can get – in the right place and at the right time – yet it has given me a taste for things that shade of green.


London Waterworks

This review appeared in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art.

London comes as something of an afterthought in Roger Deakin’s Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain (1999), inspired by John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” and its film adaptation starring Burt Lancaster. By his own admission, urban swimming is not high on Deakin’s agenda, and the capital of Britain has little to offer an advocate of wild, freshwater swimming. Deakin notes in passing that the Port of London Authority strictly forbids swimming in the Thames. “Apart from the danger from constant river traffic,” he writes, tacitly condoning this state of affairs, “the water itself, although not as polluted as it used to be, can still seriously damage your health.” London-based live artist Amy Sharrocks sets out to challenge assumptions such as these in her latest piece, Thames Water. Together with playfully reflective offerings by Tim Etchells and Search Party, and commissioned by home live art for the Mayor’s Thames Festival, Sharrocks’s Thames Water was one in a trio of new works made in response to the River Thames, jointly titled A River Enquiry.

The piece was a bid to bring Londoners closer to their river, or rather to bring the Thames closer to Londoners. A human chain of volunteers carried plasticbuckets filled with Thames water from the river’s pebbly shore by Tower Bridge, up some steep moss-covered steps in the Horsleydown Old Stairs leading to the Thames, and a few yards down a crowded cobblestone passageway running alongside the river all the way to Potters Fields Park, on the other side of the Tower Bridge. It took ten people or so almost two hours, the duration of a performance repeated on two consecutive days, and considerable effort to half fill an inflatable paddling pool of rather modest proportions. Members of the public were then given a chance “to wade through the water of the city” in the paddling pool. Barring children and artists, few appeared to be tempted by its murky waters.

The Thames is purportedly one of the cleanest rivers in the world, though when you examine it at close range, sitting in a paddling pool, this defies belief. Its turbid brown color, according to a home live art representative, is not due to pollution but to the silt churned up by the ebb and flow of the tide; it would have looked much the same in Roman times. A cow’s bone polished by the waters, rusty nails, pottery shards, seaweed, and bits of refuse emptied out of the buckets, were carefully removed and displayed like so many trophies at a nearby table. Volunteers from Thames21—a charity dedicated to keeping London’s network of waterways clean—were on hand to demonstrate that the water’s pH and oxygen levels are ideally suited to support plant and fish life. Some one hundred and twenty fish species, freshwater and marine alike, have been recorded in the river over the last twenty-five years, including salmon, which returned to the Thames in 1974. So why shouldn’t Londoners follow suit?

This is precisely what Amy Sharrocks invites them to do. Having drafted fifty people to join her for a group swim across the capital’s public baths, ponds, and lakes in SWIm (2007), Sharrocks used Thames Water at last year’s Thames Festival to enlist public support for another art swim, one that would see a hundred hardy souls cross the river beneath Tower Bridge in the year of London’s upcoming 2012 Olympics. The petition-cum-manifesto for Swim the Thames 2012, which all interested parties were given to sign, does not propose to flaunt the Port of London Authority measures in a guerilla-style swim, but simply to draw attention to the Thames as a shared public waterway,asking who controls it and what are the public’s rights to it.

Thames Water is Sharrocks’s most recent addition to a body of work investigating “how contemporary Londoners connect with water.”1 In a series of one-on-one and collective live art pieces, the artist has tapped into the liquid element in its many guises: natural and artificial, hidden and apparent, indoors and out-of-doors. Central to her practice as a whole, journeys act as a linking thread between each discrete work. Another is the Thames itself, “port, sewer, pleasure ground, heart of London. . . its lifeblood,” in the words of Swim the Thames 2012. All London rivers lead to the Thames. Like the sea, London’s great natural boundary draws all tributaries into itself, engulfs them all, makes room for them all.

The series of six public walks—named after each of the underground rivers they traced: Effra, Fleet, Walbrook, Tyburn, Westbourne, Neckinger—spanned the course of a year from June 2008 to June 2009. Together they make up London is a River City. Each had its own distinctive flavor and set of participants. A collaboration with Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre, Neckinger (September 23, 2008) took place at night and in silence. Effra, on February 1, 2009, saw the walkers contend with gusts of wind and swirls of snow. Walbrook ( June 19, 2009) was the blue walk: the fifty odd people who signed on for it were asked to wear blue and were loosely tied by the waist with blue ribbon. In Westbourne (April 28, 2009), all the participants were equipped with dowsing rods, acting as water detectors of sorts.

Rather than “guided tours, in the usual understanding,” the walks were conceived as “attempts at a different kind of engagement . . . a connection to a different grid. As much a physical connection as a leap of imagination.” For the actual mapping of the underground rivers, likened to a “kind of palm reading of London,”2 Sharrocks availed herself of the services of a professional water dowser, Vicky Sweetlove. Prior to the walks, the dowser would hold a pendulum over the map of the city and dowse the river by first locating its source and then following its hidden trajectory all the way to the Thames. This virtual survey would then be verified in practice with the aid of dowsing rods used as pointers to show the direction of the river’s flow on the actual walks. However dubious this method of locating water may appear, dowsing relies on the assumption that our bodies are mostly made up of water and thus physically react to water.

The artist’s avowed aim in making these collective artworks was to trace the memory of water running beneath our feet, tantalizingly close yet separated from us by layers on layers of concrete. Richard Long, the archetypal walking artist, is quoted on the London is a River City Website as saying that a “walk is just one more layer, a mark.” But whereas the walks at the heart of Long’s practice tend to be a solitary pursuit, Sharrocks and other London-based artists such as Simon Pope—in his London Bridge Recall (2007), Memorial Walks (2009), and most recently in the film Memory Marathon (2010)—have explored walking as a sociable activity in their work.

Walbrook, a public walk that set out to “re-create one of London’s oldest rivers by thronging the pavements with people,” is a case in point. Sporting as many shades of blue as there were walkers, the participants gathered outside of Highbury and Islington underground station, the meeting point, where the organizers proceeded to tie them up together with shimmering blue ribbon. “There is no actual water on this walk,” Sharrocks declared at the outset of a three-hour-long itinerary that traced the course of Walbrook River from its source in Islington, meandering its way through the heart of the City, to its mouth at the Thames beneath Southwark Bridge. “Until we get to the Thames, we are the water—90% water apparently.” Part bondage, part girdle, yet supple enough to allow for ever new permutations and conversation partners, the ribbon at once restricted movements and ensured that the walkers flowed together, river-like, past lamp posts, phone booths, cars, and any other urban obstacles.

For the span of an afternoon, collectively the participants embodied a river that had been buried for five centuries. Like many of London’s lost rivers, paved over, piped in, and largely used as sewers, the Walbrook today is commemorated above ground in the names of streets or churches, in the boundaries of city wards that espouse the river’s course, and in the occasional plaque that records its hidden passage. In the second part of the walk, after they had emerged from the tunnel beneath the Old Street roundabout, the walkers were under strict instruction to observe a vow of silence. For those who kept to it (not everyone did, making for a somewhat thwarted meditative experience), the focus shifted away from their companions to the busy streets of the City and to onlookers whose amused, and occasionally bemused reactions followed the silent convoy until it dispersed onto the shore of the Thames.

The shared experience of meditating on water, in some cases quite literally, is something that Sharrocks turns to again and again in her work. This ongoing preoccupation goes back to Drift (2006), initially staged indoors within the confines of a Victorian swimming pool in Camberwell, and more recently recreated on lakes, rivers, bathing ponds, and swimming pools around England, including on the boating lake in Battersea Park as part of Battersea Arts Centre’s BURST festival (2009). Unlike the group meditation that pieces such as Walbrook encourage, Drift was a one-on-one artwork in which the artist invited people to join her in a pontoon for two fitted with cushions and decked out with lanterns. The cocoon-like set-up lent itself to an intimate private exchange as the boat was set adrift, borne by water currents and wind gently spinning it (at least in the piece’s outdoor incarnations). Moments of silence, leaving one ample opportunity to become alive to a range of new physical sensations, alternated with snatches of conversation in a meditation à deux on the aesthetics of drifting.

In Roni Horn’s 1999 Still Water (The River Thames, for Example), the question “What is water?” underlies the fifteen photographs riddled with tiny white numbers, each of which connects up with fragments of conversation and seemingly random thoughts elicited by the great river. These close-ups of the river’s reflective surface capture only a fraction of its many moods, hues, and textures. Sharrocks’s London water pieces tally with Horn’s sculptural and photographic attempts at sounding the complex nature of water. From Battersea Park to Tower Bridge, they cohere around the Thames and gravitate towards it like so many of the waterways buried beneath the city’s pavements. Coming at it from different directions, by day and by night, whether walking, swimming, or drifting, together they form a sustained meditation on and a celebration of water in the city.

1. “Swim,” Red Giant Projects and Amy Sharrocks, accessed May 2007, http://www.iwanttoswim.co.uk.
2. “London is a River City,” Red Giant Projects and Amy Sharrocks, accessed May 2009, http://www.londonisarivercity.com/why.html