Tuesday, November 17, 2009

in which the fish considers the deepest parts of the ocean

He is underwater.

Air is pumped into his lungs via a large tube. He wakes, and is frightened, scrawls a note, his hands  scrabbling in the air, like crabs dislodged from a rock crevice. He writes my name.

Dutifully, I appear when summoned. When he opens his eyes he seems to look at me as if from the bottom of the ocean, as if he has dreamt me. When I speak, his heart rate increases. I am not sure in what place or form he sees me. His eyes seem full of the ocean. He weeps.

Next day he is still peering at me from his subaquatic dreamspace. His hands, crabs again, clutch at the air, writing in the air with a finger. I can recognise the number 2, but I can't follow the rest.

 I give him a pen and hold the board up. He scratches laboriously with the pen:


Awareness dawns. The 2/19th Battalion:

He wants his father.

His father, my grandfather, was a prisoner of war, and worked the Burma railway. In the morning he would carry stones uphill, after noon he would carefully carry  them down again, so that no work was  actually done.  He of the secret diaries, he who only just survived Changi. He of the long face, the blue eyes and the secrets  unmistakeably shared his genes with me.

My father misses his dad.

Next day I bring a book.  Expecting the worst, I am prepared to read aloud to his  underwater stare and scrabbling fingers, but there he is, awake and talking. Breathing.
The first thing he tells me is that all children should know about Changi.
About the Burma railway.

I read aloud the chapter anyway. He listens obediently.

He speaks about his father, ceaselessly, like I have never heard before. I wonder where he has been, down there in the underwater caverns, whether he has been swimming with souls I never knew were there. Naturally enough, since he is the father of the fish, the one who taught me the ways of the ocean in the first place, perhaps when he was absent from his body up there in intensive care he went for a wander, and ended up in the deepest places of the ocean, face to face with ghosts.


The sea has risen overnight: to look towards the horizon is  like looking into the foaming jaws of a seamonster.  Along the edge are scattered groups of people, most of them skiving off from school. A group of young men, that gleam of strawberry gelato upon  their white flesh, are on their knees joyfully and energetically digging an enormous hole at the water's edge. They scoop great dollops of sand with their large hands, laughing. Making a pond. The foam crackles up at speed, and fills the hole, creating a fountain which explodes all over them.
On my return lap, I see from a distance that they have waded in. This concerns me, as the beach is closed. The pale lavender tints of their complexions tell me they are not from here, and I know the sea would fancy taking them and holding them deep in the underland, where they might meet old soldiers from Changi or God knows where.
As I try to decide what I will say to get them out, the lifeguard buzzes up on his trike, and gently coaxes them out of danger.


I find a quick place, and slither in, just to make my heart race. The water is turquoise flesh marbled with fat white streaks, totally opaque. I am under, over and around and out before anybody sees me.

In the rockpool the water is dancing wildly. I am surprised to see a swimmer, a grandma, clad in a crimson sunhat, paddling across the wild water. The ribbon on her hat is printed with crimson flowers and tied in a bow,  her bathers are black, against the ghostly white of her small white limbs. Her feet make tiny movements, which seem to propel her slowly, gently, a single lap across the end of the pool. She looks up at me, her face filled with joy, and I call to her hello, hello  so happy and pretty she looks you look so pretty in your hat I tell her and she smiles and swims on, her soft decolletage like a cloud billowing to the surface with each stroke. Watch out the tide is not yet full  I tell her.


The sea is full now, so I enter the rockpool with wild delight. Great rolling waves obliterate the edges, huge spilling surges roll on in. Here I am in my own element, the moment I hit the water I am all speckled underbelly and webbed fins, spinning through the slabs of creamy foam and the speeding water. Head down, body tight, elbow high, reaching as far as my fins will reach.  People drift by, and seeing me there cutting through the water, dive in too. They are not to know that just below the waterline I am all fishspecked belly, pouting jaw and  great goggling fish eyes. They are not to know that I flick to the bottom at the sound of the whitewater coming, without putting my head up. That I circle and hold fast to the sand at the bottom at the sound of a certain sea-pitch in my fish ears.

My dad taught me that.


Old Tony, shadow boxing at the top of the steps, smiles when these people clamber out, weak kneed at the hammering they have received. He says he is tempted to tell them not to go in, but my presence there is deceptive, so they follow me. I find it hard to say please get out, it is dangerous because that would sound arrogant, but they scramble out pretty quick smart anyway, thank goodness.


My dad says he wishes he had asked his dad a whole lot more, too many things he will not know. He says that his surf club colours were those of the Navy, the Army, the Air Force. He says somewhere there is a medal, that it is for me. Give it to me then I say to him but he says No. 

I swim on, like a fat speckled sea thing. There is no medal for this, I say, hanging onto the sand, feet in the air as the waves roar over . No medal needed for this.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In which the fish is surprised by a tragedy

He has always been present at any significant art event in Sydney for as long as I can remember.

As a young art student, I remember Nick Waterlow's  name spoken with both affection and reverence: he was responsible for putting Sydney on the cultural map with his curating of the Biennale of Sydney. Recently I watched him in dialogue with Caroline Christov-Bakargiev, marvelling at the ease in which he articulated his ideas, the way he spoke, and how much he was respected. His knowledge and understanding was international.

He didn't suffer fools gladly, and was not known to schmooze or curry favour with artists, yet he was able to create exhibitions which demonstrated ideas: they always showed things in a new light. He was passionate about art, and he was passionate about ideas.

I saw him buzzing around the MCA at last years' Primavera, with his little greek cap on his head, always part of what was going on. He looked wonderfully offbeat, his face maintaining a regal air in counterpoint to his general appearance. Occasionally I plucked up the courage to have a chat with him, because to be honest, he always made me slightly nervous. I didnt always talk to him about art, but sometimes about his daughter, Chloe, who I had been one of my very first students when I began teaching. He was close to Chloe.

I remember her when she first started high school: she was just like a Victorian Porcelain doll: beautiful white skin, dark eyes and ringlets. She had a particular look about her, and always remained a contained child, growing up to be a beautiful woman. I see now she abandoned the curls, no doubt letting some straightening device loose on them. I very much wish I did not see a photo of Chloe's straightened hair in the newspaper, I truly don't. I would prefer to think of her wearing her crown of flowers in the Jubilarian ceremony when she graduated. With ribbons hanging down.

Nick Waterlow has been so much a part of the College of Fine Arts for so very long I cannot imagine the place without him.

 It is all so senseless. As Ian Howard says, it is the worst kind of tragedy.

(Photograph from the COFA website. My apologies.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

The scent of Blue

When I was small, I seemed to see and feel things a little differently to everybody else, or so my mother seemed to think, though I was quite unaware, most of the time, of what other people did and felt.

Certain colours gave off a particular feeling and smell, the sounds of peoples' names prompted colours and shapes. I would be compelled to pick things up, if they were a certain colour, to feel them with my fingertips, or even my lips. Music always had  colour and form, as did the sounds of words.

Sometimes I would see a coloured haze around peoples' head or bodies, and colours or noises would give off a sensation of smell.  I didnt really think much of this, or the fact that Mum remarked on how odd it was when I remarked upon the colours of things which she only saw as black or white.
You are a strange child, she would say

I was much older when I read about the term synaesthesia, and it seemed to sound very much like the way I responded to things, as if the hard-wiring of my senses was a little bit off, or turned up to excess. At certain times I would have very strange reactions to things, to various physical sensations.  Nabokov wrote so synaethetically, that when I read "Speak, memory" I understood the language implicitly.

After I had children, my synaesthesia seemed to diminish somewhat. I figured that I probably had sensory overload, and my brain had closed down certain areas which were not immediately important.

Last week I managed to get to my studio.
The moment I closed the door behind me I felt a beautiful feeling come over me. I welcomed the smells, the traces of the indigo dying from last summer still hanging as a base note, the aroma of gum turpentine very faint. Cineraria leaves which had been simmering, the fragrant little cigarettes Shoufay smokes.

But today I have a small parcel: inside it is a CD and some pictures of paintings, originally Venetian, but currently in Paris. I begin to feel that strange soft buzzing in my face and hands.
I put on the music.

It is Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

It is so known yet unknown, so beautiful that images immediately seem to swell out of nowhere into my head. I hold my large fat brush, with Titian's girl beside me, and spread the colours: Ultramarine blue, a golden Olive green, Viridian, Indigo, turquoise. Light flickering on underwater skin.

As I paint I seem to fragment into some multidimensional world, where I am in the pastoral scene described by the music: edges of land and sea, indigo shadows, bright cliffs and undulating landforms. Birds.

There is light coming in the windows as I spread the layers of paint onto the surface. As I change colour, I become aware that I can smell them, sharply. Not the actual scent of paint, but the sharp smell of the colour itself: the Olive Green smells like rotting food, the Ultramarine sharp and salty, high and sweet, Indigo smells like the darkest tone of a rose.

I look at the detail of the sash in the Titian painting: he has used Ultramarine for the highlights of the fabric, and a golden shade of Olive green for the shadows, like shot silk. The same exact two colours i am using.

The Fantasia continues in my head. It has been quite some time since I found myself in this state. I wonder then, if Titian and the Venetians ever had the same sensation.

Closing the door behind me when I leave, the real world floods in.
I sit with the children later that afternoon and eat watermelon, wondering if I should share the sensation of falling into colours and sounds today,
 but find I haven't the words.