Monday, January 28, 2008

Snorkeling in the Dark

Round Bay is a tranquil scoop of sand and sea that is fringed with reefs. After a morning of painting in nearby Haulover Bay, I occasionally put on a mask and flippers and go for a swim there. Even though it is not a risky sport, or one that takes any skill, snorkeling is a thrill.

Just beneath the surface of the water, skeins of light are crocheted across the backs of sea fans and fish and turtles.

Unusual chromatic chords of ochre, crimson, celadon and lilac spread across the coral structures, whose organic forms are both ancient and futuristic.
But there is more to the thrill of snorkeling than seeing novel form and color, and I’m wondering what it is, and I am reminded of a favorite work of art.

In 1968 the American artist Bruce Nauman made “John Coltrane Piece”, “a 36-inch-square, 3-inch-thick, 400-pound aluminum plate laid on the floor, with the word 'dark' written on its unsee-able, mirror-finish bottom surface”. (Saunders, Wade, Not Lost, Not Found: Bill Bollinger, Art in America, March, 2000) Nauman provides little explanation for the reference to Coltrane, other than the fact that he likes his music and that Coltrane had a habit of turning his back to the audience. ( Auping, Michael, “Sound thinking: Michael Auping on Bruce Nauman at the Turbine Hall.”) It is understated to say that this sculpture is laconic. The one bit of excitement, the mirrored surface, in which one would at least expect to see an imitation if not an explanation of life, has been pressed to the floor, all the light squeezed out. In the tradition of the other minimal art works of the time, the obduracy of the "John Coltrane Piece" may be a purposeful denial of the usual delight that is to be had in indulging one's fantasy in front of an art object. But the mirror is a chestnut in the repertory of symbolism and the act of denying light to it is just too provocative to go without more explication.

Snorkeling is an occasion when simple technological enhancement of the body opens the door to a different world. Like the electron microscope and the space shuttle, flippers and a mask extend the body into new space. With each kick of the flipper, something new comes into view, and this is the reason that snorkeling is so thrilling. It’s not just the discovery of something new, it’s the realization that there will always be something new. Anticipation of making a discovery is thrilling, deeply thrilling, like falling into the well of hope. Discovery may be satisfying, but it is the anticipation of discovery that is motivating, particularly for creative people like scientists and mathematicians, who log countless hours developing the tools to extend knowledge in hopes of making discoveries. And it’s here, where bodies wait for augmentation to explore unknown worlds that the John Coltrane Piece lives. The mirror facing the blackness is forever a threshold beyond which there is something we do no yet know. Thinking about The John Coltrane Piece is like wading into the reflective surface of Round Bay on a moonless night, putting on the flippers and mask and setting off for the center.

1 comment:

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