Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Sea Full Stop.

The work Books to Sea, on display at Hull History Centre is part of a larger exhibition that spans across various venues in Hull. The exhibition shows the works made during my residency at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre (MHSC, based at Blaydes House) part of the University of Hull. The residency has been funded by a grant by the Leverhulme Trust.  

During my time in Hull I had access to the collections and archives of the MHSC, the Maritime Museum and the HHC. These collections and the very few visible remnants scattered across the city (what is left of the old docks, yards and factories) were my main window into the industry of over 200 years ago. I focused mainly, but not exclusively, on books concerned with the whaling period of the city, approximately 1776 to 1867.

Ocean Passages for the world
Narratives abound. They range from the prosaic and anecdotal descriptions of the voyage and the vicissitudes of the hunt, to more philosophical reflections about life at sea. I feel as if the boundaries between fact and fiction, truth and legend are intricately entwined. I purposely tried not to get too entangled on individual stories. Not because I wanted to remain detached but perhaps I worried that it would be too seductive a path and it would stop me from trying to explore the bigger picture. I was more interested in a sort of ‘texture’ of it all: the texture of the sea and of whaling as viewed from a distance. Distance can act as an inverted lens that turns something really large into a manageable miniature, easier to explore. In this case, time was the distancing agent. And each logbook or journal became a miniature model of the whole period.

I love old books, especially the ones that show their age, the decaying grandeur of their leather covers and gold embossing. I like the contradiction between the assertiveness of their information, they exhale an air of inherent truth and the fact that in many cases that information is obsolete, incorrect or incomplete. One of my favourite books is Ocean Passages for the World. – the full stop is actually embossed on the cover. The book contains a list and description of all ocean routes between different parts of the globe. This particular edition is from 1923 and it is at the MHSC library. That particular full stop says to me “this is it, these are all the ocean passages there will ever be”, like reassuring an ultimate authority and timelessness.

I have spent long periods of time in the library perusing through all these books, about whales, whaling and the ocean. Seduced by the elaborate covers I started taking pencil rubbings of the embossed titles and designs, an art technique also known as frottage. I thought of the book as a ship in which to sail through the whaling past. Perhaps too obvious a metaphor, I know, but from the cosiness of a library is the only way we can ever board those extinct whaler ships. The described seas are but a mental place of the past, the whalers and their prey mere ghosts. But that is the funny thing, the sea in these books is all the more powerful because it is a reflection of the sea still out there, as inhospitable, unfixable and unknowable today as it was then, despite our inexhaustible attempts to fix it or map it, despite any full stops insinuating the opposite. The same impossibility of ultimate knowing applies to our understanding of whales. Physical up-close encounters with living whales are certainly scarce. For most of us on shore, whales will remain endlessly fascinating but forever out of grasp.

Some of the panels on display in the History Centre arcade
Progressively, my attention was drawn away from the figurative embossed designs on the books and towards the textured covers. They suddenly reminded me of the sea glimpsed from a plane window: a static sea, opaque, solid and impenetrable as mountains. The sea from the pages somehow had filtered out to the outer skin of the book. In some respects however, this literary sea is in constant flux, as much as the physical sea is. Because despite having been set in print, the text is exposed to our interpretation today, and those interpretations change it and make it flow. I see the surface of sea as a metaphor of history, a fluid and unstable layer separating two great substances (water and air in the case of the sea, past and present in that of history). Past and present are intangible concepts held in a delicate balance, which is constantly being rewritten.

The rubbings of the covers appear to me as topographies of these sea-skins, book-ships. Sometimes the rubbings revealed features I had not noticed before on the books, their scars emerged. Hull Whaling Relics is a small booklet from the collection at the HHC. In its pencil rubbing the signs of ageing, institutional stamps and cataloguing tags are the only features of an otherwise uniform surface. This particular work can act perhaps as a poignant reflection of the position of whaling heritage within Hull cultural landscape, obscured and hidden in archives and libraries as oppose to visible and celebrated alongside the fishing heritage.

The works at the HHC show scaled-up prints of the pencil rubbings. I wanted to experiment with changing the scale, to accentuate the surface details and evoke even more an idea of the book as a physical place (another book is brilliantly titled The Physical Geography of the Sea, and its Meteorology). They are an invitation to the viewers to get up-close and after exploring the surface, perhaps venture into the whaling section of the library and allow themselves to get entangled in those captivating narratives from not so long ago. 

More info about the residency is at http://seawardpeep.wordpress.com

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