The Diver
Dietrich & Schlechtriem, 2019
Julian Charrière’s new solo exhibition Silent World is a meditation on the undersea realm as an oneiric atmosphere: a space that is central to our imagination precisely because of its unfamiliarity and indistinct aspects. Marshalling photography and video, the exhibition stages encounters between human outlines and their visible dissolution. The works include images of free-divers captured inside an aquatic cave in Mexico’s Cenotes, half of their bodies obscured as they penetrate what is known as a chemocline and enter an opaque layer of bottom water, a soup of sulfurous bacteria. Through the iconographic unconscious of these images, the divers’ descent into a literal abyss conjures up a sea of metaphorical allusion. Despite this profusion, however, it is a silent world—as no individual can comprehensively speak for it. Yet that does not stop us from trying. Charrière’s exhibition borrows its title from an early underwater film by Jacques Cousteau, the first of its kind to bring moving images from the ocean depths to screen. Since this important opening-up of the visual imaginary of the undersea realm, consolidated by today’s high-definition broadcast documentaries, it is tempting to think that we (including those who have never practiced scuba) know this place. The fact is, however, that the ocean is largely still mystery. As Charrière’s new work seems to suggest, deeper engagement with this space may yet reorder perceptions of who we are.

The ocean is an ancient well of metaphor that has served religious thought and philosophy from the beginning of recorded history. As the word Dalai, in Tibetan Buddhism, it carries the sense of the primordial interconnectedness of all things. Like a wave, running all the way into the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer’s metaphysics casts away from shore. Claiming that ultimate reality can only be approached through ‘non-empirical’ cognition, advocating aesthetic experience—including exposure to art—as key to the encounter, he ventures a nautical image: “Just as the boatman sits in his small boat, trusting his frail craft in the stormy sea that is boundless in every direction, rising and falling with the howling, mountainous waves, so […] the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting the principium individuationis”.1 According to his vision, removing the veil of illusion is akin to the boat capsizing and the sailor being plunged into the boundless ocean, his (individual) self-conception lost in its manifold. Freud would name this current the ‘oceanic feeling’ of oneness with the universe—a vestige of the the infant’s sense of undifferentiation.

But the rule of climbing back onto the boat (even if we may fall overboard again) obtains in the Western dialectic. To remain submerged is the mark of madness, or a holy outside unknown to reason. When it is not beyond itself, the ego slides across the image of the ocean-infinite with itself as the horizon—surveying and thus limiting this ‘open’ space. This mystic-empiricism delivers colonial hubris—for how can one expropriate what is seemingly unlimited? How can depths, unfathomable in their vastness, be exhausted; and is there not always another fish in the sea? The longer he remains above water, the more controlling the sailor’s habit, for the ego sees only its distorted reflections in the deep—monsters; the boundary between the image and its others a site of trepidation and policing. To this water-man the sea is everything else, and herein lies a culture.

To enter the ocean, truly, is to let it enter you. But who is the ocean swimmer in the history of Western thought? The metaphysical books are dry for ideas, unlike Pacific Island traditions. In fact, he has remained in the shallows until recently. It took the invention of glass, and, finally, goggles and aquariums, for new visions to take shape. Visions that were furthered by the development of the aqua lung, and with it a deeper dive into the being of the sea. Having thus confirmed the absolute novelty of this space of exploration, we are only now being disabused of our notion that it is limitless and inexhaustible. Its monsters are our own, not animals; and its atmospheres are ours too.

Complementing the complex revelation that is being developed by the oceanographic and biological sciences, the swimmer finally overturns the boatman’s dialectic through a new ontological proposition—a diver. Onboard yet overboard, the diver is herself and not—a human-apparatus hybrid, the viability of whose being obtains in the intimate assemblage of lung and aqua-lung; a lived double-atmosphere, spanning the haptic interior and exterior of the body. Reconciling the dissolution of self with (non-metaphysical) materialism, while maintaining the ego, the boundaries of the (corporeal) person are demonstrably porous. Breath: the proof. The dive presses this point home, leaving no space for words—perhaps the original agent of our separation from the manifold.

A key figure in the aqua-lung’s development, Jacques Cousteau, titled his groundbreaking underwater film The Silent World. Human ears are not calibrated for the medium of water, though it conducts sound over far greater distances than air. What is heard is not indistinct, however. The diver is indistinct. The ocean is only silent in the sense that the diver cannot speak. Even as he delivered images of the deep to screen, exposing the general public to a new dimension of reality, Cousteau could not help but pick a title that conveyed lack.

Half a century has passed since the undersea world was brought to surface, on screens around the globe. Half a century since the visions of Cousteau’s team, in wetsuits and aqua-lungs, exploring reefs and wrecks, meeting sharks and whales, caught popular imagination. Today, with major productions like the BBC’s benchmark Blue Planet reaching massive audiences, most of us are familiar with images of ocean life. Even, that is, if we have never met a fish that was not on a dinner plate. This general familiarity is of use to ecological agendas, but in no way conveys the challenging subjectivity of diving. In Blue Planet the camera glides, without breath or bubbles, over its content. The lens carries no fog, and is thus invisible. The temporalities and physical dynamism of the ocean as it is for divers is absent, the perspective that of a stabilized camera or aquarium interior: double-atmosphere is missing from the presentation, in place of one of its halves (air) there is only a vacuum.

The condition of the diver by way of scuba apparatus is sufficient but not necessary for a new ocean poetics. While its cyborg overstepping of corporeal borders points toward the notion of complete interconnection, conducive to ecological thinking, this development may yet be interpreted as rendering the whole world a human prosthesis. In addition to Cousteau’s contributions as a naturalist, there are (self)recorded proofs of his unreconstructed piracy apparent in his body of work. Against such, an incoming tide delivers a swimmer for the diver: the free-diver. By contrast with the scuba diver, the free-diver performs a more unmediated encounter, further surpassing the sailor. In this oceanic figure, the prospect of training a latent evolutionary feature has been proposed—a dimension of pre-human aquatic biology still present in anthropos/sapiens. In a book that was his life’s work, pioneer free-diver Jacques Mayol explains his discovery of the ‘dolphin within man’—obtaining in the apnea reflex, which may be trained, to facilitate breath holds of up to seven minutes at a time.

Pouring his own poetic sensibility into these currents (which have pushed the human image further out, into the blue) Silent World debuts Charrière’s series of photographs of free divers disappearing into liquid obscurity. Naked and, in pictorial terms, dissolving, his figures physically enter another layer of the ocean imaginary—the little exposed phenomena of chemoclines. These are lakes and rivers within oceans; unique micro-biological universes. Contributing to a picture of the oceanic system that has grown significantly more complex in recent decades, such worlds within worlds are relatively recent discoveries. Sliding into this previously silent (unseen and unthought) realm, Charrière’s free-divers seem caught in some kind of dance; a graceful fall. From where—and to what?

Accompanying the photographs, a ceiling-mounted projector beams video footage downwards onto a screen, lying on the gallery floor, emanating water vapor. On this aqueous screen footage of the sun’s rays (breaking through the water’s surface, streaming down) is displayed. During filming the camera was positioned looking skyward, towards the light. In terms of spatial orientation, the installation proposes an inverse scenario—whereby the sun occupies a submerged position, shining up from the deep. The conceptual gravity of the exhibition is heightened by this reversal. As well as turning down into up, and up into down, fire appears to be present in water. Moreover, the apparently falling divers (in the photographs) may yet be ascending; and the audience, at least according to this logic, is not upright but flipped.

In constructing a liquid screen on which to project his video footage, Charrière collapses metaphor into material, and vice-versa. With a critical eye on the history of ideas, he reminds us of the exemplary relation between water and the project(ion) of self, extant in the myth of Narcissus, its Freudian re-imagination, and, further, Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’. Like the mirror, the screen reflects. But the logic of the screen allows for back-projection; and (qua architectural room-divider) the viewer’s inhabiting the space behind it without incurring mortal risk. In Charrière’s work the free-diver occupies this realm. Moreover, she discovers another, deeper, screen within this place—the opacity of the chemocline. Piercing this additional screen (going beyond the veil), in fact, entering it, further unfolds the project’s poetics of inversion: the physical screen (so often imagined as a surface) becomes depth. Becomes the depth, we should say, that contemporary screens so often promise but fail to deliver.

In presenting gallery visitors with a submerged sun Charrière’s gesture appears to have been inspired by a certain optical phenomenon known to deep ocean swimmers. When out in open water (water so deep that one cannot see the bottom) rays of light that can only be entering from above appear, counter-intuitively, to be flickering up from the depths. This is only one of many disorientations possible in the oceanic realm. Another proceeds from the introduction of a more radically activated vertical axis, along which one’s body may move. With just a slight intake of breath (from an aqua-lung) one may rise meters upwards. The opposite attends expulsion of air from the lungs. Further confusion: stable floating requires a prone position. Sinking, a vertical position. Herewith, the significance of passing through the screen—moving within it. On the surface you can forget that you are operating within an atmospheric volume; that air is not nothing. In water you remember, and learn that all surface is depth, and all depth, surface—the truth of this fact pressing its case, quite literally, on (around) you. Here, borders between one thing and another seem much more fluid, a question of push and pull, ebb, flow, and feeling.

Charrière’s free-diver is not out in the blue but in a cave, a context that increases the poetic atmosphere discussed, for the cave is the original screen in the history of philosophy, as ventured in Plato’s superlative allegory: held chained within a cavern from the beginning of their lives, and facing away from its opening, a group of hypothetical prisoners know only a play of shadows on a rocky wall in front of them; shadows that they take for reality, ignorant of the fact that these shadows are secondary to the true things that have cast them—ignorant of the truth project(or) that is the sun beyond the grotto. In Charrière’s photographs the chemocline screen, deep within the cave, registers the brightness of the sun instead of shadows. Moreover, in the gallery space, the presentation of a submerged sun brings truth down (closer) to earth. Proposing a deep dive into real things, the exhibition reminds us that this ocean is the furthest thing from a metaphysical ideal, for all its lyrical attraction.

1 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, ed. E.J.F. Payne, vol. I (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), 352–53.