Good morning everyone and a warm welcome to Laurel Holmes’s debut solo exhibition, Watermark.
As I look around at this room, all of us masked up and sanitized, it’s clear that this has been a weird year. Weirder than Donald Trump’s tan lines, or Melania’s taste in men, or the fermented fish I saw the other night on a travel show about Norway.
We’ve had to change our behavior and, at the beginning of the pandemic, make sacrifices that seemed so at odds with our intrinsic human nature: limiting contact with others, developing a healthy mistrust of the man snuffling in front of us in the supermarket queue, stabbing at credit card machines with our car keys. It’s all been a bit too Margaret Attwoody for my liking.
But, in many ways, this year of The Plague may have taught us some valuable lessons, the most important of which is that we must become the sea. Just as the ocean ebbs, flows, rises and falls, in all its wild ways, so too should we. It is the nature of nature that many things are beyond our control: death, weird crown-shaped viruses, rainbows, tidal waves, broken hearts. As humans, we like to think we’re somehow immune to these forces; inoculated against them with our busy-ness, our financial planning, our vitamins and gym visits, our concrete bubbles. Yet, in reality, we are part of these cycles and catastrophes. We cannot control them. In fact, in many cases, we have made them.
Humans have been drawn to water, and particularly the sea, for thousands of years. Perhaps we are being called back, as scientists claim humankind evolved from a bag-like sea creature that had a large mouth, no anus and moved by wriggling. It sounds like many politicians we know. When we’re in the ocean, whether it’s floating around in the shallows or diving its depths, a weightless calm envelops us, as though the lines between where our bodies end and begin dissolve a little, and we can surrender to that calm space between waking and dreaming.
Everyone is beautiful in water. I should know: I have an unethical practice of photographing strangers swimming in the ocean. And there is something so touching and comforting to watch an elderly woman floating on her back, or a young child kicking up sand and blowing nose bubbles. It’s as though we are being given safe harbour from a human world that, let’s face it, isn’t quite going to plan.
This is not to say the sea is a placid lagoon filled with mermaids and unicorns that kiss our hands and give us pedicures. The ocean is nature in constant motion, its moods influenced by winds, geology and the moon. Some days, it boils like a cauldron of pent-up anger, hurling itself again and again on the shore. Watched from the outside, its rhythmic determination is mesmerising: the foam patterns drifting and breaking up on the surface; the push of its lip up the shore, never quite in the same spot as before; the sucking back of the waves and the curl of blue advancing. It never gets old. It speaks to the cycles and rhythms that are intrinsic to us, but which we have forgotten. Watching the sea resonates with that place inside us that is still wild and can still read the braille of the natural world. It brings to the surface a yearning to return home.
As we head into an uncertain future, perhaps we should become the sea, surrendering to that which we can’t control and practising a fluidity that can flow around the rocks in our way. Or we could just drink a lot of wine.
Some smart people over the years have had some smart things to say about the sea.
This from the 6th century Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “Water is fluid, soft and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”
And this from Carl Jung: “I am looking forward enormously to getting back to the sea again, where the overstimulated psyche can recover in the presence of that infinite peace and spaciousness.”
Each of us has a unique watermark – our own way of interacting with and reacting to the world. And while watermarks are traditionally constant – a stamp of ownership; a privatisation of property -- our personal watermarks are fluid, moulded by the years as we are tossed about and buoyed up by circumstances and events that, like hurricanes or the doldrums, often come to us unbidden. And this is how it should be. Because if we are not on this earth to grow and shift and learn, why else are we here?
As I write this, my father is in hospital awaiting a heart operation. I think his heart is broken after my mother’s death six months ago. I am not sure how to go about my days, but what I do know is that I must go into the sea. To be held, to be weightless, to have my lines dissolved. To have my watermark washed away yet again, to be reformed when I’m ready.
Laurel’s paintings capture that precise feeling of immersion and meditation the ocean delivers. The works themselves are forces of nature, flowing from the artist’s own sensory syne waves onto the canvas. We can take strength from knowing that this exists: the connection between heart, hand, eye and canvas that has its source in an ancient recognition of our belonging. That we’re not apart from the stars, the grass, the sea – even hadedas and slugs and aphids and brittle stars. After all, if you believe the science, we were once sea bags with no anuses. Now, THAT’S a humbling fact to always remember.