THE REAL THING is round, painted, about eight inches in diameter, and hangs in a square frame in my house in Connecticut. Vanessa Daws, swim artist from Dublin, painted the image for me in June 2018.
Like the Anthropocene, this painting is something we can’t all look at together but need to understand. I’m going to open this book by describing it to you.
The fragile ship balances atop plurality, toxicity, beauty. Multiplicities teem beneath its keel. The small circular painting blazes forth many Anthropocene conditions. We need more of these things in our breaking world: more ships, more seas, more monsters, more art.
Off center floats a ship, its solitary mast angling into dark skies. Blank faces crowd the deck, attracting and repelling attention. “Ship of fools”: it’s perched atop the trash swell, a toxic pile that cascades down and to the right. Unseen eyes lurk behind empty faces. Is that the Old Man himself up in the crow’s nest pointing his spyglass at the horizon? The vessel holds the preterite ones, those who have been passed over, who soon may plunge into iridescent waters. Looking closer, the faces present different colors, textures, histories. Why can we see no eyes? Only Anthropos up high aims his glass, looking ahead into the circle’s dark rim. He sails into futures we can’t see.
The waters boil with trash and color. The space deep below blurs indefinitely, but near the surface it’s possible to discern bottles, packaging, even a label on which is printed the letter “C.” All of it is plastic and predetermined. The vessel traverses the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, currently three times the size of France, the most massive assemblage humans have yet produced. The image’s tilt forces our eyes, with the ship, to lurch downward from left to right, escaping from a lurid tentacle of yellow-green froth on one side but heading toward more swells below. The ship provides partial respite, some possibility of story and change. But the circular frame tells its own tale: what happens when all waters everywhere throb with these same colors, these same plastics, this toxicity? None of the humans on board looks at the water with longing. I imagine a sign: No Swimming. This painting, made by a swim artist, frames inaccessible waters.
The creature’s tail arcs behind, curling interrogatively back onto itself. The image copies one half of a monster that Rachel Carson reproduced for the endpapers of her 1951 masterpiece The Sea around Us. Carson took the sea snake from a map she found in the New York Public Library, Il Mari di Amazones. The image was first engraved by the Italian master Antonio Francesco Lucini in 1646, when he was working on a massive atlas compiled by the renegade English nobleman and mariner Sir Robert Dudley. What can the creature see beneath the ship, in purple-green semidarkness? Perhaps the monster trails the wake for the trash humans cast off the ship’s stern. Perhaps the great curved tail will extend itself with a colorful splash onto the sea surface—whapp!—as the invisible body turns down into the depths. No one on the ship sees the monster’s head. Even Anthropos on the masthead looks away, down the swell, into futurity. Monsters swim from oceans of the past, through currents of history and windstorms of legend. This one may paddle next to us for a long time to come.
There’s a communal joy in turning our eyes together onto a single image. The picture aligns us into community. We all look the same direction.
Like me, the artist who painted this picture is an open-water swimmer. Vanessa Daws and I first met, at least in the world beyond Facebook, in the California surf in October 2014. We were gathered together that week in Santa Barbara by the medieval maestros of the BABEL Working Group, which organized a rollicking seaside conference. The Pacific was uncommonly gentle and warm. I remember seeing a harbor seal’s head poking up from the waves next to me on my last morning swim. Looking at the painting today in my home on the Connecticut shoreline, I see angry water. The colors burn like garbage on fire, garish and toxic. There’s truth in those swirling waters, the sort of truth that stings when you touch it.
The image recalls plural waters: the warm salt of Long Island Sound down the street, the surf break at Hendry’s in Santa Barbara, Vanessa Daws’s Irish Sea, the Clevedon Marine Lake in the West Country where she and I last swam together. Must they all churn yellow and green in our soon-arriving futures?
How everlasting are things in this Anthropocene in which our bodies are immersed today? How much color can flow into each solitary mind or splash across each swimming body? How can we love this fragile and partly inaccessible world, its flashes of light and its slow dripping melt?