Antje: Last time you told me that you’re working on this new novel, and that the main character is a painter. You also told me that he starts painting the sea –
Rajeev: Yeah, well, he only paints the sea, really. I was living by the sea, and I was there every day about four five times. I was there in the morning, I was there in the afternoon, I was there in the evening, and it was the most real part of the day, it was like the part of the day when you’re most peaceful and most in touch with yourself and the way the sea was feeling affects-
A: How did it feel? Was it just because there were no other people?
R: No, it was because the sea…
A: Yeah, but what is it like?
R: Well, that’s the question (laughs). Because there’s different ways of looking at the sea and it’s been described in different ways by a lot of people. It has been described as a womb feeling, as a mother, the psyche – there’s this novel “Solaris”, do you know “Solaris”? It’s by this Polish guy, Stanislaw Lem –
R: He describes it as consciousness. Right?
A: Well, I mean that’s not our sea. That’s an organism that lives on a different planet.
R: I don’t see it like that. It’s only one way of thinking. It does have parallels with what I recognize as the ocean. But the way I see it, I see it as MIND. And it has different MOODS. But it’s in its vastness because that’s where I see it as mind – huge and you can never see all of it anyway – and other people are experiencing it from different angles but your experience is unique to you which is something like the ego.
The novel I’m working on now is called The Dreamer and a lot is about dreams and the nature of reality. For me that is the ultimate reality, in so far as we can speak of it as mind, right, and so for me it’s a representation of that. So I was thinking – what do you do if you want to respond to it? You enter into dialogue with it when you’re there, which is a relatively non-intellectual thing. It’s a form of prayer. But if you’re an artist then you want to create all the time. If you’re a priest you can just pray and you’re right – and whatever else people do, swimming in it or something but – I’m not a poet but even though I never read a poem that was very effective in capturing what I feel about the ocean. And you can do something conceptual in a novel, but again – – that’s possible, that’s possible, that the sea takes the form of a character in a novel, but I thought painting would be a more effective way of communicating, of expressing that realization, that experience of sea.
A: And why would that be so? Do you think it’s because the painting is a still image of something and you can watch it for a long time, the same way you could actually watch the sea when you’re there?
Well, I mean you mentioned that your painter, he also does videos.
R: Well, you see, the painting didn’t really work for me . Unless you took an image of the sea that was non-representational. Then it could work. But I don’t think a still image of the sea can capture that experience to any meaningful degree. But a video probably could. Because it’s got movement, it’s a continuous living presence, and it’s breathing, the ocean is breathing as well. The waves, the waves coming in and the waves coming out.
A: I’m just now preparing a show about swimming (Nell’aqua nell’aria). I did a lot of photos in swimming pools and I was really interested in how people feel in a way very free and you would imagine that it’s a very uncomfortable thing to be within a city, to be practically naked and stuffed together with a lot of other people who are practically naked, but no! I think people feel very comfortable in swimming pools. There’s this one swimming pool in Kreuzberg where a lot of young Turkish guys go and they really show off their muscles, but there’s also a lot of gay people who go there and show off their muscles, and they mix absolutely peacefully. And it’s one of the spaces in the city where very different social groups can physically see each other in a state of almost nudity – and in no specific occupation other then relaxing, taking in the sun, taking in the water, fooling around a bit, and I just love that.
R: That’s my experience of the sea as well. At first I wasn’t really sure if that was a place where I wanted to live because it was basically all white English people from the sort of Suffolk, upper-middle class or upper-class background, and I was the only non-white person for miles around. It’s not an area of Britain known for it’s progressive thinking. The entirety of the South of Britain and particularly South Anglia is a reactionary place, but by the sea it didn’t really matter. Social distinctions were not very important, because you shared something more important which is the sea. It’s like a ritual in the morning, people get up and then they go and see the sea. Most people, because they lived there and they have lived there for a number of years, went by eight o’clock, nine o’ clock – I used to go at about five for the sunrise. And there’s never any one there, just some fishermen occasionally and a boat, and me, and the sun would rise and I would walk on the beach. I did that every morning and it was amazing! Like last time I was there, I thought I had forgotten what it was like but I hadn’t, I was there with Sam, right, and she was asleep, and I was a bit drunk the night before and usually if I get drunk the night before I don’t get up early. And I got up and I could feel it sort of in my heartbeat or in my head or something like that, you could feel it: it’s the morning, get up, go and go to the sea, right, so I did. Like I had done every single time, at exactly sunrise, I just woke up and had to go. And as soon as you got there, your hangover is gone, and you’re fine. Even if things aren’t going so good. It has an amazing effect on people.
A: I wanted to capture this kind of effect, and I still hear my gallerist saying: ‘But you’ll paint a lot of water, won’t you’, and I think she was thinking, ‘well, it will be interesting if she does what David Hockney did, but does it in a more realistic way. How will she deal with this element.’ And I found out that I couldn’t. And that relates to what you’re saying about the painter in your novel. It’s essentially a moving element and it didn’t interest me very much to freeze it. So I decided to capture this moment before you plunge into the water. I’m now painting those girls who are caught in mid air. Two seconds later they will be in the water and you can already feel that on the back of their feet. You already feel the contact to the water. I paid great attention to the feet. I think they’re like walking in the air but at the same time you feel they are between two elements. Now they enjoy being in the air, and in the next moment they will be in the water. And it’s pure joy to be in between. I found out it was more about joy – In the beginning this social thing interested me a lot, but than I found out it was only going so far. I have already done two videos about it, portraying two different swimming pools. But they are just really good documentaries in a way, and they don’t satisfy me. I have to become more abstract.
R: The other question is, if you go the whole way and it becomes purely about the water, about the sea – is anyone going to want it? I don’t think so. Landscapes, seascapes are viewed as very conservative art.
A: I think we’re really talking about the most conservative piece of art possible. A painting of the sea, and that’s all.
R: But to me it’s not conservative, right? Just because something isn’t urban, or conceptual, or radical in a cultural sense, that doesn’t mean it’s conservative to me.
A: But how?
R: Cause for me the sea is not something that I see in particularly political terms! Or in social terms. It’s just a question of expressing that because it can be boring, it could take it’s place within the traditional landscapes and seascapes and that could be very boring, but for me the guy is trying to do something new and fresh, to express that. That was his problem, really, in the book.
A: So you would say for yourself – I mean you’re obviously very interested in the problematics of political or social differences between different groups of people in England – that art should be talking about that but at the same time it should be possible to talk about something like this very pure feeling in front of the sea?
R: Which is mind! Well, I’m broadly into social context in the novel because that was just what he wanted to do…. One of the things that happens is that his sister was burned alive – I’m not sure if I’m going to keep this or not, I probably am –
A: They’re immigrants, first generation immigrants –
R: Yes, first generation, northwest, in a place called Morkham, which is very violent, very racist and very dangerous. It’s bomb fire night and some people threw some petrol over her and set her alight, and it’s something that could very easily happen. Do you know the short story called The Boy who stole the Ocean? It’s about this kid and how this happens to his sister. And he never cries, right. He sees it but he never cries, he just goes to the ocean every day and sits there. And then one day he sees his sister within the ocean. He sees an image kind of resurge on the surface, like the lady in the lake. And he sees her and she starts talking to him and he’s much happier. So he goes there every day, and brings flowers and puts them in the ocean for her, like sweets and things. So and he’s dialoguing with her, and then a factory is built by the ocean. People are pumping industrial effluent in it. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a beach to the northwest of England – they’re toxic; they’re scary, man. Glass bottles everywhere and just a lot of waste are pumped into them. You can’t really swim, cause your skin would turn green and fall off.
So the water is turning green and he can’t take it any more. He wakes up one day and his father says: ‘Listen, son – I don’t know how to tell you this, but somebody stole the ocean! I’m sorry, I know how much it meant to you!’ So the kid rushes out and he goes to the ocean. It’s true, the ocean is gone and there’s just this huge cavity where the ocean used to be. And than he starts laughing, because he stole it, right! Late last night, he went to the ocean, he drank it, he drank the entire ocean, and it’s in his stomach. Now he’s happy because nobody can turn the water green. But the next day his sister starts talking to him from inside his stomach, and he thinks there’s something wrong with his stomach because it sounds a bit like whales are in there, but then he realizes it’s her saying: ‘Look, put me back!’…
(To be continued)