After Leonard Cohen’s 1967 song “Suzanne”; Chris Burden’s 1974 performance Velvet Water.
I am walking down Dun Laoghaire pier with my mother and older brother. It is summer. I am seven years old. Wanting to be the first to reach the end of the pier I forge ahead, into the sunlight and the buffeting wind. About halfway down I look back and see my mother waving her arms in the air and shouting something at me. As I run back to her something in the water, hunched over with outstretched arms, catches my eye.
An inveterate imbiber of weepies my mother once told me that when a child drowns the last thing they hear, just before they lose consciousness, is the most heavenly music. At the time the consolatory nature of the image won out over its faulty logic. In the moment I thought my brother had drowned the noise of the world fell away. In the silence that followed I thought I felt the resonance of this music, wrapping me in a dizzying cocoon that shook the world to its foundations. When my brother suddenly appeared at my side, explaining how the wind had taken his jacket and dropped it in the drink, I was wrenched back to reality.
Over the coming weeks, in an effort to recapture something of this musical residue, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to drown. Jumping off the edge of the pier I would break the surface with a shudder and sink through a tunnel of bubbles. I would wait below the surface until the need for air rose to a deafening roar and my mouth was prised open. As my last gasp was expelled from my lungs my mouth would flood with viscosity. I never got beyond this point, the pain of suffocation cutting short any impending supernatural consolation. With repeated re-enactments the residue of what I thought I had felt faded to a whisper, a benighted benediction echoing to a watery grave.
The idea of mystical relief would unravel in the coop of my youth, a process accelerated by the resentment I felt when my brother revealed to me that when our mother had stopped to talk to someone he had deliberately thrown his jacket into the water, then hidden behind a pillar to watch our reaction. I have idled my time in such instances of disillusion, ditches of disappointment, ruts of disenchantment. My brother’s gleeful confession gave me a taste for degradation, against which I measured the dimensions of my integrity. Across the walls of this integrity the castrated cat of my art has hammered out a black applause.
It was from my father’s pulpit one hot Sunday morning that I heard the story of Lot’s wife, the dull ash pen on which his beloved bible rested, and out of which his rigid body leaned, his hands gripping the lifeless love-handles as he drilled spit-inflected homilies into a swath of believers, bibles akimbo. Levitating above the congregation I explored the warm dust-flecked shafts that fell in pallid slabs from the windows of Brunswick Hall, a former Plymouth Brethren church that once stood on Dublin’s Great Brunswick Street, now Pearse Street. Built in the 1830s the Hall was declared unsafe by the City Council in 2016 and demolished.
In trying to separate the role of father from evangelical preacher I was plunged into a stagnant, saturated brine of deferred fulfillment within which my father, snacking on the salty finger-food of God’s vengeance, spent his adult life. The need to drown out the sound of my father’s zeal, while avoiding drowning in his paternal absence, was extruded through stories such as that of Lot and his family, who leave Sodom and Gomorrah when God decides that these cities, both drowning in sin, are beyond redemption and so must be destroyed. Instructed not to look back Lot’s wife cannot resist the desire to see the cities laid waste, and is turned to a pillar of salt.
Against my father’s pastoral transports, which fumed and raged over crosscurrents of material and spiritual hunger, I ploughed an increasingly embittered furrow, the gruel of the mark sucked up and spat out, the grooves in the drag slid into and out of.
When like Orpheus I heard his siren voice urging me to repent and be baptised I turned away. Casting myself over the edge of my embitterment I was sucked down a pressure gradient, through branching cavities of vicarious transgression to the ducts and sacs of transition.
Beyond the conflagrations and platitudes of the ash pen, the paced pen’s antics and capers, the embittered pen’s acrid consolations, I stripped back the coarse bark of faith and tapped the sap of doubt.
After the death of his wife, Orpheus, armed only with his lyre and voice, enters the underworld where he charms the Lord of the Dead, and retrieves his wife on the promise that he does not look at Eurydice while she is still in the dark. But Orpheus turns too soon and the woman he loves is returned to the shadows.
A cage of cognition is plunged into darkness. Snatches of consolation return in spasms. Limbs contort in a semaphore of languid desolation, an expenditure of energy and consumption of oxygen that triggers an involuntary drawing in of breath, a stultifying assault that causes me to cough and splutter and my throat to contract. Down fetid fissures and dank passageways a viscous glut advances. In the mildewed remains of a youth spent on church pews squeezing rancid gouts from slabs of sunlit pores a probationary consciousness is lost.
In a sunken pen of compression, beyond the pens of disillusion and disenchantment, the sap-baths of vicarious transgression, the tear ducts of contrition and sad sacs of pusillanimous prostration, a song slithers from the dregs of my youth.
And Jesus was a sailor when He walked upon the water, And He spent a long time watching from His lonely wooden tower, And when He knew for certain only drowning men could see him, He said “all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them… (Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”, 1967)
In kaleidoscopes of consumption, gyres clogged with the trash-vortices of spent aspiration, I float face down with arms outstretched. Through the lens of a watery grave I see (from the same song) heroes in the seaweed and children in the morning, leaning out for love. In the binary liquid of being and not being drowned, in the corrosive acidity of taking the piss, my brother’s ruse returns as a bolt in the viscidness of cognition, a razor-sharp shutter that chops my embitterment to shards.
I mould these shards into a pillar of opalescence, a critical tumescence that floods my pen with clouds of scattered light and, like a Leonard Cohen song, is a bitch to shake off. In solidarity with Lot’s wife, who received a salty slap for returning the unmoved mover’s gaze, looking in longing at the life she was giving up, my erection throws caution to the wind, its payload dropping slow on the killing fields of love.
In a pen of opalescence, my pillar of occluded cognition, I drown out what I can no longer afford to imagine: the consolations of let-down, the excrement of exegesis, the unturned cheek of a happy life. I drown out the world’s indifference, the shady coops and sunlit pens, the brine-soaked hearts and pickled fillets, of deferred dissolution.
Congealed in the ash pen’s aftermath something wished for and guarded against looks up with listless eyes, a ragged seaweed hero, a washed-up dawn child, unheard and unseen, shorn of itself, reaching out for love.
The postscripts of nightmare are inhabited by the summarily damned, water-logged cages of declension that direct and misdirect, that round up the unreal. Nameless wives and underworld widows, biding their time in biblical anonymity, beaver in the galleys of imperial ambition. Stamped out in broken vows, waves of ricocheting resonance weave a siren chorus to rescind the vessels of a wasted life.
“Today I am going to breathe water,” said Artist Chris Burden at the start in his 1974 performance, Velvet Water, “which is the opposite of drowning, because when you breathe water, you believe water to be richer, thicker oxygen capable of sustaining life.” In a room next to an auditorium, a group of spectators at the Art Institute of Chicago watched as on several television monitors the artist repeatedly forced his head into a container full of water and inhaled until he nearly passed out.
A video readily accessible (though not recommended) on the internet harnesses Burden’s confrontational exertions, working the frayed edges and fitful vacillations of his preliminary drawings. With a high degree of technical sophistication the video proceeds with unshakable conviction, implementing the doctrine of Velvet Water as part of a series of punitive ritual executions. Eschewing Burden’s low tech approach, where any documenting of his live performances was subordinate, supplementary, and at times maintained a non-existent relation to the lived experience of the work, the images are bespoke and proceed, expeditiously, in fulfilling the radical promise contained in Burden’s rough draughts, buttressing his frenetic washes and atonal scumbling with layers of visceral impasto.
The execution video transfers Velvet Water to the broader canvas of a domestic swimming pool. The lonely, romantic figure, hunched over a small basin, his arms pressing down at his side, attempting voluntarily to breathe water, has been replaced by a group of five men, against whom accusations of spying have been levelled and confessions extracted. To-camera admissions of guilt precede the executions. In contrast to Burden’s grainy sackcloth and ashes the protagonists in the execution video wear crimson jumpsuits, consonant engorgements that pulsate against the pool’s milky stillness, constricting saturations that shimmer and throb before its sinister opacity.
The group of men is led to a cage into which they are padlocked by a man wearing a black mask and military fatigues. Like the audience who witnessed the original Velvet Water the condemned men remain silence, their fate refracted through grimaces and anxious glances. The radical distress pivotal to the meaning of Burden’s live performance is redacted in the mediated consumption of the executions, an expunction underscored by, and mirrored in, the accused men’s enforced participation. Again in contrast to Burden, whose anguished gasps are the only thing audible in the documentation of his performance, the execution video sports a rousing score, a swaggering stream of molten slag seeping from the blast furnace of Burden’s fervid inhalations. Hoisted high on broad rhapsodic shoulders, the belief that the doctrine of velvet water belongs not in consensual confrontation but in a theatre of driven snow is hammered home, where moral purpose and the sustenance of life are contingent upon the fatal respiration of a ‘richer, thicker oxygen’. The privilege of putting this into practice is conferred from the chimerical rapture of desert lawns upon the participants by those they stand accused of betraying.
Suspended from a block and tackle the cage is lowered into the swimming pool until it is completely submerged. Underwater cameras offer a murky glimpse into the men’s final moments. The cage and its contents are winched from the water, cleansed of humanity, washed clean of corruption. Burden’s failure has been divested of its base intonations, unmoored from its closed-circuit underworld of anguished longing and granular despair, and a course set for viral circumnavigation. Accusations of voyeurism, of inaction in the face of suffering, which clog the airways of Velvet Water, are exonerated in a stroke, the clapperboard’s sonorous conceit presaging a flatus of pious snuff. In demonstrating the reality of breathing water, the maelstrom instigated by Burden’s pulmonary Sturm und Drang is drained of impurities and plumbed for waste disposal.
A pen is thrown down and a mirror held up to the past, which shuts out the light. In Burden I no longer see traces of a bifurcated brother, transcripts of a ruse bolted to a fugacious snatch, inflections that reverberated through pens of sunken compression and embittered captivity, the shards of which, reborn in a pillar of opalescence, shone an illuminating tumescencethroughthe interior of my skull. I hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness, a castrated cat slipping through the bars of a sluggish air. I hear my mother calling, see Lot’s wife’s turning, my brother behind a pillar, laughing. This time I can hear what she is saying. I can make it out. I can make it out.
Woven on looms of disenchantment, inlaid with pearls of lactation and searing splashes of crimson, a vestment is unveiled in all its imperceptible glory.
In the aftermath of the padlocked pen, in the risen pen, dead heads poke between the bars. A mouth spews forth an inverted Song of Songs, the frothy after-words of a velvet apotheosis. Burden’s attempt to implement the doctrine of velvet water has been eclipsed and his guts fed to the dogs of sanguine defecation. Forged in seclusion, viewable only at a remove, a gesture rising through a fog of fear, from the ashes of anonymous lives, is recast in the furnace of our shared humanity. In the aporia of the padlocked pen, in the risen pen, we swim in Burden’s eclipse.