Ocean Conversation with



M. lives in a futuristic skyscraper directly next to – or above – a big park. The view from his living room reminds me of the view over central park in New York City. We sit at the dining table in the living room. I sit with my back to the big windows as the height makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. M. sits opposite me, looking out. Hovering so high, the space is very light and quiet.


M’s voice is deep and soft. He’s a storyteller and uses his voice very consciously and eloquently – also in his work. Yet sometimes he has the tendency to mumble, or maybe its my own unfamiliarity with his Australian accent...

M.M. What’s your relationship to the ocean?

M.B. It might be best if I start by spluttering and stammering in trying to speak about the ocean. As such vocal and abstract noises reflect my inability to satisfactorily describe the deep connections I have with the ocean going way back to my childhood. This includes the sea as well as the ocean, as the difference and connections between these two watery entities are important to recognize. You cannot have one without the other and both are intricately connected. My sea legs and my oceanic feelings combine to dance this special kind of jig.

There’s the ocean of Melville’s Moby Dick and the sea in the story At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield. One is an oceanic and gigantic yarn full of fury and intensity and the other, a very stripped back story as fragile and as nuanced as can be. These two quite different literary works exemplify the different kind of connections I’ve had with these two watery worlds. When I mention the ocean I am also thinking about the sea and visa versa, and I hope the differences, but also connections, between these two entities are not overlooked.

All the patterns that appear upon the surface of the ocean and movement of the water itself is brought about by the wind in all its gymnastic manifestations or vibrations. Water from all the oceans and every sea is constantly moving across the world in great migratory currents replenishing and changing themselves through this exchange.

“In steeps and sighs, The ocean explains itself, backing and filling”.
Charles Wright, from the poem Homage to Paul Cezanne.

Notably, in both Melville and Mansfield’s writing, the ocean and the sea actually speak (this might explain my desire to start spluttering and stammering to mimic certain watery sounds). The first voice one hears in Mansfield’s story is in fact the sea, in it she writes “Ah-Aah! sounded the sleepy sea”.

This is also true in life, as the sea and the ocean generate sounds that seem like words and phrases. It is really the case when one spends long periods of time listening to the waves and all the other variations of splashing, roaring, thrashing, whistling, spraying noises produced or accompanied by the ocean and the wind. Really the wind and the ocean go hand in hand.

There is this quality of invisibility about the ocean that’s really special. The invisibility of the wind, for instance, matches and points to the invisibility of what’s below the surface of the ocean. All these qualities have an enormously captivating presence that is wielded in mysterious ways in the ocean. It actually makes me quite aphasic and dumbstruck when I try to describe all this, and hence my wish to splutter and stammer when speaking about it.

What is visible in terms of the surface of the ocean remains endlessly fascinating, whereas there’s all that is unseen lurking beyond this visibility or below the water’s surface and which ignites so many fantasies and imaginings.

Fantasies about the ocean are timeless – let me recall just one from 500 years ago, and that’s from Francois Rabelais The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Throughout this book, there’s mention of many sea voyages to strange and far-flung islands. For instance, in the last part of the book during one such a sea voyage, the ships crew were, I quote: “Feasting and speechifying and telling nice little stories, Pantagruel suddenly jumped to his feet and took a look around him. ‘Can you hear something comrades?’ he asked. ‘I seem to hear people talking in the air. But I can’t see anything. Listen”.

After the crew are overcome with acute states of distress and fear from hearing these disembodied voices, the ship's captain provides an explanation to the source of such noises. He points out that they are sailing very near the edge of a frozen sea and that a year before in that very same spot there had been a bloody and wild sea battle where many men, women and children had been brutally killed. And accordingly, as he explains it, all the frightful noises of the battle had been frozen in the cold sea air and were now a year later beginning to thaw, and this was what Pantagruel and his comrades were now starting to hear.

Rabelais then provides a wonderful description of the crew grabbing handfuls of frozen voices and noises from the sea air and throwing them on the ship's deck, these frozen words he states, “looked like crystallized sweets of different colors”. And then the frozen words would melt as they were warmed by the hands of the crew and then could be heard fully but were all not understandable as they were of ‘a barbarous language’.

One beautiful exception to this incomprehensibility was when one frozen word melted and “made a noise like a chestnut that had been thrown on the embers without being pricked”. For it was assumed that this was the noise of a cannon shot during the battle. Rabelais then gives a phonetic rendition of the noises as they thaw: "Hin, hin, hin, hin his, tick. Tock, crack, brededin, brededac, frr, frrr, frrr, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, tracc, tracc, trr, trr, trrr, trrrrr, trrrrrr, on, on, on, on, on, ouououououon, Gog, Magog and goodness knows what other barbarous sounds". This is in fact an onomatopoetic type sound poem based upon the blood curdling noises of a sea battle. Also, Rabelais has turned the sea and its extreme weather conditions into one giant recording device for transmitting sounds and voices across time itself.

At Half Moon Bay near where I lived in Melbourne as a kid, there’s a sunken battle ship (a relic from WW1). One can either swim or walk to the ship depending on the level of the tide. The ship is called the ‘Cerberus’ and is the name of the mythological dog that protects the doors of the underworld. This half sunken wreck protrudes from the sea and its presence connects in my memory to so many strange sea fantasies I’ve read in poetry and literature over the years, including the sea voyages described by Rabelais.

Like lots of kids, I was strongly influenced by reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s sea adventure novel Treasure Island. Later on in life, I even went to visit Stevenson’s house in Samoa that is overlooking the Pacific ocean.

“With transplanted brains, banished to the blood-sapping cold, we sat down by the foreign sea”.
- Hugo Claus

I’m an ocean baby really, as I spent the first part of my life beside the sea in suburban Australia. Mansfield’s story At the Bay connects to lots of what I remember about living beside the sea as a child. I recommend you read it and pay special attention to the way that Mansfield uses various speech styles and manners (especially by children) to evoke the spell that the sea and nature has over the diverse characters in the story.

During my childhood, the sea was a primordial dream and playground. Then when I was around 12, I started going there on my own to engage in artistic activities like sculpting the sand and driftwood into huge land art works well before I knew such art existed. Like Spiral Jetty (by Robert Smithson), I made large sand constructions on the beach that would quickly be transformed and destroyed by the daily tide water.

The great modernist Australian painter Clarice Beckett, who for many years was not well known, did a series of paintings in the 1930s of the very same beaches that I played on many years later during my childhood. Beckett’s work is quite unique, and for me, evokes many vivid visual and atmospheric impressions of my time spent on these beaches. Her painting techniques are deemed to be very innovative for the time; she used a distinctive flattened, fuzzy and abstract method of applying color in her landscapes. When I was a child of 8 or 9, my parents enrolled me in a local painting class that was held in a neighbor's house looking over the sea, and this was only attended by local women, mainly housewives. I like to think Beckett’s spirit was present in these classes somehow.

Throughout my childhood I would submerge myself in the sea according to different parts of my body. As a toddler, I was told to not go deeper than my knees and a few years later no deeper than my belly button (NAVEL NAVAL) until I was up to my neck in the water in my teens. And all the time I would spend hours snorkeling over the surface, peering down into the water upon all the various seaweed and rock formations.

"Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences…"
- Hart Crane

Also throughout my childhood, I would use a thin circular piece of wood to skip, skid and slide over the surface of shallow water on the beach. Surfing is a popular thing to do in Australia but I never really tried it other than body surfing, which is when you use the whole body as a kind of board and are carried by the force of breaking waves. It’s a bit like flying by the force of the sea and reminds me of the flying fish that one sees in the South Pacific.

The first experimental films I made were made on the beach in my early teens with my parents Super 8 equipment. One film depicted a friend coming out of the sea dressed in a bed sheet as a toga and reading a book. Later on, I filmed a pig's head being thrown towards the sea off a high cliff. I also would film the sand and driftwood constructions that I made on the beach. These rather crude filmic efforts were, in a sense, a sort of mythic homage to the sea and the stories that surrounded it.

A friend in New York has recently reminded me to specifically read Hart Crane poems about the Caribbean Sea in the series called "Voyages".

My family would spend each Christmas holiday period camping beside the ocean beach on the coast. The family home was right on a bay beach, so we experienced both sea and ocean worlds throughout the year. These beach holidays were quite adventurous in terms of experience and activities.

Everything was magnified on the ocean, the waves, the tides, the rock pools, the cloudscapes, the acoustics, the invigorating flights of fantasy, etc.

In my adulthood, I traveled to Polynesia and I spent many months hopping from island to island living with locals in small villages. I then made a long Super 8 film called Fiji View-master which used a children's toy slide viewer as a visual prop and special effect generator.

While traveling around the Pacific Ocean, I recall going out from the coast and finding rogue [theme:waves]] breaking in the middle of nowhere, and also places where the sea and the sky blend into each other becoming one big blue screen. Much like Derek Jarmen’s last film called Blue. Just the voice and a vast color blue: open seas and cloudless skies.

At Byron Bay (in Australia), there is one beach where people drown regularly. I’d often experience a dull pain in my kidneys just before entering the ocean there. Later I found out that this type of pain comes exclusively from fear.

Once in Byron Bay, I was in a bar overlooking the beach with a friend, who at the time had a problem with alcohol so we were only drinking soft drinks. At one moment, we both glanced out of the large windows in front of the bar towards the sea and about fifty meters away saw the huge tail of a whale coming out of the water in what seemed like slow motion. It then hit the water's surface with a huge splash and disappeared. We were instantly intoxicated by the utterly unexpected circumstances of such an oceanic vision.

On the back beach of Byron Bay, the undertow, or pull of the tide, is so extreme that when you stand up to your knees in the water, it feels as if some giant is pulling one's legs out from under with incredible force.

There is a hippie colony near this beach and I once saw a naked woman park her baby in a stroller on the beach right in front of huge breaking waves. Then she went into the wild surf with the incredible undertow, leaving the baby to watch unattended. The view from the baby’s perspective must have been profoundly impressible and primordial, witnessing her mother disappearing into the massive waves with all the sounds of the breaking waves and wind raging around her. I was the only other person on the beach which was many kilometers long.

"From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop". From Moby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville.

I have a nephew who’s really into surfing and at 14 years of age, he saved the life of a father and his daughter who were being pulled out to sea by the undertow. And who would of very likely drowned had my nephew not brought them to shore on his surfboard. This heroic and mythological deed made the front page of the local newspaper.

I used to spend a lot of time on piers looking at the sea. I had no boat and did not find it necessary to have one. For me, the sea was just a place of separation from the boredom of suburbia/of civilization. I approached it as a hermitage, a place of retreat and of endless discovery.

I was into rock pooling as a kid also, meaning I’d observe for hours what lives within the rock pools when the tide is out, and also during the night. One night I even discovered tiny sea worms that would explode instantly when exposed to torch light. This marine phenomena seemed to defy all reasonable explanation as I could not find information about such a sea creature ever existing. I’ve always wondered if it was only a waking sea dream.

“Through daydream, through nightmare trolling
Me so deep that no lights flash
There but the plankton’s drifting, phosphorescent stars”.
-Derek Walcott

In suburban Australian, the section between the road + the beach, where the dunes and bushes are can be a place where perverts, exhibitionists and couples hangout to engage in their various desirous activities. This made for some quite strong impressions and mishaps as a child going to the beach. I remember once my mother and I being pursued by a man through the bushes until we made it to the beach safely.

M.M.Did you have parties on the beach when you were young?


M.M.Then the beach was more of a solitary place for you?

M.B. Mostly. Other than going there with one or two friends or with my sisters, I would spend much of my time there by myself.

Recently I went on two sailing voyages on the North Sea from Ostende. It was with my partner’s parents who have a small yacht and they took us out for a few hours to drift on the sea in the sweltering summer heat. This was only the second time I’d ever been on such a boat and it was really a fantastic experience. Like being in a Paul Klee painting, the shape and the motion of the sails and all the other elements that go into being pushed along by the wind seem so simple yet are also so fascinatingly rich and poetic.

Blah blah blah if only I could splutter and stutter and stammer like the sea, I’ll find a way of describing it better...

"There are gulls kissing the boat. There is the sun as big as a nose. And here are the three of us dividing our deaths, bailing the boat and closing out the cold wing that has clasped us this bright August day".
- Anne Sexton, from The Boat

As Pessoa wrote, "To think is to be eye-sick". This rings true when confronted with the task of thinking about the ocean. One must really use a different thought method, one that’s strongly sensory and laterally positioned.

I keep wanting to say ‘the ocean is undignified’. Why not say this, as much as to say it’s majestic, or it’s fascinating, or it’s enthralling, or it’s captivating, etc., etc. Undignified in the way it goes about its business of being so utterly ineffable and indescribable.

“Of ocean, pondering dank stratagem. Who then beheld the figures of the clouds like blooms secluded in the thick marine?”
- Wallace Stevens

M.M.Is there an element of the ocean that you find particularly intriguing?

M.B.The threshold element of the ocean, of being between one world and another.
And as Hart Crane wrote of the sea: "-And this great wink of eternity…”

Comparing it to suburban life, the ocean, the sea, was a threshold to a big elsewhere, to another set of possibilities. NAVAL NAVEL

During my first year in art school, I spent three weeks on an ocean cruise with my mother and sisters. There was a major breakout of the flu throughout the ship and variations of the same flu circulated around the ship so that I was constantly ill with a different range of symptoms during the entire cruise. The ship literally became, for me anyway, like Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead and which was by chance, a book I found in the ship's library. I read it locked up in my cabin only going out when we docked on a new island, and where I would stumble around with a horrible fever too weak to actually know what to do and where to go.

The experience of being on the ship, the sounds, smells, vibrations and all the amazing sensory elements that the ocean offered filtered through my state of illness and fever. This all delivered a series of very beautiful histrionic and poetic impressions. For instance, I remember sitting in a muddy paddock in British Samoa and watching through feverish eyes, and with the sound of the sea in the background, a local funeral party under some trees that included the slaughtering of a pig.

I always travel from Naples to Palermo on the ferry when I can. This is an absolutely fantastic voyage and one that Raymond Roussel made to his sad Sicilian end. Leaving Naples, heading towards Palermo, or returning from Palermo to Naples, this voyage evokes a great wealth of associations and anticipatory thoughts that ferment and bubble away during the overnight sea journey.

A threshold is more of a vehicle than a border. Blah blah the spluttering sea and sea spray are more a figure of speech than anything metaphoric… The sea is this conveyance mechanism from one place to another. Have you heard of the expression, "To make a sea change in life".

I think of the beach as a space preparing one to think of the ocean imaginatively and metaphorically.

"Ah, the capes, the islands, the sandy beaches! The oceanic solitude's, like certain moments on the Pacific…’
- Fernando Pessoa

The ocean is a place of acclimatizing

and adapting
and of building up courage
and illusions.

On the other hand, I think of it as a place of danger, of drowning, of shark attacks.

As the world’s underbelly, full of unknown potential and forces. Floating: in the ocean is such an anti-gravitational experience. The older one gets, the ocean isn’t as attractive as it used to be, but as a counter to the force and effect of gravity, of aging and falling down in fact, the ocean still offers much. Though it’s more something of the past.

Still, my partner and I recently stayed for a few weeks in a place called Woodgate, a small sea resort in Queensland, Australia. This is an amazing place; we were swimming all the time.

The experience of this place retouched on the magic that the ocean had for me when I was a child. To hear the sounds of the ocean was to be in the proximity of an old and familiar habitat. Kangaroos slept right beside the house in Woodgate which was spitting or spluttering distance from the ocean. We slept to the sounds of the breaking waves.

The water: there is velvety, soft + the salt content is high. So it’s ideal for floating. Different light conditions seem to lead to different floating conditions, strangely.
Pelicans fly overhead as one floats in this tropical seascape.

Around the Fiji islands, I travelled to many parts of the archipelago by small motor boat or canoe. Sometimes the water is so deep, that it’s bottomless. As one floats in such bottomless waters the sun shines on the body + all the while, your shadow disappears into the endless depths. This is quite an ontological and richly animated experience and beyond description once again.

“A distant siren voice comes wailing, calling out, From the depths of Distance, depths of Sea, the core of all the Abysses, While on the surface float like seaweed my dismembered dreams…”
-Fernando Pessoa, from Maritime Ode

One of my dreams was to live on the beach and feed on fish + coconuts and I did this in the South Pacific over the time I travelled there.

Pacific verses Indian verses Atlantic

I swim in the Indian ocean whenever I visit India as it always delivers very special impressions and experiences. It’s always a joy to watch Indians of all sorts interact and respond to this ocean. They externalize their emotions in tune with the action of the waves and the wind in beautifully subtle and uniquely theatrical or dance like ways.

“All day you’ve watched
The sea-rock like a loom.”
-Derek Walcott

Is 7/9ths of the world ocean and sea? Is this the same proportion of water in the human body? What percentage of the body is ocean?

M.M.Going back to the ocean is going to a threshold, you mentioned this earlier. Where would you situate this threshold?

M.B.For me, the threshold appears mostly when the ocean is still: then there is an amazing velocity. In its viscosity too, the still ocean is something else, like jelly.This transitional moment of the surface marks something that fascinates me :

Being above the surface
and below the surface simultaneously.


“This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps”.
- Hart Crane, from the poem At Melville’s Tomb