Sometimes we leave home, willingly or unwilling, and turn up some place else where we are strangers. In search of adventure, or through misadventure, we part company with a place that is familiar – a land to which we may feel some semblance of belonging – and enter the worlds of others. But we can also “leave home” without ever moving. There are times when home itself is wrenched out from beneath us, times when we become “estranged” from who or what we are without going anywhere. Personal upheavals or geopolitical events can do this to us. So too can the earth itself.
Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is known the world over as the preeminent theorist of the encounter between strangers. For many, Levinas speaks eloquently to the conditions of globalisation in which the increasing mobility of people across the surface of the planet means that ever more of us find ourselves face to face with those who are unfamiliar to us. But he is just as much as thinker of the experience of estrangement that occurs when the world we trust and take for granted unsuspectingly withdraws its support.
For Levinas, even before we have made sense of the world, even before we have fashioned a “world” as an object of our sensing we have been nourished by its flows, cradled by its firmness, awakened by its radiance. Prior to any act of possession or representation of the world, he proposed, is the simple fact of the earth’s “there-ness” and our bodily reliance on its elemental offerings. Along with eating, sleeping and reading, as Levinas would have it, “warming oneself in the sun,” is one of those small pleasures that make life dear to us, as is “the blue of the sky above my head, the breath of the wind, the undulation of the sea, the sparkle of light…” To feel the heat of the sun or the lapping of waves is to soak up an enlivening energy. It is to renew our contact with the earthly and celestial nourishments that are the source of life. All of which offers clues as to why so many people – those blessed with resources and mobility – had gravitated to the shores of the Indian Ocean at the time of the year when sunshine and clear sky in northern latitudes was in short supply. This is what people were doing on the morning of Boxing Day 2004 (26.12.2004) when the great waves generated by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake thundered across the sea and over the land. This is the ordinariness, the “there-ness,” which was torn apart when a section of the earth suddenly lurched into mobility.
The tsunamis were triggered by the subsidence of a slab of the ocean floor that measured approximately 120,000 square km – about twice the size of Lithuania: a collapse caused by
the India tectonic plate slow motion sliding under the Burma plate. The undersea quake gene-rated a shudder of such magnitude that it nudged the Earth’s orbit – shaving a tiny sliver off the span of one terrestrial day. And in the process it jolted hundreds of thousands of lives out of their own familiar orbits.
How on earth are we to represent such an exorbitance of loss and suffering? A disaster – literally the loss of our star – is by definition an event so disturbing it overwhelms our very capacity to make sense of it. Meaningful representation of the disaster is, in this way, impossible. Though perhaps it is that very impossibility that incites some of us to try and make the kind of images that bear witness to the rifting of the world itself – without trying to close the gaps.
There is no great spectacle in Audra Vau’s subdued and intimate testament to the disaster which she lived through: a murky, detritus-filled swimming pool, a gutted bedroom in which sodden sheets have pummelled into corpse-like bundles: these images do not attempt to shine a light on the “dark background of existence”. Rather Vau’s Tsunami (2013) seems to be quietly dwelling in the split second lost for all time, prising open the moment of vanishing sense to offer a glimpse of a world suddenly awash with uncertainty and reduced to formlessness. This world is infinitely stranger than the merely foreign. In the reflection of this overturned reality, the otherwise more mundane scenes of bathing figures take on an ominous hue. The confrontation of bodies with rolling waves and darkening skies now hint at an elemental pleasures and life supports which can no longer be taken for granted. Or as Levinas reminds us, “Enjoyment […] runs up against the very strangeness of the earth”.
But the play of lucidity and its shady backcloth that Vau shares with us is not all grim. What Levinas referred to as the “anonymous rustling” of a world that slips in and out of the reach of our knowing can be as intriguing as it is perturbing. Just as the appeal of a human stranger may draw us out of the circuits of our own daily lives and into the unknown, the encounter with another form of life confronts us with a mode of existing, a way of making sense of the world, that has precious little in common with our own. Vau’s serendipitous capture on film of a butterfly that has alighted on a photograph puts two wildly divergent viewpoints into a brief but enchanting conversation. The photo – an image of a girl seemingly at home in a comfortingly rustic environment – becomes the site of an encounter with an envoy that might well have fluttered in from that same pastoral scene. It is a visitation through which our respective worlds brush against each other without ever becoming one.
Though equipped with compound eyes, composed of up to 17,000 light receptors – each with its own lens – the butterfly is more likely to be tasting the photograph than viewing it. Taste sensors on its feet will be helping it decide if the shiny surface it has landed on is edible, or a good place to lay eggs. We and the butterfly will not see eye to eye. Though, it is the unsurpassable rift between our realities may be precisely what sparks our curiosity, what set us wondering what it would be like to apprehend the world through the sensory and motor apparatus of another life-form. And in this way too, we leave home, if only momentarily and speculatively, as we put out feelers into a world utterly unlike our own.
The gentle flexing of the butterfly’s wings, perhaps freshly unfurled from its chrysalis, might also be taken as a reminder that our human wanderings – our own airborne adventures – were long pre-empted by other creatures. Insects invented flight during the Carboniferous era some 300 million years ago, and entomologists like to point out they remain the most versatile and acrobatic aviators of the natural world. While some butterflies and moths achieve migrations of thousands of miles, the most important role of insect flight is the access it offers to the sexual organs of the plant kingdom. The alliance between insects and flowering plants, forged over 130 million years ago, has been the key to the evolutionary success of both partners. Much of the Earth that we take to be our own – the orchard behind the girl in the photograph, most of the plants that we rely upon, even the fertility of the soil – owes its existence to this momentous assemblage of insect and angiosperms.
So what counts as home for a butterfly? For all its delicately impressive powers of flight, geophysical barriers – oceans, deserts, mountain ranges – continue to play an important part in conditioning the natural distribution of insects, as they have done over extensive spans of geological time. Most insects have come to be where they are today by more gradual and patient journeys. Over hundreds of millions of years they have rafted their way to their current locations on drifting continental plates and fragments, borrowing the mobility of the Earth’s crust to come together, move apart, converge again. This transportation medium is, of course, the same slow and crunching movement of tectonic plates that generated the Indian Ocean tsunami: the Earth’s own inching migration that once assemb-les the lively environments in which we dwell and tears apart the worlds we come to rely upon.
Through images that speak to each other in quiet murmurings and oblique exchanges Audra Vau invites us to a precarious kind of homecoming. Even as we accompany her around the world, we circle back on Earth that is never quite at home with itself. These images – still and moving – do not simply illuminate or show us what is there, but hint at the unknown that is harboured in the very elements that nourish and support us. In the words of Levinas, “Clarity is the disappearance of what could shock”. Or, we might add, what could intrigue.