Gareth McConnell: Towing the Slow boat to Thasos by Brad Feuerhelm
The arrival was what he had imagined. Being a young man in a state of constant anxiety, the heat weighed upon his freckled shoulders like a curtain of heavy velvet cloth. Beads of perspiration ran down his sleek torso in thin rivulets until they met at the hem of his damp shorts. The air, so full of salt and humidity comfortably swayed his tense body and this breeze persistently fought to remind him that he was somewhere. Anywhere. This was the melancholy of a blistering white and hot summer day. The boat began its trajectory towards the rocky shoreline, its bleached cliffs a magnet. The young man struggled with his eyesight. He sought to reach above his eyes to block the inevitable weight of the sunlight’s heavy embrace. Sea spray reached his chest from where he stood on the bow of the slow ship. The spray was mixing with his perspiration: and with it a reluctant awareness formed of the two formidable, yet different liquids that were merging with the surface of his baking skin. He could feel the salt water mixed with his sweat, yet he could also palpably understand that they were two very different and harmonious attaching currents preying upon his physical being.
The boat reached the shore with a rocking convulsing movement before it stopped to rest at the wooden rampart. He grabbed his shirt, which was so unnecessary in this climate that he was now more or less accustomed to its slight weight and its uselessness. The dismounting from the vessel took what little energy he had left from the long ride across the azure sea. Grounding himself for a slight moment before walking down the plank towards the shore, he noted that his strength had left him due to the oppressive heat. The illusion of the shoreline seemingly further and further from his reach, he knew it was only really a matter of the food he could not eat under the waves of the sun’s rays. The simple sandwich he had packed in his bag last night was a gift for the halo of flies that he would reach at the shoreline of Thasos. Drinking from his bottle of now warm water and adjusting to the permissive heat raining down on him, his pores open to pass the water which moments ago had found his dry lips. Nothing would stay here in his body for long. Discarding his sandwich on the shore where it fumbled from his tired hand to the sand on the beach, he watched with curious enthusiasm as the bread rolled in the sand picking up small rocks and granules of white pebble. The flies would simply have to work harder for their meal he thought to himself.
His journey was simple, a few days of camping on the beach in the heat of the Aegean sun, he would relish the time he spent diving from the jagged cliffs and chalk the experience up to a time that he could never replace. He was of an age where the onset of adulthood and the dismissal of his childhood’s end had converged in a confusing, yet prescient time when he could allow himself this trip and the implied solitude that he sought from under the yoke of his family. His purpose and the euphoria he felt for starting anew in a different land when he returned to his home gripped him eagerly. Great things would be expected of him. He had only this moment in which to worship his own anonymity in a land peopled with strangers speaking a language he could not communicate in. It was for the best. Words, like sweat that left his body with little purpose and the intake of communication from others, was simply a metaphorical stone thrown into the vast ocean of the inexplicable. He was never sure why the winds had carried him to the places they had, but he was thankful, if a bit morose that he did not have to exchange much energy.
Making his way up the cliffs in the noon sun, he spotted the diving rock that he had read about and made his way by foot towards the dot on his small wrinkled map outlined in red biro. He had made plans to keep this map and to create a scrapbook of his journey when he returned home. It would be a simple rendering of a place and not an experience. The visions he had, daydreams really, of looking back upon this trip before he had even bought his ferry ticket made him feel callously old. It would always be this way in youth he pondered. He spent his time mentally racing to a place of incessant recollection when his old leathery skin had simply become a container for all the experience of his past from a future he had yet to live.
After forty-five minutes he had reached his destination, the sun’s full bore became an even more grimacing affair than previously thought. He sat upon the cliffs. He noticed a young couple in the water below. They seemed oblivious to his presence. He watched them embrace in the cool waters below, their silhouetted shapes difficult to see in the haze of the bright sun. It was affectionate and he was considering himself a recalcitrant voyeur of their moment. He took a perverse pleasure in this. Unaware of his presence, he had infringed on their time. Perhaps they would notice and remember him some day high upon the cliffs in their own future. He doubted it severely, but it was a thought anyways. The dreamer is never fully asleep. Drinking more water and watching the blue vista in front of him, he laid on his back only to awake perhaps an hour later. Twitching nervously at his ear, he had discovered it covered in ants. He had no idea what had drawn the columns of invaders to his auditory organ, but if he had to guess, he thought perhaps it was the mix of sweat and the tracings of the sandwich on his hand, which he had recalled placing on his ear to wipe away the torrent of sweat from his hairline, had perhaps this one gesture had attracted their presence. To the best of his ability, he gently stroked the ants away from his ear so as not to damage their tiny bodies.
Aware that he had perhaps three or four hours to dive and enjoy the sea below before evening set in, he made his way towards the rocky outcrop jutting obliquely towards the sea. Removing his sandals at the edge of the cliff, he felt the heat blister the soles of his feet from the rocks absorbing surface. It was uncomfortable and the jagged features of the rocks tore at his soles whose sallow and sensitive pads were unaccustomed to the hard and sharp rocks. He looked towards the spot where the young couple were locked in passionate embrace previously and noticed that they and anyone else possibly present had left, ostensibly for lunch and to his relief. The endeavor of food had left his thoughts as hunger had passed into a refusal to co-operate between mouth and stomach. It was simply a non-thought. Preparing his body for the purposeful dive into the waters below, he took pain to adjust his shoulders and stretch his lower back. He doubled over touching his fingers to his toes and stood perhaps too quickly and wavered a moment, before a pulsing energy cascaded down his body. Walking carefully to the furthest point on the cliff, he looked over the sea in contented interest. He set his bottled water down and prepared himself by examining the blue waters below, a nearly straight drop of twenty meters, which was still easy to reason with. Though high for some people, his point of departure was no different than the tallest platform in the university pool where his record as prize-winning athlete had accorded him not only a scholarship to the university of his choice, but other simple pleasures of popularity and the occasional tryst with other finely bodies athletes at various swim meets across north eastern America.
Standing precipitously at the edge of the rock, the man-child breathed in the salty air yet one more time and gingerly threw the weight of his body towards the rock in anticipation of spiriting his body forward. Mill-seconds seemed stretched into minutes as the boy sprung from the rock. In his ascent, eyes closed, he felt a tremendous pain in his right ear. It was a clamorous effect and had created a panic within him in which the milliseconds that applauded his body’s recoil came shattering to a halt. His body twisted in mid air and began to spasm with an alien pain. His equilibrium in embarrassing tumult, the fall of his body became entwined with struggle to hold the right side of his head, which was now paralyzed between free-fall and obdurate agony.
He landed in the cool ocean below, his sight revolving between cool waves breaking upon his eyes and the ever-present sun, which sought to blind him with white light. The pain in his ear had stopped upon shattering the cool blue glass of water. Floating without coordinated knowledge of his environment, he struggled to breath heavily and a wave of nausea gripped him heavily in the few seconds since landing. With a complacent realization, he vomited into the sea and lost what energy his body had collected with the adrenaline’s increase. The waters around him began growing warmer and a thin crimson trail of fluid began to collect about him sticking to his shoulders where is mixed with the froth of the sea. The boy lay floating in the amber considering the flicker of the sun. He could no longer make out objects, nor land, nor place. In the fevered last moments of recollection, the boy’s ears, then his mouth, then his eyes subsumed to the water.
Local fishermen collected the young man’s body. Much was ado about the physical state of the boy. Dragging the limp and tanned body to the shores, the fisherman called for the couple on the beach to fetch the local policeman from the hut where he was having his lunch. It was always goat. They slaughtered goats on the beach daily in Thasos. The large form of the policeman had returned with the couple some twenty minutes later to examine the boy, his formless mouth spilling seawater onto the rocky pebble strewn shore. Every year it was the same. At least two young people died from drunken diving or simple arrogance. It would be no different with this child. As the cop bent down to examine the gash on the back of the boy’s head, he noted the boy’s cold wet skin felt uncomfortable in his cracked and hardened hands. He further noticed a strange an uncomfortable sight; the militant column of ants that were wondering from the boys wet ear towards his open and frozen eyes. It was as if a parade of these creatures had formed in honor of the small death in front of him. With some reservation, the policeman placed the boy’s head softly back on the white sand and let the ants continue their trajectory from the boys ear to the wide stare of his eyes where they would cross the pupils of the boy on their way back to land.
I will forever know Gareth McConnell as the hallucinogenic Toreador. This is not because I like to think of his work as being equivalent to Salvador Dali. It is simply the words. I look at his books and now his video and am reminded greatly of my own background, my interests in Bryon Gysin, William s. Burroughs and perhaps even the aesthetics of a band like Coil. That McConnell has taken it upon himself to move towards film is no real surprise. His dissolving portraits, his chromophagic exploration of color and the surface of which points to ephemerality, are very suitable for the medium of film. McConnel understands light, color and the experience of an induced trance-like state that becomes an intrepid vehicle for his work and thought.
I am not a music journalist, per se. I am an audiophile, but my place would not be one in which I explain the rudiments of Ivan Smagghe and Alex Kapranos’ music. What moves me is Gareth’s consistent vision as it moves towards a film project like this. With so many layers in his still photographic images, it is of no surprise that when seeing his subject’s move in video, it perfectly sums up his aesthetic with great effect. Capturing these layers on film, is by process to work in separate moments of images that are combined as discrete advances towards that of the moving image, so it is fitting to see Gareth’s work transcend from the static into the luminous ritual of film with such fluidity.