I have never seen Barry Flanagan’s short video piece, Hole In the Sea (1969), yet I’m not quite sure if I ever quite want to. The short piece, filmed by Flanagan with Gerry Schum in Holland for a Land Art TV exhibition, currently exists in colour and in black & white, contained variously in the Pompidou archive in Paris and the Stedelick Museum in Amsterdam. But I do not want to see it, the reason being that it will never live up to the reaction caused by its follow-up photoscreen triptych work produced in 1970. The video piece is not available online, unlike many fragments of other avant-garde video (search any number of artists, from Jarman to Smithson) and this led to searching out the still pieces currently chosen for Flanagan’s website. The still versions present something more than I believe is possible for the finished film to capture with its motion, for its stillness belies a knowing sense of recognition. This even extends away from the colour images taken from the video too, actual stills captured and clearly taken from a ropy VHS copy, the distortion all too evident in the lower parts of the colour images.
When Roland Barthes wrote about his Third Meaning – the meaning which, besides the thematic content in the images (the first meaning) and the symbolic content (the second meaning) is almost beyond literal description but present as an influence – he used stills from Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible to illustrate his point. The information was there in the image but was occulted until the frames flickered back one after the other. For Hole In The Sea, my passion for the black & white photo version feels like a negative inversion: the removal of the third meaning leaves a gap that is more than simply the first two meanings limping by. It’s a negative third meaning, a -3; an inversion. Flanagan’s stills achieve something further by earnestly being frozen out of context. I choose the word “frozen” deliberately because we are, of course, dealing largely with a visual of water; it plays further into the point and potential of freezing the frame, freezing the waves. What has happened in this process of freezing between the two pieces that, for me, has allowed it to gain so much?
Seeing the photos today, there’s something in the contrast between the man-made gap in the image and the natural seascape around it. There has been human meddling in the natural world, perhaps considered playful in the era of the late 1960s. Now, however, the era of The Anthropocene allows a different meaning to fall into the gap; it is another gap in the sea among many created by humans. This may seem a literal reading but the essential relationship is one of man augmenting and defining the environment; the virtual blueprint for this new epoch as a whole. The human presence is eerie because of this as it sits defiantly and ominously like accumulated plastic in various parts of the still images, the sea denied its usual movements, rendered as still as the blankness of the missing circle. The frozen elements of the image highlight something more alarming, as if the unexplained element has cut off the natural rhythm of the whole environment around. It could even act as button, pressed by someone to put the waves on pause.
Back to Barthes, his theories of photography are perhaps better suited to the arguments here. In Camera Lucida he suggests that “What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” (1980). Because the film images move in some sense of the word – either literally through the projector, or through the illusion given by the fast movement of frames – there’s a greater sense of threat in the still than I can conceive in the moving image. The infinite mentioned by Barthes is more on tap when the frame is of a still image rather than a flurry of 24 in a second. This brings the idea back to the elements of the frozen; environmentally in our current epoch, existentially in Barthes’ terms and symbolically in the image (it should now be clear why the third meaning was suggested earlier as being inverted). The very word “frozen” has a dark power within it that I feel is applicable to these images, their black & white, past tense vision of a seascape strangely becoming a warning to my eyes.
In an interview on the roles of power and institutions, Michel Foucault used the word “frozen” to describe how powerful institutions achieve their goals:
…organizations are created to freeze the relations of power, hold those relations in a state of asymmetry, so that a certain number of persons get an advantage, socially, economically, politically, institutionally, etc. And this totally freezes the situation. (1988).
Add “environmentally” to Foucault’s list and the connection between this, Barthes and Flanagan’s stills should be clear. The triptych highlight the frozen status of the environment, frozen in reality by the stills being rendered into stasis through the human presence of the hole; the contrasts between an unnerving void that should not be there and yet is, and the waves that have ceased to ebb being aptly symbiotic.
There is a sea,
That does not move.
The white circle sits within,
Its outside, the water, now frozen,
A crash never to come.
Stillness is the cause,
Our cause, the cause of us;
Stasis is the ultimate after our time has ended,
In an infinite jest of time stopped.
Please let it fall once more.