Spoken at Sea

Two wall drawings will be made, linked by fifty six miles of coastline. These graphite drawings will be on existing walls. One drawing will be on a wall in a chapel attached to the medieval church of Llaneilian on Anglesey. The other drawing will be on a wall in a former optical telegraph station on Hilbre Island, Wirral. Both buildings face the sea to the west.

Each wall will be transformed from white to dense and reflective black, the size and shape of each drawing being decided in relation to the wall’s proportions and position, and the degree to which the balance of the room is changed by the black graphite. One drawing will be circumscribed by a medieval wall and addresses the ancient. The other will be on an industrial nineteenth century wall. Both are connected by the limitless sea, and are inescapably with us here and now.

Llaneilian and Hilbre are linked by the optical telegraph system that relayed messages from ships in the Irish Sea to their owners in Liverpool. Established in 1824 and coming to an end in 1861, eleven telegraph stations were strung along the North Wales coast, each manned by a Keeper with signals and a telescope, the first in Holyhead looking out to sea, the rest watching through their telescopes the signalling gantry of the station to their west.  First flags were used, then semaphore and finally radio. After sighting a ship, its message could be in Liverpool in less than five minutes, the record being twenty-three seconds. The title of the proposed work is derived from signal number 1062 from Lord’s Telegraphic Vocabulary.

One of these stations was at Point Lynas in the parish of Llaneilian. Inside its twelfth century church a fifteenth century rood screen painted with a representation of Death frames the altar, ‘the sting of death is sin’ it tells us on its scythe. To its right a low door leads to the small fourteenth century chapel of St. Eilian. Stripped of its decoration in the Reformation, the room is plain with white walls, soft with light from the plain leaded windows.  Hilbre also had a medieval church, part of a monastery that was on the island. Reached at low tide by foot, the island provided the separation from secular life that was needed by those following the religious life. Its telegraph station is a small building, chapel-size, with one big curved window at its west end, it looks out to sea and across the Dee to Wales. Four of its windowpanes are fitted with gimbals to hold a telescope.

In both of these buildings people sent messages and waited for replies. The prayers at Llaneilian were, and are, set within a long tradition in Christianity of using the sea as a metaphor for the struggle towards grace. The Old English poem The Seafarer describes the spiritual desolation of the winter voyage, ‘a hunger tears from within / the sea-weary soul’, and the nineteenth century hymn Eternal Father praying for intercession for ‘those in peril on the sea’. Celtic saints often arrive by sea, St. Eilian landing from Rome in the small bay beneath this church, St. Bridget riding the sea from Ireland on a sod of turf before coming ashore at Conwy, St. Patrick being shipwrecked on Ynys Badrig just north of Llaneilian and leaving his footprint in the rocky path up from the shore.

The mercantile messages and warnings of danger that the telegraph keeper looked out for were, of course, completely secular, but the men and women who gazed, solitary, across the sea to the next cell-like station must have known much of the contemplative experience to be had from concentrated seeking. The Neo-platonic insights of the sixth century theologian Pseudo-Dionysius could be as relevant to the watcher of the sea as to the person praying in the church, his  ‘Mystical Theology’ examining the nature and effects of contemplative prayer and the abandonment of senses and intelligible forms in preparation for the immediate experience of ‘light from the divine darkness’.

Two drawings are needed to link these places, the wall drawings entering into a correspondence with each other. The sea divides and connects them to each other and is tacked by the ships that sailed through the Irish Sea, drawings of which are scratched into the vestry door at Llaneilian. Calling and responding to each other, these buildings touch both the medieval and the cusp of the age of communication. Each wall is known completely through the making of the drawing, but each drawing is abstract and so moves into the mode of being unknown again, the viewer coming to occupy the place of the watcher, who accepts and waits.

The dense and burnished graphite drawings act like dark mirrors within each room, reflecting the rest of the space, the modulating light from the windows and also the viewer in a Claude glass-like obscurity. Through its reflectiveness, each drawing embraces the three dimensional space of its room, becoming conceptually sculptural. A person standing inside sees herself mirrored in the graphite, set within the apparent depth and stratification of the wall. Early photography is also invoked, the polished silver surface of the Daguerreotype depending upon light and dark for the capturing, and the viewing, of its image. These qualities of light, dark and reflectivity connect with the history and use of the chapel and telegraph station. Out of the darkness comes revelation and enlightenment, and from across the grey sea comes the returning ship, messenger of human endeavour. The blackness of the graphite drawing gives weight to the wall, though this is made paradoxical through the light giving properties of its shining surface. Darkness and light, weight and insubstantiality – all existing at once, somatically experienced in the body and mind of the viewer.