Today, the coast of England seems to have remembered—however briefly—that it is Summer. The sun has made a guest appearance, though I am assured that she will be disappearing to other climes tomorrow and the end of July will roll over in its sleep, complain that its mother has woken it too early, and disappear beneath the British weather for another few days.
But it doesn’t matter. Because I’m on the coast. I’m at Poole Museum, looking out over the quay. From where I’m sitting, the towering figure of Sea Music, Anthony Caro’s stunning public sculpture, rolls it steel waves into the sky. On almost every roof, there is a fledgling gull screaming for food. The parent birds circle overhead or snooze on windowsills. Their yellow-eyed stare seems to suggest that parenthood isn’t all it is cracked up to be. My parrot mimics their cries and I smile, thinking that, if she keeps it up, I’ll be taking a little bit of the coast back home with me.
When I was offered the role of Writer in Residence at Poole museum, to celebrate the restoration of the beautiful statue on Poole Quay, it felt a little like those first tentative steps out into the sea at three or four years old: the sudden shock of water that feels soft with salt, the gentle fingers of wild ocean foam holding your ankles, and you not knowing whether to back away in fear, or crash out into this new world with all its glorious, slimy, dangerous treasure. When we stand on land and look out to sea, what we are actually doing is standing on the boundary between dimensions. Experiencing that for the first time can be overwhelming. But that’s what I feel when I stand at the base of sea music and look up. Captured in steel is the vitality of the rearing sea, its heaviness and homeliness, its delicacy and danger.
But the sculpture represents more than that to me. Since being offered the position, I have excitedly ransacked the internet for local history, for biographies of Caro, for information about other public art projects. What I uncover is a silent battle on behalf of the arts to establish and maintain the place in society it deserves. Much like the Angel of the North, I read, Sea Music suffered much controversy as it was being created twenty-five years ago. Why? I asked. I examine it for hours, pore over all kinds of photographs, climb the viewing platform, take pictures, sit beneath it, touch its cool steel. What is so offensive about it? The answer is simple: its existence. For too long now, the arts have been considered surplus to social requirements, and so the idea of ‘relinquishing’ public space to a piece of art is often seen as a waste of time. Public sculptures that are long-lasting often fade from the public eye, becoming nothing more than background. They are open to destruction, vandalism, the elements, to discrimination from all sides. Yet for twenty-five years, Sea Music has endured. And its endurance poses a wider question: Why do we need art?
I do not ask the question do we need art, because for me, the answer is simple. Yes. From the earliest examples of cave paintings, to the contemporary west end theatres, art is life. As Ben Knight, a councillor during the inception of Sea Music, says in his interview, ‘art established a nation.’
What does it say about our nation that we view art so begrudgingly, jealously, critically, ungratefully?
Sea Music is described both by Ben Knight and by Anne Stribley, another member of the council at the time, as ‘a gift to Poole’. Designed and overseen by Caro, the materials and labour for its construction were all locally sourced or donated, without dipping deeply into public money. As much honest art is, it was created and given out of purity. A good friend of mine, Claire Dyer, a poet and fiction writer, once told me ‘poetry is an offering. It is a gift.’ I don’t think that is unique to poetry.
When artists take those first steps into the tempests of their imaginations, draw upon the horror and gentleness and beauty and ugliness of humanity, when they rake their nails through their memories and drag them like seaweed to the surface, hold them out in both hands and say, for you, they are giving something far purer than anything that could be bought by mere currency. They are carving their humanity up to be gifted to their fellow man. Sea Music is a representation of the enduring nature of art, of its continued and unyielding relevance, of being what a culture needs and deserves despite being misunderstood. It is a gift. It remains a gift, and it gives repeatedly.
Sometimes, we become blind to that which deserves gratitude. We grow intolerant of wonder and deaf to beauty. But still the sculpture is there, a frozen moment of ocean rearing like a storm, like a fin, like a tentacle, into the hearts of all who see it.
So, when I write of Sea Music, of tides captured in steel, of sunsets ricocheting from sculpted metal, of the rumble of boats, I add my voice to history. I stand alongside the endurance of art and fortify the walls with my words. I write, and I encourage others to write, and I create and I build and I sculpt as a way of giving sustenance to a living piece of work. To love art is to love life.
And the gulls call as they wheel over the ocean, and land, one-legged on the crest of the sculpture, and participate in the apparent violence of feeding their young. Their music rotates inside the waves of the statue, just like the moan of boats, the chatter of children, the silence of poets.
In the great scheme of things, we are all whispers of water unfolding against the sand. But what we create in our moments of being, what we appreciate, what we cherish and protect, does not just establish a nation, it defines a species. Sea Music is a gift, and I hope that what I write and create and give in the next two months goes some way to maintaining the generous offering Caro gifted to the harbour, to the town, to the nation.
I can’t wait to begin.