Friday, January 28, 2011

La Vie Aquatique

(The text below is not a description of London aquarium, but it was inspired by a recent visit to it)

(image of the Crystal Palace Aquarium sourced from here.)
Though designed by a name obscured by time and tides, the aquarium could be considered to be a dream project of curiosities, entertainment and science, set within the Victorian era that bravely peered into the oceans' depths. Oceans that unlike today's still nurtured within them the myths of mermaids, sea monsters,loch ness and science of species in equal proportions. The aquarium was indeed a small sample of this vast primordial soup of life that had abilities to shelter myth and science simultaneously, to be viewed and awed by the public, a television set of the 19th century!

And so the stone facade of the aquarium building was an alto relievo jigsaw of two intertwining narratives, one of the oceans created and the other of the oceans formed. The Darwinian narrative covering the plinths of the building with relief work of smaller more intricate Crustaceans, Mollusks and Echinoderms that could be observed and displayed at human height, flowed along the stormy biblical waves of Philip Gosse as species got simultaneously created and evolved, with whales, squids and sharks forming support system for the rusting copper roof and sea monsters occupying the place of gargoyles that poured water out into various crevices of the facade to bring the oceans to life on a rainy day.

(Statue of Poseidon. Found on Milos with the statue of Amphitrite. In his raised right hand he will have held the trident. Next to his right leg is a support of in the form of a dolphin. 125-100 BC . National Archaeological Museum of Athens, sourced from
The entrance of the aquarium was a double height wooden dome with copper handrails, circular riveted portholes and other borrowings from Jules Verne's Nautilus, at the centre stood a six metre high black granite statue of Poseidon, whose beard, hair and cloth seemed to turn the air around into water. A recent material analysis had confirmed the stone came from the submerged monument of Yonaguni Jima, Japan. Our tickets came bundled up in mermaid's purse, an object that just like the facade embodied within it echoes of myths and science alike.

(image of Ascidiae plate 85 from Kunstformen der Natur by Earnst Haeckel, sourced from here)
The first chamber was a gallery of original paintings by Earnst Haeckel, letters exchanged between Robert Warington and Gosse, a manuscript by Jules Verne's recently discovered book 'The seas of Neptune' by a great grand daughter of his editor Jules Hetzel, a fifteenth century Latin translation of Plato's Timaeus and Critias and lastly a final piece of this puzzle Alastair Pilkington and Kenneth Bickerstaff, the men who made the Crystal Palaces, and aquariums possible for the Victorians, the men who made glass visible or should i say invisible! In this room the life aquatic, science, art and most importantly men seemed to evolve and achieve greatness that challenge the world as we know it.

(Cover of "L'Algerie" Magazine, 15 June 1884, image from wikipedia article on Jules Verne)
The visitors could travel through a series of chambers. Each chamber had two identical doors, faith and fact, objectivity and subjectivity, etc and through the selection of each door the aquarium revealed itself as a labyrinth of multiple choices that single cell plankton to multi cell complex organisms had to make as they evolved newer appendages for their faiths or shed older organs to well known facts, thus contributing to the success of their future generations and building on the strengths of the past. The displays were a part of the labyrinth influencing the visitors' choices, presenting themselves as part fact part fiction, like the sea anemone that forms gardens of living tissue along coral reefs or the sleeping whale that formed an island in the first voyage of Sindabad. This Labyrinth had multiple glass stairs and corridors leading up or down between display rooms; these being completely made of glass were the only spaces from where one could peer out at the labyrinth, see silhouettes of other people moving and be conscious of its massive scale and complexity. Peering out of these glass spaces, sometimes littered with objects of everyday use, spoons, tables, books, toys, etc the visitor realises he too like the fishes is a part of this aquarium, not a visitor, not a witness but an active organism that has influenced the labyrinth of evolution through the choices made and an inseparable display like the rest.

At the end of the journey the visitors who had travelled each his unique distance and observed a unique set of sea creatures, all converged into a common egg shaped chamber which was newly added annexe to the aquarium building. This chamber unlike the others was an iridescent, seamless opaque space lit by fluorescent white light. The centre of the space had a six metre high white marble statue of Oceanus rumoured to be made from Golgotha stone. The statue was said to had been recently acquired by the aquarium with its origins traced to a Renaissance genius working in Florence around the beginning of sixteenth century. The display tank was located along the equatorial line of the geoid. A robotic arm above the tanks whizzed and dropped in creatures announcing ticket numbers corresponding to each creature. These were chimeras, being printed for each visitor based on the visitors journey and his choices. Some were grotesque nebular lumps of flesh where the choices of fact and fiction had made the organism incapable of living, some exquisitely beautiful where the two dialectics had stabilised in cohesive harmony. Due to Global genetic laws, the life span of these fantastic creatures created by man was to be only few minutes till they formed the display and had been seen by their creator. But so unique and powerful would be the relationship of this creature to the visitor who created it through his/her choices, that the image would form a part of the visitors sub conscious, influencing decisions for rest of his/her life. This was a consistent effect seen on all visitors who visited the aquarium. Some controversial psychoanalysts had gone to the extent of calling it a Lacanian mirror stage of the entire species, some pointed that we had discovered the Omphalos, the ultimate allegory of the creator allowing the creations to create.

(Double plate illustration showing embryos of fish (F), salamander (A), tur tle (T), chick (H), pig (S), cow (R), rabbit (K), and human (M), at "very early", "somewhat later" and "still later" stages, from Haeckel's Anthropogenie published in 1874, image sourced from here)
And so the visit to the aquarium in the 21st century had come to be a Hajj for the entire human race, balanced between scientific exploration and spirituality. Thus the aquarium, the least expected institution of Victorian curiosity and intrigue had come to negotiate differences between subjectivity and objectivity, between the church and the parliament, between inquisitions and justice. Like fishes aligning themselves to light in the absence of gravity, mankind was aligning itself to the sea within.