Ocean Matter. Celeste Olalqueaga.



Ocean Matter

Celeste Olalqueaga


Water, we’re taught, can be found in three basic forms: liquid, solid and vapor. Flowing in rivers and oceans, crystallized in icebergs and snow, suspended in clouds or falling as rain, water is a versatile element whose polyvalence (a question of temperature) makes it a perfect vessel for transportation and transmutation. Yet water can also materialize in a living organism where the limits between liquid and solid are hazy and ungraspable, producing a slippery, viscuous consistency that is as fascinating to vision as repugnant to touch. This creature, popularly known as a fish made of jelly, or a jellyfish, has become one of the ocean’s most threatening inhabitants, a passive, yet expansive mass whose increasing volume makes of its ethereal beauty a monstrous force to contend with.

Named after a mythological female also caught between elements and states, jellyfish or Medusae are this figure’s marine representatives, a floating paradox whose tentacular reach traverses oceans, cultures and ages, reproducing once and over again the mystery of its origin. For jellyfish begin their lives as hybrid beings, alternating between an attached, polyp form and a floating medusoid one, a peculiar cycle that confounded their scientific understanding until well into the nineteenth century. As for Medusa, her origin could not be more contradictory. Initially a pre-Hellenic emblem that protected fertility, the Gorgoneion was transformed by Greek culture into a deadly weapon, a decapitated head whose fiery glance and terrifying serpent mane instantly paralized men.

The destiny of these two floating heads, Medusa and medusae alike, is intertwined by this imaginary beginning. Flying across the Mediterranean with his crowning glory in hand, Perseus stops and deposits the bloody trophy on an algae-laden rock. The algae instantly petrify, becoming the red coral known as Gorgonia. A collective polyp formation, coral belong to the same lineage of stinging, contracting creatures as jellyfish (known as “sea-nettles” in Antiquity) and anemones. First classified for these burning qualities and later for their hollow central pouch (“cnidaria” and “coelenterate,” respectively), medusae have carried the cultural burden of their namesake, at once luring and repelling their beholders. It is not surprising that they have been compared to female genitalia, Italian fishermen calling them “potta marina,” or “marine cunt,” perhaps for the way tentacles surround the entrance to these creatures’ pouches, forming a capillary mouth. Sex is very much what jellyfish are about: the first unicellular organisms to reproduce sexually, a mode which they combine with asexual budding (known as strobilation, where a polyp sheds layers of “heads”), some medusae are even hermaphroditic, capable of self-fertilization.

Lacking differentiated organs, their basic functions, such as digestion, take place in the tissue layers, making of medusae all surface and no depth: everything is within sight here, a transparency that disguises their complexity. Considered solitary although they always travel in groups, they are both fragile and resilient. Among the oldest species inhabiting the ocean, their lives often end on the shore, palpitating masses that passersby poke with sticks, fascinated by the strange spectacle of this apparently inanimate matter and its concealed animality. Yet in their element, medusae are feared for the stinging darts, nematocysts, which they use to capture prey and keep enemies at bay, a poison in some cases so strong it can kill a human being in minutes, or leave a burning scar for months. Unlike anemones, whose flowery aspect invite the caress of unsuspecting beholders, medusae’s transparence acts like a warning screen, as if their lack of consistence, their metaphorical coagulation of the ocean, somehow contained all the mysteries and dangers of the liquid continent.

As such, medusae can hardly be kept in captivity. Sensitive to light and temperature, they float in those areas that provide the right balance of both and can only at great expense be held in aquaria, an alien territory that deprives them of the gentle sway of the ocean, where they move by a slight contraction and expansion (which caused them to be mistakenly called “pulmo marino,” ocean lung, by certain ancient writers), or carried by currents. Despite their apparent passivity, medusae are staunch, stubborn creatures that defy capture and classification. Their watery consistence made them particularly difficult to study for modern science, as they would quickly dry up when taken outside their element. But in the ocean they shine: luminous, these paradoxical beings can emanate a fluorescent haze that fills the water with fleeting auras, and which medicine is now using to track otherwise obscure body conduits.

Medusae’s lack of distinct boundaries make of them the most contemporary of beings, one whose transparency and fluidity recall the vast technological network quickly spreading over the planet. Multiple in its scope yet singular and isolated in its point of entry, this medusean machine is as versatile and attractive as the ethereal jellies; like them, it can leave its users transfixed, unable to say who or what overtook them, and why it is so hard to move away from this deep spell. Digital screens are windows into the watery world of our unconscious: there, images and words cohabit like the occupants of a three-dimensional aquarium, sometimes traversing each other at full speed, others indifferently floating alongside, most often circling around, endlessly, each day a repetition of the previous ones. It is in this liquid matter that our experiences are retained and replayed, where they linger as memories and occasionally brighten up as ideas, slowly losing or gaining shape — just as those marine creatures whose contours are so imprecise that it is unclear where the animal ends and the ocean begins.