Philipp Blom: Submerged
It’s the silence that touches you first. These are farewells, but there are no requests or reassurances, no last greetings or promises. The protagonists are mute. A little boy is lifted up to the window, but even he seems to be stretching out his hand without a word toward one of the passengers in the compartment. The participants speak with their hands. They are not gesticulating – they are reaching out, holding on, pointing to something invisible.
What kind of silent farewells are these? Why do these searching pairs of eyes never meet? And why do some of the figures reappear in the three scenes in different groupings and on different trains? What kind of journey are they really embarking on?
At first they look like ordinary people, pushed against one another at the window. But the younger woman with her patterned blanket and red headscarf looks like a refugee, although the rest of her dress is western. With her upward gaze, and with the little boy reaching hopelessly toward her from the outside, she reminds us of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, caught in a second-class train compartment. And what of the young man standing over her, with his hand pointing upwards in a baroque gesture? This is a timeless moment, somewhere between the present and the era of old-fashioned train compartments and a Roman altarpiece in 1600.
The painter leaves traces, only to erase them straightaway. In the next painting it is night-time. Only the compartment is lit, garishly. Behind the sliding glass of the half-open window, the young Maria is sinking down as if in an aquarium. Now she is the one pointing upwards, or perhaps her hand simply doesn’t have the strength to hold on anymore. This scene seems calmer. No one is reaching out of the compartment. A woman on the platform is taking one last photo, but the screen of her mobile phone doesn’t show the face it’s directed at. From the roof of the train, a pair of women’s legs, clad in sky-blue, seem to belong to the hand that’s passing a bowl down into the compartment, but the bowl appears to be empty. And how could the woman have managed to climb up on top of the train in her high-heeled shoes? What is she doing there? A hand grabs her, holds tight, pulls her down. The young man who’s caught hold of her from inside the compartment is looking straight out of the painting. His eyes are empty, almost hopeless, without any emotional connection.
In the third compartment, there are no more pointing hands. The woman who at first looked like a Virgin Mary figure is now drowned in the aquarium of her silence. Three other young women have taken her place at the window, forcing her down. They press their hands against the window frame, as if to define it. Two of them are looking back at something left behind them. They don’t seem to regret this departure. They’re not waving at anyone, not looking directly at anyone. A couple on the platform embrace as if in consolation.
A disturbing new perspective on the travelers slowly intensifies. Isolated from one another, gesticulating silently, they are enclosed in a latent panic. They are fighting for a place, for room to breathe, pressing themselves towards the open window, smothering one another. They are not tourists, nor are they refugees – they are on a journey whose terminus they themselves don’t know. The train compartments were once part of an orderly network of timetables and destinations (the numbers on the carriages still show signs of this), but they long ago fell into disrepair, were several times repainted, changed owners, purposes, end stations, and now, in the age of air travel, have become curious anachronisms. The travelers themselves are young, dressed in modern clothes, part of a different world. Yet they are not looking forward to what awaits them. They are too alone, too occupied with fighting for their own survival.
On the right of the last painting, only half part of the scene, there stands a female figure dressed in black, her hand raised with open palm. She tells you to stop. She looks directly at you. She is not pointing in any particular direction. Her gesture is half warning and half oracle. What is she warning of?
Translation: Veronica Buckley