The day you decide to drag your big camera to the sea at 6.50 a.m. to be there in time for the sunrise is always a cloudy day. But it doesn’t matter. The appearance of the sun is something to watch, the red and orange and pink that come with it on a cloudless day are too much (too beautiful? too romantic? too cliché?) to catch. I still do it though, I don’t know why. And then erase the images when I come home so they don’t clutter my computer. And I remember my photography teacher who taught us that you might think you can just take as many photos as you want with your digital camera without paying a price for it but in fact every time you push that button your camera dies a little bit. Gets closer to the moment, one day, when it won’t work anymore. It is true. But still I push that button when I see something I know I should only look at.

There was no sun today - well, it was there of course, otherwise it would be dark - but without the drama of the sunrise, the filtered light on the waves has a different quality. More silent, even when the waves are violent. The greyness makes the sea you catch look as if it is made out of fluid metal. Mercury.

In the Miró Museum in Barcelona there is a mercury fountain. You can easily miss it and even when you look at it, you might not notice that the fluid you think is water flows too slowly and the drops around the fountain are slightly odd. We often see what we think is there. It is hard to be attentive, to look first, observe, and then think. Not the other way around.
The fountain was made by Alexander Calder. It is one of the deadliest works of art in existence today, mercury is highly toxic. The first emperor of China, Qín Shǐ Huáng Dì, died as a result of drinking a mixture of mercury and pulverised jade because he believed it would give him eternal life. An Egyptian ruler reportedly built a basin filled with mercury, on which he would lie on top of air-filled cushions and be rocked to sleep. In the 19th century it was used in the manufacturing of hats and the expression “as mad as a hatter” is derived from the odd behaviour that was displayed by men working in that industry.
Calder was commissioned by the Spanish Government to make a new work for the Paris World Fair, the Exposition Internationale in 1937. The story behind the fountain is less known than the one behind the other work that was commissioned for the same exposition: Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Both works are inspired by the same horrible episode in Spanish history, a bloody civil war that started in 1936. Picasso painted what happened on a market day in a city in the Basque Country, the first carpet bombing to be performed during that war. Calder was asked to create a monument for Almadén, where at that time 60% of the world’s mercury came from. Franco’s troops attacked the town and besieged the mercury mine, depriving the Spanish government not only of important financial resources but also of access to a metal which was used in the production of firearms.
Calder’s mercury fountain is now kept behind glass walls. The employee who cleans it occasionally wears something that looks like an astronaut suit. But in 1937 it was unknown that mercury was deadly and in the Spanish pavilion in Paris the fountain was displayed prominently.

The sea here is deadly as well, as it is everywhere, even when it looks beautiful and calm. The Meter of Shame on the boulevard has been stable on the number 223. It isn’t just a number though, as the metal sculpture clearly states, it is 223 people who drowned this year in the Mediterranean, trying to escape similar situations like the Spanish Civil War, risking their lives in small boats. I suspect the Meter only counts the dead and not the unaccounted for or maybe it can’t keep up with the numbers. The meter on the Facebook page of Open Arms, a non-governmental, non-profit organization whose main mission is to rescue people who try to reach Europe over sea, fleeing from war, persecution or poverty, says 361. From 2015 until 2018 they have saved almost 60.000 lives but since the beginning of this year, their rescue boat Open Arms hasn’t been allowed to leave Barcelona’s port because Proactiva Open Arms has become a controversial player in the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. And innocent people die because of that.

I walk the same route every morning. I look at the same things every morning. I like the way the same looks different every day. And how I am being looked at differently. The men, not always the same, but always a combination of some of the regular early morning visitors of the bar at a corner of the Carrer dels Pescadors, the road of the fishing men, once shouted “Americano!” behind my back after I had walked by. They don’t do that anymore. But neither do we greet each other. Sometimes I hear the cat and when I hear it, I know it has noticed me and will try to push its small body as far as possible through the metal bars covering the groundfloor window to be petted. Every time I see it I expect him to wriggle himself all the way through the narrow space between stone and metal and jump in the street but he never does.
The people at the beach are different every day although the new ones always behave the same. They are either noisy, drinking beer, chilling after a long party night or they are daring, young tourists taking off their clothes to go for a quick swim, daring twofold because they leave their things on the beach and sometimes, when I am close to where they are, I keep an eye on their belongings without them knowing it, they don’t know how quick and smart the thieves here are. Some are in love, they have come to watch the sunrise on their first holiday together, sleepy eyes because they made love all night and now sit close to each other under a blanket.
The young father is new. It is the fourth time I see him. The first time I noticed him here he tried to show his young son or daughter the sea. I wonder what a two month old thinks, if anything at all, seeing this vast blue surface. Today his baby is asleep and he keeps him or her carefully covered in his warm bodywarmer. When he walks along the water I read the words printed in white letters on his back. “Special”.
There is usually a treasure hunter, sometimes a woman, sometimes a man. Maybe I am a treasure hunter here as well, but where they use a special device to find things hidden under the sand, I use my eyes to find what is valuable. And there are the dog owners. The man with the two Weimaraners. The woman with the annoying untrained herd of dogs. The woman with the cocker spaniel, always reminding me of the dog we had when I was a child. On the corner, where in summer the old women from Barceloneta sunbathe unashamed with beautiful bare saggy breasts, the dragon man washes himself and does his exercises. He lives in a tent on the sand - or maybe two tents, I am not sure if he recently expanded his home or if he got a neighbour - and watches over his dragon while his dragon watches over him. The mythic animal is his livestock, every day he repairs it, sometimes he constructs it anew when the night was stormy, either because of the weather or because of violent nighttime beach wanderers. The sand creature spits fire now and then but gently. The flames come from a candle he puts in its open mouth.

The Roman god Mercury guided souls to the underworld. He was the god of travelers, eloquence, communication, bounderies, luck, trickery, thieves. Ovid wrote that Mercury carried Morpheus' dreams from the valley of Somnus to sleeping humans. His day is Wednesday, miercoles, Mercury’s day. Which is today.
A planet was named after him. The smallest one, the one closest to the sun, the fastest one, moving around its orbit in 116 days. Small but heavy, scientists think that the planet is composed of about 70% of metallic iron (by weight) and 30% of rocky material. One day on Mercury lasts 59 Earth days. Imagine that. A day lasting 1.416 hours. Almost two months.

The word planet comes from the Greek term planetes, meaning wanderer. Ancient astronomers noticed how certain celestial lights moved in relation to other lights and started to make a differentation between stars and planets.

What would you rather be, a star or a wanderer?

I like stars who are wanderers at the same time. Who stick to their trade but sell it or communicate it in a different shape and with a different appearance always. I remember how long ago, before the Internet was a world I moved around in daily and I still listened to the radio to discover new things, I heard a song I fell for straight away. I got on my bike, cycled to my favorite record shop, listened to the album and bought it. Seven Swans, Sufjan Stevens. It came out in 2004, so 15 years ago. The music and the approach on the album Planetarium he made with Nico Muhly a few years ago is completely different. My favorite song is titled Mercury. It is the last song of the album, the most intimate one. In an interview Stevens said: “Life is so abundant here, and yet we’re so obsessed with the exterior of here. That’s what’s so interesting, there’s a sort of beautiful, perfect order to life on earth that’s so mysterious and so profound. And yet, as people, we really fuck it up. We’re so dysfunctional. And we seek guidance from the exterior world — from the heavens — to help us understand our purpose here, and to sort of create a sense of order.”

Mercury is a love long. It is about somebody who has been abandoned by a loved one. It starts like this:

And all that I've known to be of life
And I am gentle
You ran off with it all
And I am faithful

The lover who ran away also took “all I’ve said to get it right”, “all that I thought to be precise”, “all that I’ve known to be at peace”, “all that I’ve known to be of love”. The singer stays behind speechless, desperate, restless, faithless, messed up. There is sorrow, deep sadness but there is no blame. It ends like this:

Carrier, friend
Where do you run?

Mercury, the messenger, carrier, traveller. Carrying what is right, what is precise, what is at peace, what is of love.
It is one of the hardest things to be left behind by somebody you love without being bitter about it. To realise that the love that was there when you were together isn’t lost but can be carried on. And that we are all carriers, messengers and even when we are empty handed for a while, at loss, faithless, somebody else will bring the things we felt were lost forever.

Mercury, the planet, is notoriously difficult to see with the naked eye. It stays close to the sun, it never wanders out of the twilight sky. You can only see it shortly after sunset or before sunrise, these inbetween moments when it is neither day nor night. It is said that when Mercury is in retrograde, when it appears to be moving backwards, it is better not to do business, take important decisions or start something new. Mercury retrograde periods are said to cause computers to crash and machines, appliances, and other electronic devices to break down and show signs of wear, requiring urgent repair. I don’t know if that is true or if proper research has shown that that is in fact the case. Things always break down. And get repaired again. Or replaced, when they are beyond repair. And not only things. People, relationships, ideas.
There is a spaceship on its way to Mercury, it was launched last year and will cross 8.5 billion kilometres of space. If all goes well, it will reach its destination in 2025. 8.5 billion kilometres of space. I try to imagine that in the 5 x 4 meters of space I’m sitting in now while writing this. It is too much. I can’t imagine it. But it is still easier to imagine than the space of my thoughts. That other endless universe.

If robots would cry, their tears could only be mercury tears.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderfully rich piece of writing - you link/string together different ideas around the theme of mercury so coherently, and leave a trail of 'markers' for the reader to explore...