water – memory – home

This work was originally published on Grasscut Music’s blog.

Weir © Dominick Tyler 2014

Weir © Dominick Tyler 2014


In the closing moments of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film ’Solaris’ we discover that the film’s protagonist, Kris, has decided not to return to earth from his mission to a distant space-station. He instead descends to the titular planet, where an ocean of consciousness has created an island from his memories. This island is a simulacrum of the place we meet Kris at the beginning of the film: a dacha beside a lake, where all is familiar and peaceful. But Solaris’ recreation is imperfect and incomplete. It’s raining inside the house, or perhaps it’s crying, warm water is pattering onto the books and onto Kris’ father who moves about impassive, oblivious and lost in thought. When the camera pulls back in a series of clumsy cuts we see the house and it’s surroundings floating small and alone in a vast churning sea. It’s only at this moment that the viewer is certain where Kris actually is, that he isn’t back home and never will be.

What do we feel when this truth is revealed? Horror at Kris’ self-exile? Envy at his simulated homecoming? Strange as the island is, it holds things which Kris left behind thinking he would never see again: his aged father, his dog, his books. This place offers a chance to reclaim what he has lost, even if the experience is made from his own past and offers an unreal future. Who would not want the chance to bring a memory to life, to live past moments with the people and things we have loved and lost.

As we look down on Kris’ island we are looking at the place that represents his home ground, a patch of land that contains all that is precious to him. When I first saw the film’s ending I had a strong recollection of an arial photograph my parents had of my childhood home. I imagined my own island of memories and knew that it would be that patch of land in Cornwall where I’d fledged into freedom and roamed to discover the world. Solaris would, from my mind, form the river at the bottom of the hill and the big oak in the field, the gaps in the hedges and the nettle patches. But given the choice would I, like Kris, decide to stay there instead of living in a world of loss and absence and change?

I last saw my home ground after an absence of six-years and the passing of many more since I ranged across it with the free, intimate familiarity of my childhood. Everything had changed, grown, or diminished, newly appeared or disappeared. I walked old paths as best I could until I found myself at the river and only here could I see my memories made real. The Lynher flowed as it always had, this most changeable element in the landscape was somehow the least altered. Where I’d swum under the bridge aged six the cold water eddied in the same, apparently eternal vortex. Where I’d trudged upstream on hot summer days the riffles were endlessly recreating themselves over the rocks beneath. The river was the same precisely because it was in constant flux.

In many of Tarkovsky’s films water seems to represent memory, the passage of time and to my mind the anxiety associated with both. The rain inside Kris’ unreal house generates a feeling of unease that is mundane (those books are buggered if he doesn’t dry them carefully, and the rug…) but also dreamlike and mystical (something here is eerie and wrong). The ocean surface of Solaris is itself conscious, its fluidity has the nature of thought and it interacts directly with the minds and memories of Kris and the other cosmonauts. Thoughts ‘flow’ after all, and so does time.

In this liquid imagery I also recognise something about the transformation of a lived experience into a memory, something about the implicit loss but also the capture. I experience a flicker of this dichotomy every time I take a photograph and know that I have sacrificed a lived moment for a preserved one. Seeing and photographing are two different things, a photograph is a memory of a moment you never actually saw. In another Tarkovsky film water flows over possessions (including photographs) in the remains of a house and we feel they are preserved as though in crystal but we know they are being destroyed too.
If only things which flow and change can endure then memories, like photographs, become hostages held against the passage of time. We keep them in imperfect cells, knowing that, in the end we must release them or let them escape. Kris’ decision to live in his memories is chilling because we all, if we have suffered loss, feel the pull but don’t we also know that life pulls the other way. We are creatures of the passage of time. Perhaps this flow of moments, this continual loss, this ‘now’ is our true home.