Issue 10: Winter 2012

Just a Look: About Peter Hutton’s 'At Sea'

Alfonso Cariolato

At Sea 1

A film entirely built on experience and constituting an experience itself. The filmmaker Peter Hutton has been voyaging on merchant ships for years. He is also a painter and a sculptor. Yet what you are positively struck by in his At Sea (2007) is that Hutton shows neither his personal experience as a sailor nor his understanding of art. Real life would be a very little thing if thrown directly into the work. We own nothing, least of all our own past. Therefore we cannot dispose of it.

At Sea develops in three sections and opens with a quotation from Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad: ‘A man who is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea...', where the dream which is dealt with - as a matter of fact, like water when you fall into the sea - is so close-fitting to life that it blends with it and does not lead to any dualism. This may well be what the cinema allows us to understand better than any other form of art. At Sea's sections are different from each other and in the end they do not allow us to recognize any dialectics in their succession. They are contiguous, that is all. Yet the three parts are not lacking in relationships between each other. But these relationships seem almost to interlace themselves by themselves, without being determined by a logic external to the images. This may be what makes At Sea - as I stated at the beginning - an experience.


The South Korean shipyard is an immense immobility. The ship under construction - fastened with ropes, scaffolding, cages and stages - is huge. The camera, when it moves, does so with very slow movements; and fixed shots invite a careful, vigilant, meditative look. In this staticity, something is moving, but it is as though the movement were a feature of the ephemeral, the transient, the precarious against an essential fixity which persists and seems to be insuperable. This is the paradox of the container ship under construction: the movement is sectorial, the stillness nearly total, while you would expect the opposite. Also the absence of sound helps to draw so much attention to the overhanging and immobile presence of the ship and of the structures of construction that it makes what should actually constitute the true center of the shipyard almost inessential, i.e. the activity, the work of men, tools and machines that make the container ship become what it is.

What dominates is the inert, yet affirmative, boundless presence of the ship instead - to such an extent that at a certain point the stem, seen from below, becomes the mask of a huge idol. The shots are animated here and there by the movements of men on the body of the giant, similar to those of the Lilliputians all around Gulliver. The crossing of horizontals and verticals which characterizes the shots is given by the movement of cranes, lifts, carried material, machines and men, while parts of the ship, portions of distant hills and fragments of the sky incessantly confirm the immense and apparently invincible staticity, as well as creating in the viewer a kind of disquieting bewilderment in facing the most powerful mystery of extension. Each shot celebrates the vastness and juxtaposition of planes; inside this the horizontals and verticals look like rows of insects on the back of a big animal or tiny spaceships voyaging on an immense hyper-technological artificial structure in the near future.

At Sea 2

But clothes, fabrics, and festoons fluttered by the wind also emerge, as well as flows, streams, small waterfalls, sprinkles, concentric circles, jets of various natures (sparks, colours, water and various fluids), continuous or intermittent, regular or chaotic, which are never in the foreground and occupy limited sections of the shot, always surrounded and nearly englobed by the immobile greatnesses. They are sectorial movements, peaks of intensity, small explosions of color and energy in the static universe of the shot. The assembling of the cargo passes through the partial activity of small faceless men, all wearing more or less the same clothes and with helmets on their heads, who climb up and down the flanks and bridges of the ship in seemingly aimless movements and gestures. The image of the officers in front of the finally launched container ship, now at last ready to depart, are also shown as part of a routine act, not a particularly meaningful one.

This is because the whole film works in order to de-potentiate acquired, immediate meanings. Only in this way is the viewer free to investigate what is offered to his gaze. It is through a rigorous control of the camera that things are shown, beyond or before meanings. This is how lines, colours, forms, light games, reflections open themselves up.., i.e. beyond the imposition of a prebuilt meaning. To see what there is, and yet is constantly surpassed, hidden, forgotten by the "small mind" which wants to dominate the real by imposing a meaning on it every time. The very clear references to Western and Eastern painting traditions which are present in At Sea convince precisely because they are not searched for, i.e. to the extent that they are studied and analyzed not for what they are but as modalities of accessing nature (and therefore reality), that is to say of seeing what is before our eyes and yet we cannot see.


In the second section, almost no men appear. The container ship seems to navigate itself as though a dark, yet secure force was guiding it. From behind the glass of the pilot bridge the shot, fixed yet not completely still due to the rolling of the cargo, shows the bridge towards the forecastle-deck entirely occupied by the colourful geometries of the containers that are stuffed in there. In the background a lattice-work and, farther in the background, the sea and the sky. Raindrops and sleet fall on the glass creating expressive abstractions that the windshield-wipers instantly sweep away and that little by little re-form in different modalities. Then there is the locally rough sea seen from the stem flank, while farther away the water is calmer. The horizon line oscillating and crossing the line of the rail seems to pursue a sort of mobility of the immobile. The shots tend to a sort of co-presence, or to a continuous returning between opposites - the one is never without the other.

This balance reached through the navigation is not only a state gained through a meditative practice achieved by means of a careful and extremely disciplined use of the camera, but it also places itself between the two enormous fixities of the first and the second section, in which the movements and flows seem secondary compared to the overwhelming presence of the still overhanging ship. Now the static does not prevail on the dynamic, the immensity does not undo the details. This second section is therefore pure contemplation - reached, I insist, only at sea - or also an experience of filming where seeing confounds itself with what is seen and the eye pursues a clear sensation which has nothing to do with aestheticism, since here there is an attempt to eliminate both the subject and the object of perception, in favour of simple (yet most complex and elusive) happening. So it is not by chance that men are absent. What remains are the reflections of the sea, the dark sky, the clouds, the wake left by the ship, a sunset... but without any further superstructure. Balance of self-forgetfulness.

At sea 3


The last section opens with a long shot of a man with an umbrella sitting on a chair on an abandoned, deserted water's edge. The twilight exalts every glare and shade of the sea. Then the scene moves to an enormous wreck, a ship lying stranded on a beach. Measureless cubatures, tons of plates and items of cargo are lying like meteorites fallen from unknown skies somewhere amongst the low tide. Men walk all around. They are poor and probably living off their wits. They climb up and down the wreck, carry pieces of heavy metal, roll oil drums, let lines down to which nets have been tied. The wreck dominates unopposed; the sky, the sea and the swampy water's edge seem to depend somehow on this persistent and grave presence. Black and gloomy smoke rises from the ship. We are in Bangladesh, and - in the black & white of many shots that makes the situation even more essential - we witness the dismantling of a ship. But there are no machines for doing that, no technology but the strength of the men's arms, a few ropes, a rudimentary hammer and some sticks. Nothing else.

These men have nothing in common with the homo technologicus of the first section. They move in a disordered and indolent way, their gestures do not follow any organization, the division of labour that they submit themselves to seems rudimentary. The landscapes opening at every shot are marked by an accelerated entropy, inside which living beings (men, birds) swarm without a clear project. It feels like watching small vultures on a huge carcass. The men linger in front of the camera, they smile and wink as if it were an unusual and curious presence. Robinson Crusoe is just a weak literary memory with no purchase on this scene, irretrievably distant in space and in time. Because what is purposed here is not the telling of a ‘story', the film does not narrate anything. Therefore it is not a documentary - it limits itself to looking.

This does not mean that the look of Hutton's camera is cynical. It is neither cynical nor participating, it does not want to be either. It is an eye that opens itself and looks - the great difficulty, and the challenge, of the operation is right there. Starting from this look, of course, a lot of considerations will be possible, but the film places itself on the subtle empty line between narration and indifference. And it does this in order to give things, events, their own space, their own time which are not our space and our time. This is why there are vibrant images, which are effective from an aesthetic point of view - what happens is beauty in spite of everything. But this beauty is different both from the contrasting surfaces/lines of the first section and the ecstatic balance of the second section. Here decay, abandonment and decline, considered not in the moral sense but in the physical one, emerge very strongly. The wreck is open to its dissolution. This is not complacency, but the recording of what remains a natural event even in its technological version. A ship was born, a ship dies in the same way. And all of this is not without some kind of beauty, which only a detached look can catch.

Before denunciation, criticism and political will, it is necessary to cast a look onto things, onto men, so that things and men can first of all be. A look that may be a loving one, or a compassionate one, or simply an aimless look. Just a look. Nevertheless from such a look, from such an opening, something does emerge. At Sea is voyaging by sea, diving into the sea, and this experience provides a different relationship with space and time, with tools, with technology, with others. After all, this is what we ask art for: to enable us to see the world as it is.

At Sea 4

Alfonso Cariolato

Alfonso Cariolato is a philosopher and essayist; his latest books are: L'Existence nue. Essai sur Kant (2009, with an Introduction by J.-L. Nancy), Dare una voce: La filosofia e il brusio del mondo (2009) and "Le geste de dieu": Sur un lieu de l'Éthique de Spinoza, Marginalia de Jean-Luc Nancy (2011).