I was sitting in a hospital waiting room yesterday, flicking through a mangled copy of a magazine, when I found a short interview – the type with one line questions, such as “What would your superpower be?” The answer there was “flying”.
How many of us would agree with the interviewee’s wish? The ability to take off and leave the ground below sounds exhilarating. No boundaries, no limits, no need to turn back. Maybe that’s why dreams of swooping over cities and seas are so prevalent. Flying captures the imagination. It’s something we see birds doing all the time, and yet, so far, the act of flying without technical help eludes us.
It seems that as humans, we have a longing to conquer the fourth element – air. We have swum in the sea, warmed ourselves by the fire and dug homes out of the earth. How best to immerse ourselves in what we breathe? We have spent centuries developing ways to enter the sky: hot air balloons, planes, helicopters, parachutes. Those with an urge for adrenaline might try skydiving or base jumping, while the more docile could fly a kite or let go of a sky lantern. The latter is akin to a message in a bottle; the thrill in knowing that it can soar off to another part of the world.
I’ve just finished reading ‘Nights at the Circus’, by Angela Carter. The main character ‘Fevvers’ is known throughout Victorian-era Britain for her illustrious wings. They have made her a star. But that fame has been tempered with suffering. Her wings have not only provided the momentum for recognition, but also set her apart from her peers. She is an outcast – simultaneously commanding majesty and mockery. The magic realism of Carter’s novel could be said to reflect the way we view flying. It is an action that we see being demonstrated by the smallest of birds, butterflies and other winged things, and yet, try as we might; we can only poorly imitate them. To us, the idea is fantasy.
Of course, the other story that comes to mind is that of Icarus – the boy who flew too close to the sun. Dating back to ancient Greek times, perhaps this tale best encapsulates absolute yearning, combined with crunching loss: the idea that one cannot have flying without falling. As the saying goes, “What must go up must come down”.Although the physical activity is most often associated with wings, phrases such as “high-flying” and “soaring” are used to denote success. If someone is doing well, or achieves spectacularly, then they are thought of as ascending to higher levels. In comparison, if someone “crashes and burns” then they have foundered and broken.
This is sadly apt in relation to the recent death of Amy Winehouse. In some ways it seems that she was like Icarus – flying so high and so brightly, with such talent. Her voice took us with her in flight.
That is the mark of a true artist – be they singer, painter, photographer, writer or actor. Their work can elevate and transport us, taking the listener, reader or watcher out of their own lives and into something else entirely. I remember that exact feeling while recovering from surgery, and putting my entire concentration into absorbing one Kate Bush album after another, so that I could float away from pain. The sublime ‘Aerial: A Sky of Honey’ is the musical equivalent of gliding – complete with snatches of birdsong! Schopenhauer was most definitely right when he stated that we could momentarily escape suffering through the arts.
Birds and flight also provide inspiration for countless creators, such as Alexander McQueen. His S/S 2001 collection, complete with feathered dresses and taxidermy, is perhaps the best example of his extraordinary work. For him, the significance of birds could be eerie, as well as breathtaking.
Of course the one art I haven’t yet mentioned in relation to flight is dancing. What other profession allows for grand jetés, pirouettes and glissades? Watching my incredibly talented friend Choe (pictured here) spinning around the stately gardens where I took the photos made me feel exulted. She moved her limbs with grace and silence, the only sound alongside the cooing of a woodpigeon being the click of my camera shutter. As I asked her to do one leap after the other, I felt that if I looked away, then on her next spring she might just float up and up, until she was as high as the tower in the distance.
The location for the photos is very near two large lakes, which house several families of swans. When we were being driven back, exhausted and hot after several hours of photography, I saw a large white shape flutter down onto the surface. It felt like a privilege to see that swan make the transition from air to water; a moment of ungainliness sandwiched between its usual serenity.
I styled Chloe using clothes from my wardrobe and dressing up box - a mixture of family heirlooms, charity shop bargains and vintage gems. The leotard and ballet shoes are hers. Thank you Chloe!