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Written byHannah Mitchell

“I am fully present in my headspace. I’m suspended in this foreign space and I get to interact with marine life in a way that not many people do.”

It’s fair to say that most of us – those who are creatively inclined, at least – have a sanctuary of sorts. A refuge where passing thoughts morph into artistic inspiration; where we unravel our psyches and delve deep into what drives us. For Gareth Bekker (23), his safe haven is a place “so foreign, but familiar”— the depths of the ocean. A hideaway that is neither safe nor secure is exactly what makes the ocean a primary source of his artistic excitement: “You will never enter that space and have the exact same experience of what you had yesterday. It’ll always be different. You never know what to expect. You can go on a dive, and you don’t know if you’re gonna bump into a pod of dolphins or great white shark.”

As a kid, Gareth found his creativity in the outlet of a few scribbles, but a pivotal moment in his artistic development was in grade 8, after leaving his art homework to the last minute (and still somehow passed, the lucky son-of-a-bitch.) “Our teacher comes to me one day and she’s like, here, I see that you can kind of do this. Let’s make a deal. If you do this and try just once, and you really don’t like it, you never have to do one ever again. I’ll just give you 50% regardless.” So, he tried – for once – and found that not only did he enjoy it, but he was actually pretty damn good at it, too.

But the magic happened when he started scuba diving and spearfishing, and ultimately became obsessed with all things marine. The more time spent in and around this space, the more he started to notice the beauty in the intricacies and unpredictability of the ocean. Shortly after inheriting his grandfather’s film camera in 2018, he started experimenting more carefully with photography. In this, he found a natural convergence of his love for diving, his love for the ocean and the new medium of film that he had found. “I love film because it’s deliberate,” he adds, “and I can’t help but think of the wasted, fuzzy shots I’ve taken, always a disappointment after the excitement of waiting for film to be developed. “I’m pretty conservative with my shots and film really forces you then to look at the whole picture – look at the lighting, the composition, the placement of subjects.”

So, if film photography is a carefully constructed composition, imagine what underwater photography is like. Whilst freediving, Gareth found that making looking for a fish his sole mission would detract from the exquisite nature of time spent in the water. Falling in love with photography and the mindfulness that film demands came at just the right time for him: “Now when I’m taking photos underwater, I’m not focusing on trying to find a big fish. I’m focusing on everything that’s around me and purely being super, super present. In that space, through the act of taking a photograph and appreciating all that’s around me – and I’m trying to portray that feeling to whoever is looking at the picture.”

“Now when I’m taking photos underwater, I’m not focusing on trying to find a big fish. I’m focusing on everything that’s around me and purely being super, super present.”

But therein lies another challenge – taking a photo whilst holding your breath in a space that’s in a constant state of flux is difficult, let alone to create something aesthetically pleasing. But Gareth’s love of the ocean – and his understanding of how truly fragile it is — makes these challenges a pivotal influence on his creative process. “My bigger vision for my art is not just to be something aesthetic and a manifestation of my love. I want it to end up as a form of conservation art. And I’m understanding that there are skills that I need to gain in order to execute that. So, it’s still very much a work in progress.”

Yet, his respect for the ocean is strikingly clear in all his art – some of his work is based on the concept of Gyotaku, a traditional Japanese fish printing method. It was originally done to measure and document an important catch. But for Gareth, this is not just about accuracy, but also what the print represents – the print memorialises the dive, the time spent in the ocean, and the fish itself. He finds the process of creating print cathartic; a way to process the act of killing and to pause and appreciate the animal. He’s never found it easy to shoot a fish in his spearfishing adventures, and notes that as a meat-eater it is important to know where your food comes from: “To make this connection, the fish becomes more than just a sort of sustenance – it becomes food for your soul.”

There’s a calm to his art; a sense of both awe and serenity. Perhaps it’s not just the ocean itself, but what it takes me back to: the dreamy sense of tranquillity that flows through my body whilst floating in the water. “Every time that I look at one of my prints, I can remember that fish and I can remember that whole day,” he explains. “The actual art product is a by-product. For me, the art comes in with everything else involved with the fish prints. That is, a manifestation of my dive – where I am fully present in my headspace. And I’m just suspended in this foreign space and I get to interact with marine life in a way that not many people do.”

“It’s a powerful space to be in frequently. Going for long periods of time without really thinking is meditative, and it allows you to be more present.”

He continues to explain that this sense of calm and mindfulness that I’m thinking about is a result of a biological response to my face being exposed to water. The mammalian dive response occurs the moment your face touches water, when your body prepares to be without oxygen. Your body will slow down your heart, and your body will slow down your mind to save oxygen. That’s why you’ll go for a swim or a surf and not really know what you were thinking about. Because, as he says, you just weren’t really thinking. “It’s a powerful space to be in frequently. Going for long periods of time without really thinking is meditative, and it allows you to be more present.”

So, what’s in store for Gareth? He’s had exhibitions this year at Lisa Linnow Gallery, Rust en Vrede Gallery, Evoking Art Experience and Kingsbridge Art. He’ll be creating art full time in 2022, and will likely be following the sardine run. We can’t wait to see what he’s got in store: with the vast expanse of the ocean as his primary source of inspiration, the opportunities for creative expression are endless. 

You can buy Gareth’s art and follow his journey on his Facebook page or Instagram account.

For more of our Visceral features, click here.

We can’t wait to see what he’s got in store: with the vast expanse of the ocean as his primary source of inspiration, the opportunities for creative expression are endless.

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