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swimming pools


Emoji summary: 🏊🏾‍♀️🟦💦

It’s starting to feel like I’ve been floating here forever. Drifting across the shallow end on my lilo shaped like a cartoon oyster shell. I am the pearl. I am Botticelli’s Venus, only not as classically nude because I am wearing a one piece. It’s nice this, isn’t it? Lying in the sun like a lizard, like a tomato on its way to sun-dried status. Leisure — I am at leisure. That’s like the whole and entire point of a swimming pool, kind of. I mean you can swim laps but even they are actually un-productive. ANTI-productive. Like, you’re not going anywhere. Really, swimming laps is just the protestant work ethic expressing itself. Enjoyment always has to be a little bit unpleasant. No, no — the swimming pool is about dead time.

I think dead time is a good thing. But I guess I would say that, because I am here. Trapped inside an Alina Grassman painting, Bestiary (Room 8). I can hear the gallerist at Niru Ratnam chatting to the visitors that drop by. She tells them that the paintings are based on real places, but also entirely fictional. They are like composite images sent through the processing factory of the painters’ mind. Six views of the same unreal universe, six scenes from different angles. All empty, all quiet, all still. With their arms crossed in front, or clasped behind their backs, the viewers lean forward to squint at the scenic details. I hold my breath and try not to blink. I have to stay so still because they are looking at the pool with my eyes, from my perfectly aligned viewpoint. It’s ok, I don’t mind sharing. Looking has always been a collective act, of sorts.

Yeah. We can see it all from the shallow end. The raised decking with the striped sun lounger. That’s where I left my phone. The palm trees and the endless foliage. It’s so HD because the painting’s eye sees with a greater scrutiny — or so I’m told by the gallerist as she addresses the stream of visitors. It’s a kind of pictorial flattening, the way background detail is so unrelenting and sharp. Over on the right there are two stone lovers embracing, Rodin’s THE KISS. His hand is on her bumcheek, she is bent into his arms like she is literally melting. On the other side of the pool Perseus is holding Medusa’s severed head aloft, it’s like he’s waving it at Rodin’s lovers. That’s the Italian Mannerists for you, no manners. In the middle along the poolside, there’s a sculpture of another disembodied head. This one has her eyes closed and her mouth open. She is so smooth and perfectly egg shaped, I fear she may roll away. Between us, the swimming pool blue water is stretched out and glassy. The wind is rippling the surface in streaks. There are no other guests at the hotel. Just us! (Just me!)

I’m not complaining. Time stretches out when you’re on holiday anyway, doesn’t it? I’d rather the day felt infinite than have it feel like the blink of an eye. And there are worse paintings to be trapped in. All this dead time is actually just time to think.

Twenty six year old David Hockney gets on a plane to California. As he is flying over San Bernardino he looks out the window at a bird’s-eye view of rooftops and swimming pools stretching beneath him in the sun. Twenty six year old David Hockney thinks to himself, they look like a kind of window too — different and better. They are a sparkling staccato of baby boy blue speckling the California desert, marking the barrier into a separate space, an expanse. Cartographically speaking, these swimming pools are contradictory, aren’t they? Something not quite right, something ulterior or uncanny, something that’s maybe even ironic. Twenty six year old David Hockney’s nose is so close to the airplane window, his breath is fogging up the glass. Back then, it would’ve been tempered glass.

There’s something very fascist about swimming pools too. They are like big blue nation states with terracotta tiled borders. Don’t be fooled by their communality. If the communality of a public swimming pool signals anything, it’s the unwavering nature of our faith in the state (to neutralise or filter out the particles of other people’s shit, piss and sweat that we voluntarily swim through). Do swimming pools have liberatory potential? Do swimming pools exist within an abolitionist framework? Come the revolution, we will all have swimming pools or maybe there will be no swimming pools at all.

I walk through the gallery and the concrete expanse of the floor beneath me is interrupted. Flush with the floor there is a white edge and it runs in a wide rectangle. Embedded in the ground there is a basin of dry powder pigment, International Klein Blue, spreading itself out across the gallery floor. It is a kind of painting, it is a kind of swimming pool. I gaze out across it, expecting the dry powder pigment to take on the shimmering liquid quality of water. I guess Yves Klein, the famous artist, conceptualised this as a very artistic thing: liberating colour from the confines of anything as barbarically simple as line, shape, form or (god forbid!) figuration. From here on the edge of the pool, all that conceptual reasoning dissolves. I want to dive in. I want to lose the edges of my body in the water. I don’t know if it will be murky or clear, bathwater warm or freezing cold. But there is no doubt in my mind: this is a swimming pool and a painting.

I think what it is, is swimming pools — especially the ones outside — they toe a line between the politics of communal public space and the WASPy affluence of capitalist pigs. Some swimming pools are public services, some are glass bottomed infinity pools in the sky, hoisted up on either side by a tower full of luxury new build apartments. Maybe swimming pools are just fundamentally about money: leisure centre, back garden or rooftop of Soho House. Have you ever seen those videos? Of Americans complaining about how much upkeep is involved in having a private personal swimming pool in your back yard? I saw one where this girl was putting on a full face of make up to help her uncle clean out the filter or vacuum the pool floor. All the chlorine and conditioning chemicals, the pH balance tester strips and the bug nets, the floaties get expensive too. Private personal swimming pools feel very American because Americans believe UNFALTERINGLY in the sanctity of private property. Everything in America is private property, especially in the suburbs.

It is 1952. Britain is testing its first nuclear weapons, the first issue of NME is printed and Henri Matisse is sitting in his dining room in Nice. He told his studio assistant that he wanted to go watch the divers in Cannes, but the blazing sun in the South of France was at its highest. Too hot to stay out and draw, too hot to think. I WILL MAKE MY OWN POOL, Henri Matisse declares, RIGHT HERE! His studio assistant pins white paper along the wall of the dining room. It runs a ring around the entire room, just above head height. Henri Matisse takes paper, painted azure blue. He cuts out the shapes of divers, swimmers and sea creatures. In two years time Henri Matisse will be dead and this will all be unpinned from the wall. But here and now, Summer 1952 in Nice, Henri Matisse is assembling shapes into an underwater ballet.

Maybe it’s the artifice? I don’t know. Swimming pool or painting — both are man-made, frames into An Other Space — a kind of heterotopia, a kind of portal. I could be overcomplicating it. I lose patience under the Florida sun. The thoughts don’t ever reach a conclusion because time never moves. Here in Alina Grassman’s painting, it is always 2.22pm, just gone high noon and maybe time for lunch (if you haven’t eaten already). The artifice of it all! The conceit! God it kills me. I just love the delicious lick, of sincerely selling me something that’s fundamentally insincere. A swimming pool isn’t a lake, a river, a sea or an ocean. It’s a big clean pond for humans so we can paddle around like ducks. The swimming pool is a way for us to remember that we are fundamentally just a kind of animal. The swimming pool is a place where the human animal body can experience weightless liquid suspension. The swimming pool is where the colour blue becomes a manifest reality, a painting without supports, a substance of its own.

Alina Grassmann’s show, Florida Räume was on at Niru Ratnam until 24th June, but you can see the paintings on Niru Ratnam’s website.