2021. Text and image essay.
Psychosomatic Swimtrospection is the psychological space that is created when one goes swimming in a public swimming pool. It is an oxymoronic state, where both external and internal are stirred to create a new, exposed physicality. Exposure is a key component within Psychosomatic Swimtrospection as it occurs throughout, most visibly in the initial swimming uniform. Much of the subject’s body is left uncovered from the point of exiting the changing room, inducing a sense of intimate viewership, but denying that viewership access to the personal through swimming caps or goggles. Bodily awareness is heightened, in a similar social sense to John Berger’s idea of the third person perspective in ‘Ways of Seeing’:
‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at’.
This saturation of anonymity and exposure actively encourages introspection through directing the subject’s gaze inward, in turn creating more emotional exposure as the subject is confronted with the self. At its essence, physical exposure induces emotional exposure.
This is further reinforced in the act of swimming and the dissolving of surface and subconscious. Above the surface, time passes normally and senses are flooded with an overwhelming presence of reality – chlorine smells, walls echo, children scream. The subject is therefore alerted to bodily sensation and a constant awareness of their own physicality.
Below the surface, reality is disconnected and replaced with escapism. While above the water senses are heightened, below they are diluted, almost to the point of non-existence. As the water pressure pushes in, so do thoughts and perception – it’s not about looking outward, but inward.
Through the act of swimming, the subject repeatedly flips between these two states of exposure, creating a fluidity of external and internal, emotional and physical.
All objects of the swimming pool contribute towards this in their own ways:
The lifeguard, for example, continues the theme of observation to a voyeuristic effect as their gaze is usually constant, but passive. This impersonal presence is particularly emphasised in the context of uniform – an apathetic aesthetic that places them within a role but denies any personal identification. They therefore act as conceptual representation of the act of looking rather than direct attention.
The filtration grates, in particular, emphasise the same oxymoronic duality present in consideration of external and internal. Their primary function is to filter away human waste – be it urine, plasters, hair or bits of float. Although they are collecting unclean elements, in doing so they are keeping the pool clean. Their purpose is therefore split, as they have to hold two contrasting states to be considered functional – clean and dirty.
The item I have found most interesting is the towel, which resembles identity and memory of self, so is emotionally tied to the subject. In the act of swimming, the subject must abandon it to one side, sacrificing some element of the personal and publicly risking its theft. When the subject exits the pool, their thoughts and feelings are consolidated in the wrapping of a towel – a physical reminder of outside identity layered on top of whatever state the subject leaves the pool in.
Diving into the duality of swimming, I began to consider it in relation to my own identity. For me, personal identity exists on the same oxymoronic surface that swimming does. While I am a collection of thoughts and feelings, I am also an image: a physical body with blood and organs. I am psychosomatic. When I make anything, it is of me, therefore is always, inescapably, about identity.
Since coining Psychosomatic Swimtrospection, I have attempted its representation in various forms, using it as a tool to expose and confront my personal self. For me, the introspection of swimming pools closely coincides with my own disability and sexuality:
Having a decreased sex drive as a result of severe mental illness or medication is a very common but vastly underrepresented difficulty. Sex is a bodily experience, but it is undoubtably affected by the mind. So, when the mind itself becomes compromised, it is harder to immerse oneself in activities such as sex. In my own experience, it dissolves the boundaries of external and internal exposure to the point of dysfunction, as inner turmoil often results in a hostility towards the physical form which contains it.
I began some representation of my own exposure in print-making, as I was interested in condensing my use of abstract narrative language alongside image. The prints flow as a series, detailing the grosser aspects of bulimia through the repeated image of a pool filtration grate:
Visually, the large areas of shadow flood the lighter parts and figure in ambiguous dread, coursing through the work like the words that accompany them. They speak of a constant evaluation of self and yearning to be better through physical discharge and expulsion of unwanted parts, both physical and emotional.
I felt that these were cathartic, but were missing the surface humour that the rest of my work takes place underneath. As my studio working space grew smaller and smaller, I turned to tiny sculptures (varying in sizes from 3cm to 6cm) as a way of communicating exposure and introspection through overt physicality. The sculptures are intended to exist out of a specific place or time, but externally feed on aspects such as nostalgia, kitsch and the human form to encourage internal relatability within the viewer.
As they were made without a precise outcome in mind, I found it difficult to imagine how a viewer might encounter these sculptures. In their small size, I imagined they might be found in isolated instances of discovery or held in people’s palms. They seemed to exist on a liminal plane, drenched in a deep feeling of heartfelt discomfort and crossing the lanes of public and personal perception. Liminal spaces (places containing the aesthetic of ‘in-between-ness’, and where reality feels altered or ambiguous) have always been of interest to me. In some way, there was no better place for these sculptures to occupy than places that, in themselves, don’t feel like places. Although my initial plan was to take a photographic approach, I chose to use digital collage instead, going deeper into the idea of uncertain occupation and elements of the surreal. I called this series ‘Postcards to Nobody from Nowhere’:
At this stage, ‘Postcards to Nobody from Nowhere’ effectively wraps up my theory of Psychosomatic Swimtrospection. Through my own exposure and the use of text, image and setting, I have extruded personal thoughts into a surreal realm. In the act of saturating everything, nothing feels quite right. It is this conversation between opposites that I feel best describes my practice: humorous distress, surreal relatability, cold eroticisms and veiled exposure.
These recent pieces have been successful in their movement towards making work more candidly, and in dissolving the line between the visual and text-based elements that I always felt were at opposite ends of my practice. In their conception, and in creating Psychosomatic Swimtrospection, I have formed a language of exposure – a dialectical approach to the recurring thoughts and patterns that control my life. It is this fluidity of self-expression that allows me to drench a viewer in my own state of being.
However, the continuous representation of myself within my work often feels narcissistic. After all, what is it about my lived experience that should prompt viewer interest? What elements of myself are so important that they require full immersion?
Ultimately, is my work narcissistic? The short answer is yes – it is narcissistic, but narcissistic in a base, psychological state. Here, I would like to follow a separate lane to the popular culture image of narcissism (a vain, aesthetic and individualistic obsession), instead focusing on its conceptual consideration of the self.
In her article ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’, Rosalind Krauss explains narcissism in reference to Lacan’s ‘The Language of the Self’:
‘Reflection, when it is a case of mirroring, is a move toward an external symmetry, while reflexiveness is a strategy to achieve a radical asymmetry, from within.’
In Lacan’s theory, the subject has two states: an analytic, reflexive self, and a projected image of the self. Krauss interprets narcissism as the frustration caused when the subject realises that these two selves are alienated: ‘the distinction between (our) lived subjectivity and the fantasy projection of (ourself) as object’.
I believe that my work takes place within this frustration. My lived experience informs the theory through which I make, which ultimately results in a fantastical projection of the self – not necessarily me, but my own idea of me. It is not a vain narcissism, it is just a conflict of internal and external exposure, emotional and physical.
Although, for me, my practice is not concerned with conflict. It is more concerned with the duality that can result. It is, in metaphorical terms, the surface of water: a thin, liminal sheen where opposites can exist in consideration. A liminal physicality for subliminal specificity. A place of eternal indecision between floating and drowning.