My earliest memories of swimming pools take me back to the municipal pools of the north of England where I’d march in line with my classmates from the school gates to the local leisure centre, towel rolled under arm, speedos wrapped up tightly inside. Crammed into the reception area surrounded by comic sans notices about water based infections and shower etiquette, the class would be split by gender and each group sent into the corresponding changing room where sand coloured tiles enveloped us. The surroundings may have been banal, but turning around to see a middle aged man’s penis at eye level was not. Neither were clumps of wet hair stuck to the floor, nor the used plasters discarded in the urinal still baring traces of the wound they no longer conceal. The smell of chlorine. That hellish echo. The humiliation of being told my doggy paddle didn’t constitute a legitimate swimming stroke, thus condemning me to a term in the baby pool with bright orange armbands rattling around my twiggy biceps to further highlight the fact that, unlike my superior classmates, I wouldn’t survive falling into a fast flowing river.
Working on a project on the Costa del Sol in Spain it’s impossible to ignore swimming pools, they’re everywhere. Having lived in the area when I was young I could never get to grips with the enthusiasm people showed for these glorified azure bathtubs. Every time a family member would visit I’d be dragged to some poolside for hours on end, or even worse, a day at the aqua park. I was developing a resentment for pools that crossed international boundaries.
Being cynical comes easy to me, so for my graduation project I endeavoured to challenge myself and look beyond the boredom, humiliation and disgust I associate with swimming pools. I will look for something positive because that’s what good happy people do. Good happy people love pools.
I scrolled around the area on Google Maps looking down on all the villas with their own little pool in their own little garden. The aerial images are pretty good resolution in this part of the world so I zoomed right in to look at the mosaics of dolphins, harps and English football club badges that are stuck to the bottom of the pools. I looked over hundreds of pools, each of which requiring fairly substantial amounts of water, chemicals and energy to simply exist, and saw nobody swimming in any of the pools. So people don’t like swimming? I get that, we are land mammals and should only enter water to wash, or in life saving scenarios. So why even bother with a pool? Status, clearly. This line of exploration wasn’t taking me towards the positivity I craved. If there’s one thing that disgusts me more than clumps of peeled sunburned skin floating towards me in a swimming pool, it’s the flaunting of excessive wealth.
I continued to look down from space and did find myself mildly entertained by the shapes of these pools. Kidneys, rectangles, ovals and figures of 8, then some circles, freeform blobs, Roman baths and the occasional attempt at a river. Their forms were bringing a smile to my face, which makes sense as they are primarily designed to be seen over being swam in. I drew 111 of them, taking time to follow their every corner and curve. Once the drawing escaped from the scaleless screen into the physical world it became even more interesting. There was a clear discrepancy between two types of pools; small ones and big ones. The small ones belonged to private detached villas and sit as the headline act of the artificial landscape of the garden. The big ones are a lot more interesting. Although they initially appear to simply be scaled up versions of the private villa pools they quickly revealed themselves to be a lot more. Rather than one pool for one house, these are the one pool of a number of blocks of many apartments. They are about communality rather than individualism, yet sold with the idea that the owner of each apartment sharing the pool can confidently boast ‘I have a swimming pool!’.
If you were to compare the gated communities of apartment blocks to an urban plan, the pool would be the public square. It is here that people can meet outside of their own houses, often spontaneously and exist not as an individual but part of a wider community, even if that community is encircled by a chainlink fence. Interestingly these symbols of wealth, leisure and luxury that are aimed at creating an escape from the context, do in fact link back the historical context of southern Spain. From the early Roman villas to the Moorish courtyard houses, and even the grand palaces of the Islamic rulers such as the Alhambra, water has been at the centre of domestic social life for many hundreds of years. Not only have pools - in one form or another - been the social nucleus of domestic life, they have also been the primary piece of technology employed to make the intense summer heat a little more tolerable.
Although the primary functions of the pool connects back through many different ruling empires of Andalucia, the way pools look today is certainly different. Today the image of the pool is Instagram shorthand for ‘enjoy the snow back home, fuckers, I’m in paradise’. The vivid blue of the pool is important and it seems to directly contrast with the greyness and mundanity of the day to day life many are trying to escape. Looking from above the variation of different blues, even a few purples build up to form a rather pretty but scattered mosaic. But lurking within that mosaic are the green pieces. The abandoned pools filled with stagnant water and who knows what different life forms, serving as a reminder that these symbols of luxury and leisure are only a missed mortgage payment away from revealing something a lot more sinister.
David Hockney is one of many artists to have been inspired the ambiguities of swimming pools. His Most famous painting ’A Bigger Splash’ (above) suggests that luxury is something empty and transient, with the pool at the centre of the message. This painting has spawned other pool focused art, most obviously the 2015 film A Bigger Splash by director Luca Guadagnino. The swimming pool is the protagonist of this film, initially as a stage set for social and sexual drama, but ultimately as scene of a murder. The pool is drained and the peeling paint of the empty bowl surrounds a white corpse. This message of the pool as a place of joy that turns sour is echoed in Ed Ruscha’s photographic series Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (right). From the allure of the cool water and thrill of diving boards to the visceral reaction brought on by the broken glass, luxury is portrayed as brittle, waiting to shatter and stab into the sole of your bare foot.
As I sit and ponder the role of the pool in my project, I’m now aware that I’m not simply dealing with a place for a pleasant slipsh splosh. They are a threshold between who we are and who we want to be, a seductive portal to our darkest desires, but for some of us those desires are perhaps better left unfulfilled.