Hockney's A Bigger Splash (1967)Instagram/eastgreen

In portrayals of the swimming pool in visual culture, no one has made a bigger splash than David Hockney. Intrigued by the possibility of solidifying an instantaneous event, he sees his 1967 painting of the seconds following a person’s dive as”freezing a moment” that is otherwise too fleeting to ever “be seen this way in real life.”

But it is not the sense of the dramatic or impulsive, indeed, the 'splash', that has caused this idea to surface in my mind. Under current circumstances, we are frustratingly barred from the people, places and routines that bring us pleasure and purpose. We are submerged, cut off from life above water. Somehow, though, we are also being saturated by a newfound, untrammelled freedom. The cancellation of exam term has meant that, for many, time is no longer a luxury, so much so that we don’t know what to do with it. ‘Learn a new language’, we are told, or ‘pick up an instrument’. Freed from the confines of academia, students find themselves reading for pleasure and writing creatively. Both irritated by confinement and overwhelmed by creative freedom, tension and listlessness coexist.

I recently watched Mike Nicholls’s 1967 film, The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman plays a disillusioned young American, Benjamin Braddock, who spends the first summer after his completion of college fraught with anxiety about his future and the trappings of suburban life, eventually leading him to engage in an affair with a married woman. On Benjamin’s birthday, he is forced to dive into the pool wearing his new scuba suit. All we can hear is the sound of his breathing as he is suspended underwater, echoing an earlier image of an aquarium in his bedroom – in his world he is claustrophobic, like a fish in a tank. Later, we find him floating absent-mindedly on a lilo, entirely unmotivated. When his frustrated father asks him what he is doing (the implication is, with his life), his son’s reply is ‘well, I would say that I’m just drifting, here in the pool’. Comic irony aside, this literal and figurative ‘drifting’ is all too familiar to us now. In many ways, lockdown has left us feeling claustrophobic and submerged, but there have equally been moments in recent weeks in which I have felt languid, indeed, floating, in the absence of structure or routine.


Mountain View

Thank you, Jane Eyre

From eroticism to murder, the image of the swimming pool has fascinated creatives since antiquity as it does not cease to command some symbolic reading. The Great Gatsby’s marble pool and Gatsby’s wish to swim in it before the end of the summer, for instance, indicates more than just luxury and profusion. Wolfgang Tillmans’s Hallenbad, Detail (1995), an intimate photograph of the edge of a municipal pool, evokes the same sense of anticipation as the edge of a precipice. In the 1955 thriller Les Diaboliques by Henri-Georges Clouzot, a murder plot in which the corpse vanishes from the swimming pool that it was dumped in drives one teacher mad with disorientation.

It is clear, then, that the swimming pool has a unique relationship with the psychological, but that is not to say that it must establish some horrifying binary between the sharpness of the ‘real’ world and the hidden depths of the subconscious. In fact, it offers a consoling appreciation for the state of suspension that we find ourselves in. Of course, as always, it might be brilliant to try something new. There is a reason that we are sometimes told to ‘throw ourselves in at the deep end’, but there might also be something wonderful in an instance of stasis. In term time, we obsess ourselves with the next hurdle: that deadline or the exam around the corner, so we rarely have time to just stop and relish a moment. Maybe, right now, we should enjoy just ‘drifting’, capturing, as Hockney would say, instances that would never ‘be seen this way in real life’. There is something reassuring in the sense that this pausing of normal activity is merely like ‘freezing a moment’ before the return to the norm. Perhaps, then, we should be indulging in the thrill and the quiet of that phase not after, but just before the splash.

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