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August 03 2012

Art and the hidden depths of the humble public pool

The swimming pool is not just a place of pilgrimage for leading Olympians – it has also inspired some of the 20th century's most memorable art. Artist and novelist Leanne Shapton, herself a former competitive swimmer, chooses 10 of the greatest works of art based around the baths

Drawing for 'Children's Swimming Pool', Leon Kossoff, 1971

Kossoff's charcoal study for his oil painting Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon is of a public pool in Willesden, London, near his studio, where he took his son to learn to swim. Kossoff captures the wild energy of an indoor pool overtaken by children during a public session. His vigorous lines, bobbing heads and sharp elbows remind us that as well as being pristine and serene, pools can also be aggressive and feral. The piece is audible, one can imagine the echoing hollers of the children, the heavy odour of chlorine and the lurking verruca.

Nine Swimming Pools, Ed Ruscha, 1968

Among the hundreds of gorgeous photographic images of swimming pools, this grid of colour photos that Ed Ruscha conceived in 1968 stands out as my favourite. The nine pools depicted are glassy, blue and bright, and while they are absent of figures, (only wet footprints leading off a diving board) they shimmer with the American dream. Each photo offers its own condensed version of public or private water; together, they simultaneously deliver the yearning of Sunset Boulevard, the challenge of competition, the seduction of youth, the promise of sunshine, as well as the shallow transience of motel life.

Pool Shapes, Claes Oldenburg, 1964

Oldenburg's palette is consumer goods, and his four bright blue swimming pool designs bluntly and directly convey his interest in the choices we are offered. The piece is a copy of an advertisement with the type removed, and the reframing of these simple diagrams of backyard pools, with their bubbly rounded shapes and shallow steps, is typical of Oldenburg's humour and playfulness. The image appears on the cover of a 1966 catalogue of his early sketches, diagrams and photos, produced by Stockholm's Moderna Museet for an early solo show of his work.

Ellipsis (II), Roni Horn, 1998

Rather than making the tank of water the subject, Roni Horn shifts her focus to the locker room of a swimming pool she loves in Reykavik, Iceland. Her large (8 x 8ft) monochrome grid of 64 iris prints shuffle the viewer through a warren of slick cubicles and halls. In an interview, Horn described the endless tiled surface and peepholed doors as a voyeristic delight, and explained that she "…shot it in a way to bring out more of the sensual aspect to balance against the antiseptic quality of the architecture".

Le bain mystérieux, Giorgio de Chirico, 1938

Giorgio de Chirico's series of bathers and labyrinthine pools, done between 1934 and 1973, began when Jean Cocteau asked the artist to provide illustrations for his book Mythology. He returned to this theme – men, both fully dressed and nude, in and around pools that were connected by twisting canals and surrounded by cabanas – for years after. He always depicted the water as a herringbone parquet, inspired by one day observing sunlight reflected on a highly polished floor. In this series, the founder of metaphysical painting hauntingly evokes dreams of water, submersion and classical Grecian imagery.

Gatsby, Dexter Dalwood, 2009

Pools are often used in literature and film as symbols of hedonism, seduction or danger. In F Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, the pool manifests all three, finally submerging its eponymous hero in its eighth chapter. In his painting Gatsby, Dexter Dalwood, whose subject matter often involves the locations of violent tragedies (other titles: Kurt Cobain's Greenhouse, Sharon Tate's Living Room), gives us the melancholy millionaire Jay Gatsby's sunlit backyard pool in West Egg, and an inflatable red air mattress overtaken by its shadow: a fitting metaphor for Fitzgerald's haunted hero.

New Yorker cover, Richard McGuire, 2008

New York City is not known for abundant outdoor swimming pools, which is why this New Yorker cover illustration, Swim, Swam, Swum, a rendition of the Carmine Street pool in Greenwich Village, is so charming. It showcases the beloved city pool (featured in Martin Scorsese's film Raging Bull and Larry Clark's Kids, and flanked by a 1987 Keith Haring mural). Illustrator Richard McGuire is a master of reductive line. He's a regular New Yorker cover artist, designs toys and games, makes wildly popular comics, children's books and haunting animations, and lives a block from the pool.

Poster for 1972 Olympics, David Hockney, 1972

David Hockney is the undisputed king of swimming pool art. His paintings of Hollywood pools, replete with big splashes, submerged figures and undulating ripples, gave us an iconic Californian landscape that still defines a certain kind of languid and lush west-coast sensuality. My favourite piece of his, however, and one I work beneath every day, is his poster for the 1972 Munich Olympics, which depicts a diver, suspended over a wobbling sunlit grid of aquamarine, the moment before he slices through the water. (Josef Albers and RB Kitaj also did swimming-themed posters in this series.)

Floating Swimming Pool, Rem Koolhaas, 1978

Rem Koolhaas's pool illustrates the last chapter of his book Delirious New York. It's an Orwellian fable about a group of Soviet architecture students who build a vast, floating swimming pool that they propel across the Atlantic by swimming laps. The journey to New York takes 40 years, and the pool's arrival is met with a hostility they had not anticipated. Koolhaas, himself an avid swimmer, satirises the utopian beginnings of Russian constructivism and its slow morph into corporate American modernism with his usual intellect, idealism and rancour.

Aquis Submersus, Max Ernst, 1919

In one of his earliest surrealist pieces, Max Ernst offers us a melancholy and disturbing night swim, though a clock in the sky indicates 4:42 and the shadows cast by a handlebar-moustachioed man are long. A sense of unease and suspense shroud the work. The clock is reflected in the pool as a moon, the lonely buildings around the pool appear empty, the upside-down figure of a swimmer is weirdly still. The painting shares a title with an 1876 novella by Theodor Storm, about a long-thwarted love and the drowning death of a boy, as narrated by a painter. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 26 2012

Take a virtual tour of the Olympic Park

Fly through the Olympic Park and explore the main venues using our immersive photographic tour. Discover hidden photographs, galleries and videos by clicking on the venues within the aerial panorama

October 30 2011

Emma Critchley's best shot

'This woman is a member of a swimming club. I love the way her legs and feet are hanging, almost like a squid'

Click on the image to see it in full

My work comes from my passion for diving. It deals with the underwater world: the threshold state that the body enters between breathing in and breathing out, and when you hold your breath. I'm interested in the way water changes the relationship we have with our bodies, the way we see and hear things, and the difference in gravity.

This picture was taken at a pool in Lancing, Sussex; the staff let me take pictures there out of hours.

The woman, Yvonne, is a member of Brighton Swimming Club and goes out in the sea every day, so she has a real connection with water. Here, she is lying underneath the water on a black plinth; this is a picture of her reflection on the underside of the water's surface. We're not working deep underwater – we're both standing in the shallow end, otherwise it's very hard to capture the image.

Yvonne isn't a free diver, unlike other people I've photographed, but she can hold her breath for about a minute. I stay underwater for that long, too.

I took hundreds of shots building up to this work. During this session, I probably shot about 60 pictures before finally settling on four to exhibit. I particularly love this image because of the way Yvonne's legs and feet hang almost like a squid. The bits that are distorted and blurred remind me of a Francis Bacon painting. Yet there is still a lot of clarity and reality in the top half of her body, so it very much captures that "in-between" state I look for.


Born: Glasgow, 1980.

Studied: University of Brighton, and Royal College of Art, London.

Influences: "Andrei Tarkovsky, Roni Horn, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Caspar David Friedrich Luce Irigaray"

High point: "Taking part in the Saatchi New Sensations show"

Low point: "I was booked to do a talk once but no one turned up."

• This article was amended on 31 October 2011 to correct an error in Caspar David Friedrich's name © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 28 2011

Games pool in danger of being expensive hole to fill

The Zaha Hadid-designed Aquatics Centre provides the wow factor for London's Olympics but its legacy is contentious

Its striking undulating curves will be the first thing seen by ticket holders entering the Olympic Park. Those building the venues that will house the largest sporting event on these shores are hopeful the Zaha Hadid-designed Aquatics Centre will be one of the defining images they take away.

But the body faced with the difficult task of ensuring a long-term legacy for the venues are more concerned that it does not become a monument to the hubris of those who bequeathed them the facility. The £268m structure, which has soared in cost from the £73m originally cited in London's bid book, will contain two 50-metre pools, a 25m diving pool and associated training facilities, and will fill a gaping hole in the provision of elite facilities for swimmers in the capital.

The tit-for-tat over the future of the Olympic Stadium has obscured the fact that the body responsible for deciding its future this week slipped out an invitation to tender for the Aquatics Centre. Thrown in at the deep end, Margaret Ford, the Olympic Park Legacy Company chair pondering offers for the stadium, is well aware the fractious debate over the future of the park will not end when either West Ham or Tottenham Hotspur get the nod.

For an event that was largely awarded on its legacy promises, the next few months will be key to deciding whether the 2012 Games will usher in the bold regeneration of London's East End and a string of first-class elite sport venues or an increasing drain on the public purse propping up a mixed bag of facilities.

The Aquatics Centre is the last venue to go to market and is potentially the most challenging in terms of making it work as a facility that can meet the needs of elite athletes and community users as well as bringing enough punters through the doors to pay its way.

"The difference between this and the Olympic Stadium is that there is a revenue stream from the stadium that enables us to make a loan," said Kim Bromley-Derry, the chief executive of Newham council.

"The aquatics centre needs a bit more work for us to ensure there is a revenue stream to ensure that we don't end up not just with a white elephant but one that costs us an awful lot of money to keep."

Following the Games, when capacity will be reduced from 17,500 to 2,500, the Aquatics Centre is not due to reopen until January 2014 and will cost an estimated £1m a year to run. According to its supporters, it will be a much-needed facility in a capital where Olympic-size pools are shamefully thin on the ground, acting as a magnet for the new generation of swimmers who will be inspired by the exploits of Rebecca Adlington and co, and as a facility for the wider community.

To its detractors, it risks being a beautiful but underused folly that will require a deep pool of public subsidy to operate and will not provide the means to attract the 800,000-plus annual visitors that the OPLC predicts in its memorandum of information.

The Aquatics Centre has a backstory as undulating as its roof. Envisaged from the start as the venue that would provide the "wow" factor the functional, clean lines of the stadium lacked, the costs began to soar almost as soon as the Hadid design was accepted. The design was inherited by the Olympic Delivery Authority, which immediately found it was too big for a constrained, contaminated site. The ODA has admitted that it has proved the most challenging of the venues on the Park, such is the complexity of the design and the difficulty of marrying that with the demands of Olympic organisers.

The cost increased by another £11m in the three months to November according to the latest figures, bucking the downward trend elsewhere on the Park.

A key bone of contention has been the provision of leisure facilities that might attract local users. Newham council was keen the ODA build into its design the possibility to add wave machines and slides. But because of the increased cost and the constraints of the building, the plea was ignored. Instead, those bidding for the pool will be asked to consider how they could provide "portable" leisure features to make it more attractive to families. "The existing plans for the Aquatics Centre have significant community facilities in them including two 50m pools, with moveable floors and booms to allow for teaching, a 25m diving pool and 2,500 seats," an OPLC spokesman said. "In addition, we are seeking an operator which will also provide a range of portable water features and inflatable equipment to maximise the leisure offer within the building."

David Sparkes, British Swimming's chief executive, said: "What we know is that to have some leisure water can be helpful but what is far more important is to have flexible water where we can change the depth. It [leisure water] would have been nice to have but I don't think it's critical to make the difference between it paying for itself and not."

The OPLC has accepted it will have to cross-subsidise the pool in some way, while ongoing funding will be required on an annual basis. Some of the £217m that Ford secured from the government to pay for post-Games conversion work may have to be offered to help sweeten the deal. But Sparkes cautions against a gloomy prognosis: "There is a cost to pools in the same way as there is a cost to libraries and museums. It's a public asset. There was never a moment when we didn't believe we would need a subsidy for the pool. Every public pool needs a subsidy."

The legacy planning had shown a "clarity of thought and purpose," he said. There are plans underway to bring the 2016 European Championships to London and Sparkes is convinced that the pool will prove a magnet for swimmers from the immediate vicinity and across London.

"This is without doubt, the finest pool in the country. It will be the Twickenham of swimming for many years to come. Where you build a fabulous facility, you drive people to that facility," he said.

"We want to be at the heart of this. Our challenge will be to manage that facility with the minimum cost to the public purse." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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