I CAN SWIM HOME....
Text by Jochen Volz
Coming from the woods, Ned Merill, who is wearing only bathing trunks, suddenly pops up in the garden of an acquaintance. He jumps into the pool, swims a few laps, and is then greeted by his friends: “Where have you been keeping yourself?”... “Oh here and there, here and there... what a day... have you ever seen such a glorious day?”
During the course of their conversation, Ned Merill comes up with the idea of swimming along an imaginary river, made up of a series of swimming pools located on various properties in the State of New York, all the way to his home. And so he sets off on a journey from pool to pool. The paths he chooses between the individual swimming pools are kept as short as possible. “If I take a dogleg south, I can swim home...”
Ned Merill’s itinerary through the properties and pools of his neighbours, friends and foes, resembles a rambling through the absurdities and perversions of a North American upper-class for which the private pool in one’s own backyard not only represents the promise of physical recreation but has meanwhile become the status symbol and the site of representation per se. On his trip across the “Lucinda River”, Ned Merill not only winds up in one pool after the next, he also attends party after party, one cocktail reception after the other. Here, a social class is depicted that is in love with itself and stupidly celebrates its own decadence. In this respect, Ned Merill’s endeavour of traversing each pool just once in a straight line is considered an affront.
“The Swimmer” by Frank Perry from 1968, featuring Burt Lancaster in the leading part, is the pivotal point of departure and, above all, the model motif of Sascha Pohle’s video film of the same title from 2002. In it, he again takes up the notion of a long river consisting of a series of pools. Sascha Pohle’s script, however, is based on a commonly-known catalogue of the Thomas Cook travel agency. The brochure for the 2001/2002 winter season starts with hotel offers on Tenerife, and then continues with Grand Canary, Fuerteventura, Lanzerote and Majorca, all the way to Morocco and Tunisia. If you browse through the catalogue, all pages appear quite similar: the advantages and prices of the hotels are offered in short descriptions and tables, a few photos additionally give an impression of the grounds or the apartments. What strikes one is that with all contracted hotels the swimming pool stands at the centre, to such a degree that it is presented in a larger view and in several detailed views. The pool always seems to be the heart of the entire grounds, serving to manifest and transport the holiday feeling. The image of the pool conveys a notion of luxury and exclusivity aimed at luring the future holidaymaker.
In his one-hour video film, Sascha Pohle himself sets out on a trip from pool to pool. In accordance with the travel brochure, he starts with the swimming pool of Studios Palmeras Playa in Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife, and from there goes on to the Hotel Tenerife Playa, then to the Hotel San Telmo, etc., until, after 44 swimming pools, he traverses the pool of the Apartements Ten Bel Maravilla, the last hotel on Tenerife offered in the catalogue. The film then ends, but the end is more like a caesura, because the odyssey through the various pools could of course immediately continue on Grand Canary.
While the motif of swimming through a series of pools (based on a short story by John Cheever) strongly determines the actual narrative frame in Frank Perry’s film, guiding the protagonist from one stop to the next and ultimately confronting him with his own reality as well, Sascha Pohle’s adaptation almost entirely formalises this frame. Apart from a few exceptions, Pohle works with a fixed camera, usually even from a bird’s-eye perspective. The motionless camera renders a total view of the pool. Then, the figure of the artist appears at one edge of the picture, he walks to the pool, jumps in and swims one lap, and in the end walks out of the frame in the opposite direction. The procedure is then repeated at the next pool.
In a quite unique way, Sascha Pohle succeeds in evoking a subtle disturbance by means of this simple and repetitive narrative structure, and especially through his performative stringency on the locations. Even more so than in Frank Perry’s original, the targeted traversing of the pool and the social space belonging to it – without making contact with other guests – bluntly contradicts the actual characteristic of a pool area. As one can gather from travel brochures as well as from Sascha Pohle’s shots, all pools try to arouse the feeling of a secluded and thus cultivated and safe place, as opposed to the ocean which is nearby but wild. The small holiday cosmos surrounding the pool is put in question by Sascha Pohle’s intervention.
Sascha Pohle already dealt with travel prospectuses in earlier works, in particular with the phenomenon of the hotel pool. In a series of photo-collages, he examined the shapes of various swimming pools, for instance, and, in the process, developed a genealogy of freely-designed pool landscapes which he traced back to the archetype of a clover as the symbol of happiness. When viewing “The Swimmer”, however, one starts to recognise the pool in all its absurdity: Why does the swimming pool appear more attractive than the sea? Why are some pool landscapes laid out as lavishly as if they were meant to replace Tenerife’s original landscape, which has indeed made way for the huge hotel complexes? Why do fresh-water pools appear so luring, refreshing and invigorating, although their chlorinated and cleaned water is in fact dead? Why does one travel to Tenerife, if the pool in Cypriot Paphos really looks just the same?
In addition to this critical questioning of the holiday situation by the pool, Sascha Pohle’s film possesses a further narrative dimension. Shot long before the main season, one often sees in the video the artist himself as the only guest. But yet everything is to a large extent set up to attend to the awaited crowds. And so the film and its protagonist, who has made it his absurd task to swim in sequence through all the pages of an arbitrarily chosen travel prospectus already outdated once the season is over, is characterised by a sad mood. The motif of solitude in Sascha Pohle’s performance and in the resulting film – with its endless and equally senseless mission – becomes the melancholic allegory of the work of the artist. Pohle is successful in revealing with particularly fine irony the artistic working method in his film: He swims through the pools that indeed invite one to linger, but hardly anyone will have noticed his strategy, as pools are usually made for swimming. He works on making his project a success, while the other guests by the pool relax from work, but no one will have perceived his work as work, because swimming in a pool is indeed associated with holidaymaking.
The work “Safety Hour” from 2003, a series of three short films edited to loops, also focuses on the pool. This time, however, it is not the artist himself who appears as the protagonist, but an anonymous crowd of bathing guests. All three films were again shot by a fixed camera that more or less gives an overview of the entire arrangement of pools. In one of the video films one sees a quite expansively laid-out bathing facility, consisting of a central pool surrounded by a second band-like pool – similar to an athletics track in a stadium. The pools are overcrowded, so that in the film one can hardly see the water. Instead, one sees thousands of heads merely discernable as dots moving in a pre-given direction in the central pool as well as in the surrounding band-like pool. The bathers cannot really be perceived as individual beings in the film, but rather as a crowd moving rapidly in one direction and revealing an almost hysterical activity. One may be reminded of being on the top of a very high building looking down at the hustle and bustle below. It can be clearly made out that the people in these pools are not swimming, but walking. There is simply be no room to swim or dive. Crowded together closely, the bathing guests march in circles next to or behind each other. But all of a sudden, within an instant, the pool is abandoned. Everyone hurries to the side of the pool and gets out of the water. The pools then remains empty for a while, except for a group of divers clad in uniforms who traverse the basin with powerful strokes. Then a short signal is heard, and within just a few seconds the pool is full again, and the innumerable black dots continue with their bath-walk in one direction.
In another film of this series, one is presented with a frontal view of a large number of bathers crowded together, all seeming to look to the camera in expectation. Then huge, artificially created waves begin swaying the crowd of people, who cry for joy. The individual bathers are only lifted slightly by the waves, as there is no room to actually play with the waves. After a few minutes, the ocean-imitating function of the pool is stopped, and the collective wave euphoria gradually fades. Some of the bathers then leave the pool and turn to their families or friends, before again indulging in the waves.
The third film of the series was shot with a static camera from the edge of the pool, so that the viewer can now really distinguish individual persons. The frame depicts the bathers inside as well outside the pool. Again, the choreography of the events is determined by the common direction of movement. And once more, everybody is suddenly leaving the pool simultaneously. One now can see them standing along the pool, desperately wanting to get back in.
These short films were all shot on location at various swimming baths in Tokyo. During the hot summer days, these baths are so overcrowded that certain rules and regulations, which are partially reminiscent of motor vehicle regulations, had to be put in place. The pools are actually emptied completely on a regular basis, in order to search the bottom for drowned children or lost valuables. After several minutes, when the safety guards have finished their patrol and left the pool, the bathers are allowed to enter the water again for one hour.
The title of Sascha Pohle’s work, “Safety Hour”, refers to these safety measures which appear strange to Western European viewers, because by accepting these measures a completely different understanding of refreshing water, of relaxed weightlessness in the water, of a physical experience and of physical recreation obviously manifests itself. Western Europeans may find it inconceivable to spend a Saturday afternoon in direct bodily contact with other bathing guests, shoving through highly chlorinated water that is overheated due to the many bathers. And of course the question can be posed, whether the bathing experience in the water has been replaced by a motion experience in a large crowd of bodies. Elias Canetti’s claim that the human crowd is only bearable when one is part of the crowd seems to be proven again here (Elias Canetti, Crowd and Power, London 1962).
Sascha Pohle’s films, however, are not comparative anthropological studies, precisely for the reason that his choice of the camera angle renders an overview and thus remains at a distance to the individuals. “Safety Hour” is not concerned with examining Japanese bathing culture. Instead, the pool is presented as a general metaphor, as an allegorical image. The onrush of masses can therefore also be interpreted as the image of an overall social phenomenon.
One of the most beautiful illustrations of the fountain of youth in the form of a real pool in the modern sense can be found with Lukas Cranach the Elder. The painting from 1546 is in the possession of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Older women come or are brought by relatives from a barren mountain landscape on the left-hand side of the picture. Hopeful and hesitant, they approach the large basin, in the water of which they increasingly rejuvenate. They come out of the water on the right side of the basin as young women. Newly clad und embellished, they indulge in the joys of life and ultimately disappear in the green and fruitful landscape on the right-hand side of the painting. A similar collective yearning luring Cranach’s women to the fountain of youth – men, by the way, did not need to visit the fountain of youth in Cranach’s illustration, because it was assumed at the time that they would rejuvenate merely by socialising with young women – must also motivate the visitors of the swimming pool in a Tokyo leisure park; the common longing for uplift and fun as a magnet for thousands. But the scenes at the pool remind one much more of a plunge into hell by Rubens or of the many and varied illustrations of the damned entering hell, than of Cranach’s dulcet scenario.
With “Safety Hour”, though, Sascha Pohle manages to draw a picture of society that is very peaceful on the outside and in which humans turn out to be their own hazards. While in “The Swimmer” Pohle examines various hotel pools in their peaceful seclusion as the promise of a safe alternative to the nearby open sea with all its dangerous weather outbreaks, animals and currents, in “Safety Hour”, the supposedly safe pool itself, in which waves have to be generated artificially, is addressed quite directly in regard to its insecurity. It is the human crowd, driven by the yearning for fun and recreation, that requires intricate safety concepts, so that people don’t trample each other to death. In Sascha Pohle’s work, the pool time and again serves as a model, and the recordings of the observed phenomena surrounding the pool in Tokyo can therefore be read as an allegory of the individual and collective fear of death.
The work “Achille Lauro”, through its title, again takes up these aspects of security, collective and individual fear, and the common longing for pleasure, refreshment and fun. The work comprises a series of photo-montages of beach scenes set against an ocean backdrop, as if the beaches were freely drifting on the open sea. One can conclude from the rough screen pattern of the picture surfaces that the individual elements were enlarged. In fact both the beach details and the ocean photos were taken from found travel prospectuses. All sheets of this series are presented as black-and-white prints. Detached from their advertising context, the portions of beach appear as large floating bodies; their irregular rectangular shapes as well as the systematic arrangement of the depicted beach furniture make them look like aircraft carriers out on the sea. The collage technique isolates these beaches from their geographical and architectural contexts, and they thus turn into abstract shapes against a mostly monochrome background.
Upon the arrest of Mohammed Abu Abbas in Baghdad in April, 2003, and the subsequent international quarrels over the place of jurisdiction, the name “Achille Lauro” once again appeared in the media. At the beginning of October, 1985, the public all over the world was held in suspense for days, when four underground fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF), led by Abu Abbas, violently seized control of the cruise ship “Achille Lauro” and hijacked it with 511 passengers on board. The luxury liner was on its way to a ten-day cruise from Genoa to Alexandria via Port Said. The hijack and the threat to blow up the ship were to force the release of 50 Palestinians from Israeli confinement. After four days of negotiations, the ship arrived at an Egyptian port, where the hijackers surrendered to the authorities. Only then did it become known that they had shot dead the 69-year-old American citizen Leon Klinghoffer and thrown him overboard on his wheelchair. The U.S. government then intervened in the affair and with the help of their air force coerced the Egyptian passenger plane, on which the terrorists were to be flown to Tunis, to land in Sicily. Some newspapers reported on this military action under the headline “The Hijack of the Hijackers”. An Italian court sentenced the terrorists to prison. Mohammed Abu Abbas, however, who was the string-puller of the action but not on board the “Achille Lauro”, was released and only one year later sentenced in absence to life imprisonment, a sentence he will now most likely have to serve. After these events, the ship “Achille Lauro” continued to go on cruises until 1994, when it completely burned out on sea. It now lies on the bed of the Indian Ocean as a wreck.
Until today, the hijack of the “Achille Lauro” is regarded as one of the first planned attacks on tourists, making it clear that even a peaceful cruise on one of the largest tourist ships, promising comfort, luxury and recreation, can become the target of terrorists. Although, historically seen, the hijack of the “Achille Lauro” was only one link in a long and gruesome chain of actions and counteractions in the Middle East conflict, its name is certainly associated with the fear of terror. Collectively coming to terms with this fear has led to the production of a television film of the same name in 1990, in which Hollywood star Burt Lancaster, of all people, played the role of the murdered American tourist Leon Klinghoffer. In March of 1991, parallel to the war on Iraq, the Belgian Monnaire Theatre then staged the world premiere of the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” by the American composer John Adam. And in the summer of 2003, the story again hit the screens in the form of Penny Woolcock’s filming of the opera.
The 1985 ship hijack and of course the many and oftentimes cruel events of the past years have changed the understanding of travelling and holidaymaking in a fundamental way. Each summer, flocks of tourists are directed around current crisis regions; by means of suspense and compassion, the world-wide public follows the hand-over of hostages to the embassies of one native country or the other. It is precisely this urgent need of all holidaymakers for calmness, peace and recreation that has become one of the most sensitive points in a given society. Hakim Bey describes the situation of the tourist and his counterpart in terms of self-understanding, the terrorist, as follows: “The real place of the tourist is not the site of the exotic, but rather the no-place place (literally the “utopia”) of median space, liminal space, in-between space - the space of travel itself, the industrial abstraction of the airport, or the machine dimension of plane or bus. So the tourist and the terrorist ... suffer an identical hunger for the authentic ... The tourist destroys meaning, and the terrorist destroys the tourist.” (Hakim Bey, Overcoming Tourism)
With his works, Sascha Pohle repeatedly succeeds in making a huge net of questions reverberate, without ever being explicit, though. The films as well as the works on paper are sober and subtle. Only because the film lasts one hour does “The Swimmer” really make experienceable the absurdity of the endeavour and thus its power. The film series “Safety Hour” is a matter-of-fact recording of choreographies at a public site which, as safety measures, are meant to protect people from themselves. And with its interplay of travel brochure, aircraft-carrier aesthetics and highly sensitive work title, the series of abstract photo-montages reveals itself as a refined commentary on a political and social situation in which interests seem to have become irreconcilable.