During the hot summer days the big public pools of Tokyo, mostly situated in amusement parks, are completely overcrowded. To accommodate such a public there exist rules and orders, somewhat reminiscent of traffic laws. Generally the pool area becomes drown-out with voices from speakers and megaphones penalizing ill behavior, or stating commands in regards to safety. Because the pool is often too crowded many are forced to stand, and they are required to leave the pool almost every hour so the lifeguards may make a safety check. During these 10 min breaks the pool is searched for lost belongings or children. The break also serves to prevent drowning. When the pool is completely empty of people, the pool’s shape and blue color stand out. After 10 min the swimmers are allowed to return to the water and one hour later the clearing-out will be repeated.
Safety Hour, 2004, video stills
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 bathwalk 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.
Exhibition view, 'Dynamo-Eintracht', Dresdner Bank 30th floor, Safety Hour, Achille Lauro, 2004, Frankfurt/Main
2004, video installation, loop, color, sound
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.
The work Safety Hour be read as an allegory of the individual and collective fear of death. The supposedly safe pool, as an alternative to the nearby open sea with all its dangerous weather outbreaks, animals and currents, is addressed in regard to its insecurity. The human crowd, driven by the yearning for fun and recreation requires intricate safety concepts. Humans turn out to be their own danger and masses have to be transformed under the influence of fear.
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.
Jochen Volz, text fragment from ( I can swim home....)