Janice Kerbel @ Western Baths
The Common Guild gallery invites Janice Kerbel to create a visual art project for the festival accompanying the 2018 European Championships; the result is an elegant statement on the power of collective action
Responding directly to its European Championships context, Kerbel has created a synchronised swimming routine for 24 swimmers. Even for those who might not have seen enough synchronised swimming to know that this number is three or four times the average professional team, the performers (all professional-level swimmers) together make up a formidable squad.
A beeping soundtrack sounds 120 beats per second, as the swimmers sit still in two rows facing forward. The first swimmer enters the water, taking her place, then a second, coming in gradually before they’re joined en masse by the rest of the first half of the team. Without looking at one another, they arrange in a parquet-like pattern. They presumably hear the high pitched metronome through the water; their ears are submerged.
Moving consistently to the rhythm, at one point the swimmers kick together every fourth beat, setting a militaristic marching pace. There’s a shift to this as the second half of the team enter the water under their teammates near the surface. The new set begin to corkscrew their feet in the air, rising and dipping as one. In their one-shoulder swimsuits, the performers could be the breath marks of musical notation (from the balcony, their precise inhales and exhales can be seen clearly).
By the time the syncopated splashing begins, the full force of the 24 swimmers comes with more movements than the eye can track. While the swimmers were arranged in abstract tableaux before, they’re now in a more confounding arrangement: kicking up, fully turning in the water, sinking and rising. Order has not been lost, but become complex. As they kick out and vigorously turn without clashing, the routine splashily crescendoes in volume. In an emotional climax, the performers’ elegance and vigour and poignantly demonstrate the power of graceful collective action and the transcendent capabilities of the body.