The space is empty, the pool has long since been drained and the tiles are covered in dirt, the ubiquitous turquoise paintwork is peeling and the silent emptiness fills the space which was once alive with chatter, laughter, the splashing of water and the shouting of the lifeguard to try hopelessly to stop the children dive bombing each other., so hopeless that you wonder why he bothers (apart from Health and Safety).
The Whitechapel Pool, built in 1901 with philanthropic funding, was once the heart of the community at a time when baths and swimming pools were funded by private individuals and local authorities alike. The diving board was removed years ago as a safety hazard and today the pool sits empty, having suffered the fate of many other such swimming pools, said by local authorities to be little-used and too expensive to maintain, despite the obvious value to community, health and well-being. Swimming pools are expensive to maintain, but think of the benefits they provide. Must everything be driven by costs in this era of austerity and uncertainty?
This forlorn space awaits its future fate. Will it be saved or will it end up on the demolition skip?
Whitechapel Pool of course does not exist; it is an installation by the Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset at the Whitechapel Gallery as the first room of the exhibition ‘This Is How We Bite Our Tongue’ which shows some 20 years of work by the duo, focussed on issues of politics, society, religion, childhood, sexuality and of empowerment and disempowerment in the society in which we live as those in control try and persuade us that they know what is best for us, while we are brow-beaten into silence.
Scattered around the pool are other works – a changing room door which has hinges and handles on both sides and had therefore become totally dysfunctional – what should be somewhere to enter to prepare for the swim ahead is now totally closed; a classical statue which once stood proud and valiant but now lies broken and decaying, a heavy meteorite which has crashed onto a trampoline and also represents the battle for the perfect body and the perfect world, while two urinals connected by intertwined drain pipes take Duchamp’s ceramic ‘Fountain’ and shape it into the modern world of gay marriage. And where have the two individuals gone who have left their trousers and Calvin Klein’s behind? On one side is a gallery space; on another is an office. Are they hiding in there or did they once swim in the pool downstairs?
Upstairs the exhibition continues with ‘Self Portraits’ of artists which the duo have been inspired by being represented by their exhibition labels and the last room has a series of sculptures, spot-lit in the darkness, that leave you deeply worried.
This is an exhibition which leaves you with lots of questions, and lots of worries. The good news is that communities are fighting back and taking control. One such example is the Govanhill Baths in Glasgow, where I swam as a youngster. Opened between 1912 and 1919, and Glasgow’s last surviving Edwardian public bathhouse, they were closed in 2001 by those who knew best in the City Council, but were the focus of a major, concerted and tough campaign by the local community against the city decision-makers, who had the resources of the police to call on, to retain and refurbish the building not just as a swimming pool but as an arts, community, theatre and music venue – which has even been the location for a wedding!
Now being developed as funding allows by the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, in an area where the community is in desperate need of such facilities, the renaissance of these baths is a beacon for the future.