Sonya Lacey: Bathers

17 March - 24 April 2021

Bathers presents footage shot at four pools located throughout the Wellington district: Freyberg Pools (Oriental Bay); Karori Swimming Pool; Tawa Pool; and the Wellington Aquatic Centre (Kilbirnie). Filmed in April when access to these facilities was prevented due to COVID-19 level four lockdown conditions, each work presents a range of vantage points captured from the exterior of these pools by Lacey on a 16mm Bolex camera.


In each work the footage is placed under specific stresses. In the four- channel work Dissolves, bands of colour slowly appear across each image. An incremental editorial dissolve is continually being enacted on each frame yet is never quite completed. Hues eventually register as softly focused surfaces, the bokeh of the lens and faint reflections of outdoor scenes. Through their static quality, the doubling of images heightens subtle murmurs of activity in each scene: a ripple of exposed surface water between pool covers, a jet of water bubbling to the surface, and what appears to be the flicker of a shutter or some other mechanical aberration. Each image is bathed in morning light, yet the unique combination of tones generated by the layering of transparent images introduces a toxic palette of colours which hints at the threat of contamination.


In the corresponding two-channel work Obstructions, new views of the same complexes are presented as images that have been irreverently cropped into a portrait format, making the film grain more pronounced. These micro views of the analogue footage allow Lacey to introduce different movements— to mechanically track across a static frame as if to survey a scene through a telescopic lens, as well as to emphasise the ways the architecture continually impedes and frames her point of view. In the reflections of some images there are intimations of recreational activities occurring nearby, people walking on the street, and so on. Considering the broad hours of access to these public facilities patrons typically enjoy, the unpeopled condition of these pools represents a series of impossible images under normal circumstances.


The final framed image, Dissolve, recalls two stills that we recognise from the four-channel work Dissolves. Retrieved from portions of the footage edited out of the moving image work, these high-fidelity scans are the most distressed images in the exhibition, being overexposed and showing signs of faulty chemical processing.


These chance-generated qualities recall Lacey’s interest in dissolving images through her process of washing and bleeding newspaper ink for Literals, her most recent exhibition at Robert Heald Gallery, and Weekend at The Dowse Art Museum (both 2018). While the works in this current exhibition document local recreational facilities under specific conditions, both the subject of public pools and the title ‘Bathers’ make direct connections back to these prior exhibitions.


The former works took interest in the history and social aspirations of the St Bride Foundation, founded in 1891 to provide leisure facilities and better the lives of workers in Fleet Street, London’s best-known newspaper and printing district. As well as their social imperative, Lacey was also interested in the infamous uncleanliness of the pools, which eventually contributed to their closure and the repurposing of the complex. Weekend included both murky abstractions developed out of these stories and still images of the pools which she captured in person in their current state, boarded off from the public.


As if to perform an inversion, this new body of locally sourced footage depicts the opposite situation. These highly sanitised and pristine pools are seen barred from public access during a time when social distancing was instated to contain community spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this new work, it is the interior that is preserved, while the exterior is subject to a communicable virus. Filmed in this state of being provisionally cordoned off from public use, it’s no mistake that the editorial trope which Lacey has applied to this footage has also shifted. For the former, Lacey employed the ‘wipe’, which within her footage was slowed in order to draw a physical analogy, a desire to clean, to sterilise, and to sanitise. In this instance, the centrepiece of the exhibition focuses on another editorial trope—the ‘dissolve’, which seems not only to be motivated by a formal enquiry into how a typically fleeting editing technique might be isolated, slowed and thereby greatly enlarged in an almost gestural manner, but might also be read as a slow spread or advancing contagion, a meditation on the fear that even the slightest trace of a defective molecule could undo the large-scale infrastructure deployed to contain the transmission of an invisible agent.


—Stephen Cleland, July 2020