‘Pools’, catalogue essay for Marcia Lochhead, Canberra Contemporary Arts Space, May, 2004.

Like most Australians, Marcia Lochhead loves swimming. Her body and soul need the cathartic grip of plunging into cold water, the amniotic experience of immersion, and the astringency of chlorine drying on skin.

Nothing more natural, then, than to document the pools of Canberra, where she lives and swims. She approaches her subject with a casual familiarity. Although all of her pools are unoccupied, she has not photographed them with an eye for the ennui of nothingness or the irony of emptiness, like many other documenters of the contemporary suburban landscape. Nor, like some other conceptual photographers, is each pool added to a pre-determined formal series in an identically composed and lit shot. In some of her images, such as the atmospheric night-time shot of Canberra’s oldest and most fondly remembered pool, the art deco Manuka pool[i], we are taken down almost to water level, as though readying ourselves to swoosh out into the water. In other images, such as of the aerial obstacle course suspended above the brutally utilitarian Australian Defence Force Academy pool, the extraordinary ceilings almost invite us to float on our backs beneath the echoes. Undisturbed by swimmers, the surface of each pool becomes both mirror and glass, quietly slipping reflections of its surrounds back into the water.

Her image of the daggy Captains Flat pool most closely reflects my own pool memories. When I was growing up, my local council pool was nothing more than a wedge of Harpic blue incised into a flat acre of parched grass, surrounded by a cyclone wire fence. Back in those pre-cancerous times the only person offered any shade was the bloke who sold you the tickets and the Paddle Pops.  Now shade-cloth, and even trees, surround our outdoor pools. But they still follow a seasonal cycle. Photographed in stand-down mode the Jamison pool gracefully collects autumn leaves as its water thickens to an opalescent green for the winter.

Indoor pools follow other, more institutional, cycles. The sleek Parliament House pool is out of bounds when Parliament is sitting, in case a Member needs to re-centre themself. The pool at the Australian Institute of Sport was built because our medal haul at the 1976 Montreal Olympics wasn’t up to our own opinion of ourselves. The public can swim in that pool, under its huge exhortatory Australian flag, all year round. Except, of course, when our current medal hopefuls are training.

In Australia, swimming in pools is not a privilege, or an occasional indulgence, it’s a national right. Our first international swimming star, Annette Kellerman, is even reputed to have said, “there is nothing more democratic than the public swimming pool”. We are brought closer to our fellows at a pool than anywhere else, even perhaps the dance floor. In the changing room we see them shuck off their clothes and step into their togs (or their bathers, or their swimmers, depending on which state you come from). Then, safe in the carefully balanced chemical asepticity of the pool’s water, we happily swim amongst floating tendrils of their phlegm. But this lubricious democracy, like all democracies, is still regulated by wavering, deeply-immersed lines of demarcation. Pools not only recall our private sensual experiences, they also record our society and our history.

For instance, in 1965 the citizens of Moree were prepared to defend their apartheid council regulation, which banned aborigines from using the town swimming pool. When the student Freedom Ride bus returned to the town for a second attempt to have kids from the local aboriginal reserve admitted to the pool, a crowd of 500 town’s people quickly gathered outside the pool to scream obscenities and spit at the students, while the mayor waded amongst the students yanking them away by the scruffs of their necks. After three hours the barrage of rotten eggs and fruit finally forced the students to retreat to the Freedom Ride bus, to be escorted out of town by the police.[ii]

In 1994, Fitzroy’s literati swung into action when Jeff Kennett’s newly appointed commissioners for the City of Yarra decided, because it wasn’t making money, to close the Fitzroy Pool. After thousands of people rallied, and hundreds filled the empty pool for an evening-news helicopter shot, the commissioners backed down.[iii]

The moral dilemma Australia has most keenly grappled with over the last few years was not over going to war, or accepting refugees, but a matter of pool etiquette. After Ian Thorpe accidentally tumbled into the pool and disqualified himself, should Craig Stevens surrender his 400 metres freestyle Olympic berth to increase Australia’s chances of medalling? The answer was obvious from the start: the end justifies the means.

Pools bring us close to the turbulent heart of Australia.

Martyn Jolly

[i] Clive Harvie, That’s where I met my wife: a story of the first swimming pool in the National Capital at Canberra, 1994.

[ii] freedomride.net

[iii] “Drowning By Numbers”, Ian Walker, Background Briefing, ABC Radio National, Sunday 29 November 1998, available at ABC online.

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