The art of swimming
ARTIST, VANESSA DAWS TALKS TO JOHN MANNING ABOUT HER SWIM AROUND LAMBAY ISLAND AND HER DIVE TO THE WRECK OF THE TAYLEUR AND THEIR PLACE IN HER WORK
AN artist who was among the first to use a beautiful new studio at the old boathouse at Lougshinny beach has quite literally turned swimming into an art form. Vanessa Daws has always been inspired by water and her art has always reflected that but she chooses not to stand apart from her subject matter - she dives right in.
Vanessa explained her work to the Fingal Independent as we chatted in the idyllic surroundings of Loughshinny harbour on a crisp, sunny autumn morning outside the beautifully converted boat house that became the artist’s studio for three months, this summer.
Vanessa explained: ‘Well, I’ve always been a swimmer and my work has always been influenced by swimming and water for many years. But then swimming became the art practice. The way all my projects work is I start off responding to an area by swimming and normally swimming is a very social practice so I would swim with the local swimmers and from that the stories come and then the actual work itself.’
A lot of that work this summer has been centred around two important Fingal landmarks, one above the water line at Lambay Island and one deep below it, in the shape of the wreck of the ill-fated RMS Tayleur.
Talking about her Lambay project, Vanessa said: ‘ With my Lambay Trilogy project, the first swim we did was with the sea swimming community from Malahide at Low Rock. We did a journey and we swam one at a time, for 20 minutes at a time until we reached Lambay Island and that act was the work itself - but also from that I use photographs and video, I use sound and make installations and I make books. Stuff comes from the swim but the swimming is the research, the process and it’s also kind of the live event.
‘It’s not performance art because it’s not really about me swimming. It’s a response to the area and the water and it’s a social practice so I’d like to think I’m the least important element of the works.
‘I used to call it exploring place by swimming and then I explained that place could be the physical space or pushing our way through it with our arms or the literal space between the land and the water and it’s a social place and for me, swimming is totally about the swimming community and the Dublin sea swimming community are amazing.’
The artist hopes her work has a much broader appeal than those who know the peculiar joys of sea swimming though. She said: ‘ The swimming community have a high interest in it obviously because they are often in the work but I’d like to think it would reach out beyond that.
‘I just had a piece in the CHQ building off the Docklands Building in Dublin. I had four screen film of swimming the length of the Liffey from Heuston Bridge, all the way down. I got permission and worked with the Harbour-master to swim right down to Poolbeg Lighthouse. So I filmed the length of the Liffey from the point of view of the swimmer with a Go Pro camera on my head. It was in these windows, being back projected out to the streets so I was watching it for a few nights and lots of people were stopping to see it - the work is for everyone, hopefully.’
Water has always been a feature of her work, but it was the development of a particular piece of technology that allowed the artist to get in the water and make art. Vanessa explained: ‘I’ve always been mad for jumping in the water and representing the water in paintings and sculptures and things and using bits of film. But I guess, when I was in Kilkenny as an artist in residence in 2009 and Go Pros were just coming out on the market, I suppose that changed my practice a lot.
‘ The Go Pro allowed me to actually move with the camera and go places and journeys with it. I did a swim to work - an experiment in beating the morning traffic. When I was an artist in residence in Kilkenny they gave me accommodation about a mile down the river from where I was working so I just did this piece and that was the first time I filmed a swimming journey.’
After completing the team relay swim to Lambay with the Low Rock swimmers, Vanessa went on to swim solo from Low Rock to the island and in the third part of her trilogy of works, she recorded her circumnavigation of the island, the first swimmer on record to take that challenge on.
Vanessa told the Fingal Independent: ‘I was the first person recorded that has swum around it. And I also swam to it solo.’
She is not sure how the famous Lambay wallabies feel about her however, as he explained: ‘ The first time we did the collaborative swim to Lambay with the swimming community from Low Rock, we presented the work at Low Rock Beach.
‘We had a sound piece, story-telling and a little installation and invited the audience to swim - this is at seven in the morning. I had also ordered some wallaby burgers so we had a breakfast barbecue of Lambay wallaby burgers as we looked out to Lambay Island so I’m not sure the wallabies like me that much.’
The circumnavigation of the island was a huge challenge and took three hours and 17 minutes to complete. ‘I got stung by a Lion’s Mane in the first half hour. There is one side of the island where all the seals live and I knew that so I had a lot of company for that side,’ Vanessa explained.
Vanessa was one of a number of artists involved in a pilot artist-in-residence scheme at the newly converted boathouse in Loughshinny which was officially launched at the weekend and
is now seeking expressions of interest from new artists who want to work there.
Vanessa used the beautifully located studio for three months and it looked out to Lambay which had already become a focus of her work before she got to Loughshinny.
She said: ‘I was doing the Lambay project already and I am living in Sutton so I guess it just happened quite naturally that I heard about this place, so I applied. I think the fact that it was overlooking Lambay was why they gave it to me. I was here for three months and it was lovely.
‘I was working on the Lambay Trilogy. The three swims are done now and I’m trying to get a more substantial publication and a film work out of it so I’m still working on the final resolve of it. There were three Lambay swims. The first was the swim with the community at Low Rock, then there was my solo swim from Low Rock and the third one was the circumnavigation of the island.’
Vanessa was also working on a diving project to the wreck of the Tayleur, some of the results of which were displayed for locals at the studio over the weekend.
The artist explained: ‘When I was researching Lambay, somebody told me about the RMS Tayleur so I have done a project about the Tayleur as it is today. I was kind of thinking of it slightly differently to a shipwreck because a shipwreck wouldn’t be my normal subject matter - my work is quite celebratory and joyful and optimistic.
‘So, I was trying to think of the Tayleur as it is today in 2017, this body of iron, this object on the bottom of the ocean today and what it’s like.’
She added: ‘ The Tayleur was a terrible tragedy and you have to be respectful of that but I was more interested in the object and all the nature and the life that has now grown in and around it.’
The artist moves on to a city centre residency now but leaves with fond memories of the Lougshinny Boathhouse Artists’ Studio as she explained: ‘It was great being here, I would go out with The Frosties (a local sea swimming group) quite often and it was beautiful. ‘I got quite obsessed about the horses going into the sea - they’re beautiful. And you would get seals popping there head up and a certain time of day they would hang around for the fishing boats to come in.
‘ The studio is really valuable for the community, I would like to think. I got to talk to some of the people walking along here and a lot of the artists have been chatting to the people of Loughshinny. And it’s great for the artists too and if you are an artist that is interested in the ocean and the landscape, then it is perfect.’
THERE WERE THREE LAMBAY SWIMS. THE FIRST WAS THE SWIM WITH THE COMMUNITY AT LOW ROCK, THEN THERE WAS MY SOLO SWIM FROM LOW ROCK AND THE THIRD ONE WASTHE CIRCUMNAVIGATION OF THE ISLAND.
Vanessa Daws during her swim to Lambay Island.
Vanessa Daws at the Loughshinny Boathouse.