In Aqua Vitae. eight artists tackle the subject of water. source oflife. mythology and. for Brian Jenkins, fear. Carl Honore’ talked to him about swimming. nudity and voyeurism.
Brian Jenkins has learned to like swimming again. Confined to a wheelchair. he was always uneasy with childhood outings to the seaside and the local pool. Apart from the awkwardness ofnudity. there was the unsettling business ofdrifting beyond his depth. ‘lt was a kind ofphobia. particularly when l was floating free in the water and not supported.‘ By working that phobia into his art. he has finally come to grips with water. The ‘watcrway‘ is the theme of the Aqua Vitae exhibition showing at Stills and Street Level galleries. ()nce arteries of the industrial economy. the canals that crisscross Scotland are now largely an uncherished memory. Using abandoned waterways as a jumping-off point. a handful of artists explore the different phenomena evoked by water: erosion. rejuvenation. menace. metamorphosis. the passing oftime. memory.
There are battered archival pictures of functioning
canals; brooding black and white photographs of forsaken waterways: depictions of modern settings splattered with a watery blue film: and even
photographs ofwater samples. As always. Jenkins
gently inserts the notion ofdisability. He tries to wake the able-bodied from complacency. In an earlier exhibition. punters
were obliged to negotiate a series of ramps. By stuffing a ‘piss bag‘ with pot-pourri and pinning it
to a gallery wall. he turned upside down the usual preconceptions about the secret side of disability.
. The ‘stench‘ emitted by the bag caught people off
guard and roped them in for a closer look. His art
is always close to the bone. ‘lt all ties in with things
in my past — relationships. actually pissing yourself . at school. the stigma.‘
His contribution to Aqua Vitae is even more
intimate. Inside tanks full ofwater. underwater
photographs ofJenkins swimming in a pool are suspended by bits ofwire. There is an engaging ambiguity. Jenkins‘s identity is partly obscured by a billowing white T-shirt. yet his withered legs are sometimes discernible. His tight. even embarassed. contortions push the work beyond a straightforward disabled agenda: ‘It deals with disability with a small ‘d‘. A strong ambivalence about water is something we all share.‘ At a glance. he could be any waterphobe.
In some ways. water is the great leveller. Not
‘ only are we all two-thirds HzO. but swimming
gives everyone a kinship with the physically disabled. Who isn't self-conscious inside a tiny
Lu} .. M bathing suit‘.’ And who has never recoiled from the swelling power of the sea‘.’ As Jenkins points out. disability need not be visible. ‘ln something as public as a pool. everyone has to accept their own differences and try to feel comfortable in the water.’
Jenkins is also fascinated by the peering curiosity of the British. ‘We have a preoccupation with what other people’s bodies look like and what goes on in their private lives. Just look at the tabloids.‘ Immersed in undulating water. the photographs invite closer inspection. To make out the blurry images. you have to perform a parody of the furtive glances fired at the disabled every day in the street. ‘I like that idea of people really gazing through water. that voyeurism.‘
Staring through water in order to contemplate a contemplation of somebody else bobbing about in
ON FOLLOWING PAGES: SCOTLAND OBSERVED O OEJEUNER SUB L’
Woiiiing wittiwater: Kevin MaoLean's poetic images were made along the salmon rivers ot eastern Scotland.
I water is appealing enough. but where is the link
I with waterways'.’ Apart from a couple of photographs ofcanals in Jenkins‘s native Falkirk. the connection is more abstract. The waterway‘s struggle in post-war Britain is a metaphor for Jenkins‘s own battle with water: his memories of playing alongside defunct canals are intertwined with memories of harrowing visits to the pool. Discovering a taste for swimming won‘t erase them either: ‘You go on remembering these things.‘
Aqua Vitae is at Stills Gallery. Edinburgh (Martin (Ireenhaulgh. Jim Hamlyn/A nnette Heyer. David l’eaeer ( ‘aml Haddow). and Street Level Gallery. (Jalsgow ( Rory Donaldson. Brain Jenkins. Kevin i'l/Iael.ean), until I (5 Jan. The venues exchange artists for the second part ()fthe sho w, 23 J an—2 7
The List 18 December] 992 anuary 1993 65