The Swimmers is an on-going series, presented here as an archive of 25 large, limited edition photographs, depicting almost-life-size figures, standing alone in various urban and natural land- scapes. Liesching uses her swimmers to explore the link between space and identity and how we think of home. The work has grown out of a state of being that is a defining trait of Liesching’s generation: a sense of displacement, an awareness of foreignness and a search for belonging that cannot be tied to one fixed geographical or ideological place.
A longing to belong, a striving to find oneself in the world, is both the originator and the result of each wave of colonisation – ideological colonisation included – and the foundation of the post-colonial head space. In historical periods before ours, this impulse has been satisfied by a confidence in structures of power – be that the authority of teachers, the trustworthiness of policemen or the righteousness of our gender and racial groups. Our age, bent towards quick, easily-accessible information in vast quantities, has suffered from disillusionment in each and every one of the power structures that have been put into place to govern our lives.
Our sense of instability is heightened by the nature of the contemporary family1 which, whether the result of wilful curiosity or necessary acts of survival, is invariably dispersed across continents, with imaginary lines dividing them and ‘the sea …a splendid marker.’ 2 In our digital age, seemingly borderless electronic communications networks, fast-changing economies and the ease of world travel has increased the flow of migrants around the world. This, in turn, has intensifed demographic diversity in every country and triggered a weakening of national identities – as some will even assert, the weakening of a belief in the nation state itself.3 Ironically, this has resulted in a further lock down on security policies between international borders. Add to that the isolating tendencies of the mass media and the politicisation of most aspects of individual lives and we have a magnificent recipe for an identity lost within this maelstrom which we can, at the risk of reductionism, call “globalisation”.
Within the context of contemporary identity theory (and in the wake of Marx, Freud, Lacan, Saussure) it goes without saying that “identity” can be viewed as a fiction: a series of instances, narrating something that we believe to be an integrated self. This applies not only to individual or personal identity but also to the collective identities of various social and ethnic groupings of people on a global level. In seeking an understanding of the ways that identities have been formed before, I have found Stuart Hall’s comments useful, ‘[T]he great collective social identities which we thought of as large- scale, all-encompassing, homogeneous [and] unifed…which indeed positioned, stabilised, and allowed us to understand and read, almost as a code, the imperatives of the individual self…These collective identities were formed in…the huge, long-range historical processes which have produced the modern world.’4 It is inevitable that with the unravelling of the ‘modern world’, comes the destabilising – even obliteration – of an “authentic” identity which is static and rooted.
The Swimmers positions itself within this discourse. Although the photographs may be considered “portraits”, they do not attempt to accomplish the traditional5 aim of the genre – that being to capture and portray some sense of the sitter’s personality. The people in the images act as signs, pointing to a possible imaginary portrait of the collective psyche, as impacted by progress.
The practice of photographic portraiture has long been embroiled in the quest to define human identity, and one might even accuse the medium of assisting in the production of tie belief that people can be grouped into static onto- logical/anthropological types. For instance, in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, when the supposed objectivity of the photograph lent the visual studies a sense of authoritative scientific grounding, portrait photography undeniably assisted in the popularisation of the imperialist desire to categorise humanity into its various physiognomic categories. By the late 19th century photographers were traveling the globe in search of ethnographic subjects, creating human archives in the same way a botanist might put together an archive of fora. A classic example is Thomas H. Huxley’s system of 1869, for which the ‘various races of men’ were photographed naked, full- and bust-length, and adjacent to a ruler. Another is anthropologist John H. Lamprey’s use of a metrological grid against which subjects were photographed facing front and profile.6
The Swimmers – with their repeated full-body, frontal pose and blank expression – echo and parody this early use of photography, and I sometimes imagine them to be a mock archive of a certain “type” or a whimsical “documentation” of a newly evolved breed. Perhaps they are swimmers because the world is an ocean, or perhaps they are in fact displaced, as fish out of water. Either way, they are a collection of solitary characters exploring unknown territory. They are wanderers above the sea.
This unknown territory – be it increasingly unstable social and political circumstances, constantly shifting unknowable selves or ever-more complex spaces between fixed points of “reason” and “imagination” – alludes to the notion of the Romantic, or Kantian, Sublime. The sublime, according to McEvilley, is something ‘other than the ordered universe in which separate individuals live in societies together; it is vast, untamed, irrational and overpowering.’7 One’s experience of this unknown territory – or void – certainly incites both terror and delight. Many contemporary theorists have linked the notion of the sublime to the socio-political realm, noting that through man’s inability to truly comprehend and represent things-in-themselves, we can look at history critically. Here, the sublime creates the sublime. The Swimmers, a band of lone figures, extend themselves beyond melancholic horizons, hopeful in a ‘universe turned upside down and torn apart.’8
Again, I think of Stuart Hall and a pivotal question he poses: ‘Is there a general politics of the local to bring to bear against the great, over-riding, powerful, technologically-based, massively-invested unrolling of global processes? No, there is no general politics. It may be that all we have…is a lot of little local politics.’ We can no longer find ourselves in one singular narrative, but in many (sometimes conflicting) narratives. We exist in between debates, in between meanings, in between abstract binary opposites and perhaps we even revel in this. Hall follows his question with a request: ‘Well, I am going to tell you a story, and ask you to tell one about yourself.’9
Long before embarking on this series, I experienced an uncontrollable desire to stand at the shoreline; to look outwards on the dissolving of limits that separate me from those I love. This literal struggle – with the seeming impossibility of departures, arrivals or re-unions – turned into the driving force for these images. If the ocean is both the barrier and the passage, The Swimmers are those caught in that liminal space, where borders are constantly erased and redrawn.
text by Carla Liesching
- 1. I use the word “family” in a broad sense to refer to groupings of people, whether biological, national, racial or ethnic.
- 2. J. M. Roberts. 1985. The Triumph Of The West. London: British Broadcasting Association.
- 3. Gabriel asserts, in his “Globalisation, ethnic identities and the Media” (in Whitewash: Racialized politics and the media. 1998. London: Routledge), that a necessary distinction should be made between the terms “nation-state” and “nationalism”. While “nationalism” may be on its last legs, the ideological death of the “nation state” has been contested on the grounds that ‘the world economy, for all its transnational links, remains an inter(national) system.
- 4. S. Hall. 2000. “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities”. In L. Back & J. Solomos (eds.). Theories of Race and Rascism: A Reader. London: Routledge.
- 5. By “traditional” I refer to the dominant belief at the time of invention of the first photographic process, the daguerreotype in 1839. This came about at the height of what was called a physiognomic culture, dominated by the belief that a person’s face could reveal their true nature or “essence.” Photographs were thought to capture this “essence,” a belief that is, astonishingly, still wide- spread today.
- 6. F. Spencer. 1992. Anthropology and Photography 1860 – 1920. E. Edwards(ed). New Haven: Yale University Press
- 7. T. McEvilly. 1996. “Seeking the Primal through Paint: The monochrome icon”. In S Ostrow (ed). Capacity, History, the World, the Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism. Amsterdam: OPA (Overseas Publishers Association)
- 8. Psuedo-Longinus, as quoted in McEvilley’s “Seeking the Primal through Paint: The monochrome icon”.
- 9. From Hall’s “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities”.