At Home in the Water, a new exhibition at Fabrica Gallery by artist Vanessa Daws, invites individuals to immerse themselves in the physical sensations of sea swimming; visitors walk into the blacked-out church building and are greeted by sea-green painted walls, a large line image of a swimmer, the mellow music of sea shanties, and the almost hypnotic visual art of Daws that dominates the space.
The experience leaves one with a feeling almost of sea-sickness, simultaneously contrasted with a sense of relaxation; the projected video paired with the near pitch-black setting demands the audiences complete attention, forcing them to block out their surroundings and fully surrender to the imagery of sea swimming, the monotonous movements of the long distance swimmer as she completes her voyage.
Ideas of heritage and local cultural history are of great importance within the exhibition; Vanessa takes her inspiration from the life of Brighton-based sea swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the channel in 1932. Despite her pioneering swimming legacy, little is known about the significance of Gleitze’s achievements; it was only in January 2022 that a blue plaque was unveiled at her birthplace, a house on Freshfield Road. To contextualize this arguably obscure inspiration, visitors are confronted with a variety of interviews and historical videos of local, Brightonian sea swimmers, their stories forming the foundation of Daws work. Brighton Sea Swimming Club is of special importance to the exhibition; founded in 1860, the club is thought to be England’s oldest swimming club, marking the extent of Brightons sea swimming heritage and history. At Home in the Water feels like so much more than just an art exhibition; through exploring it, visitors are exposed to a widely unknown history and legacy of Brighton, and the individual stories that shape it.
Within Vanessa’s video-artwork, the theme of long-distance swimming is explored from a more personal level, the project serving as a semi-autobiographical account of the physical and mental sensations and tolls associated with the marathon-style endeavors. Daws documents swimming not just as a sport but as a journey, an art practice, a mental and physical experience that takes one out of the body and into a new realm of experience, pushing one to their absolute limits of capability. This venture, as grueling and intense as it sounds, is one that Daws defines as a compulsion and a way of life, a way in which to feel something that is simply not possible on land. This video and exhibition forms part of a longer project from Daws, Swimming a Long Way Together, which documents these sensations through the lives of others within the sea-swimming community, bringing together individuals to celebrate this niche and all-consuming passion. The project, active across the UK, hosts a range of events and exhibitions, such as At Home in the Water, that aim to allow individuals, whether swimmers or not, to share in Daws love for the ocean.
Fabrica, located in the heart of Brighton and taking the form of an 1817 church building, The Holy Trinity Church, prides itself on offering accessible and free contemporary art exhibitions, workshops and activities. The building itself subverts all stereotypical ideas of the art gallery; there are no white washed walls, barriers protecting the art or complex language used to describe it, and visitors are invited to freely roam the building and its interactive exhibitions. It operates with an air of overwhelming acceptance, an eagerness to spread the joy of art with the local community; families are welcome, its volunteers are eager to talk at any length with visitors, and exhibitions vary in theme and change three times each year. Previous exhibitions include work by David Shrigley, a crazy golf course, and intricate projections of the murmurations, to name just a few. Its location leaves the gallery rather unknown to many locals; hidden in plain sight amongst cafes and shops, it wasn’t until last year, my third year of living in Brighton, that I visited for the first time. Beyond its standard exhibitions, Fabrica offers art workshops, film screenings, discussion groups, and workshops targeted at different groups. What sets it apart though is that the vast majority of their events are free or low-cost, their film programme for example often offering free tickets to under-25s, students and low-income individuals. Art is not gate-kept or exclusionary; instead, everyone is given an equal opportunity to engage in a realm that often feels out of reach, a breath of fresh air in the gallery world. For anyone interested in local heritage, visual art, or who simply needs a break from studying, I cannot recommend a visit enough.
At Home in the Water is open to visitors until 27th November, and is open Wednesday-Sunday, 12pm-6pm.
More information about Fabrica and their events can be found on their website – https://www.fabrica.org.uk
More information about the work of Vanessa Daws can be found on her website – http://vanessadaws.com/