Source of Life, Reflection of Death (Swimming Pool by Oleg Soulimenko)

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Brut Wien, a renowned venue for independent performing arts, recently hosted another memorable event: in January and February 2018 Oleg Soulimenko presented his controversial performance Swimming Pool in Jörgerbad, one of the oldest indoor swimming pools in Vienna.

                                       

What we saw can be hardly described in words, but once you’ve seen it, you can’t help giving it a try.

Water has innumerable connotations and associations both in lore, metaphysics and our own perception. Its ability to reflect and to distort, to pacify and to disturb, to reveal and to conceal, to yield and to resist, to revive and to destroy, this intrinsic quality of contradiction was presented to us in all possible aspects and dimensions by Oleg Soulimenko and his crew.

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Seen and Unseen

All the audience is involved into the performance, and as soon as you are there, you are inside. You can walk about, look around you, up or down, choose your own viewpoint. You can do as you please, and choice defines what you will see – and what you will not. Very much like our everyday experience of interacting with the tangible, of operating among the three Cartesian coordinates, isn’t it? And, in a strikingly similar fashion, the space around you starts playing tricks on your perception. It defies the three dimensions. It doubles, reflected; it casts shadows and presents to you things beyond your interpretation. Just like in life, you don’t know what you are missing, and you have no idea what goes on where you can’t see it. The action takes place simultaneously in different places, and some of them are outside the reach of your eye, say right above your head in the upper gallery, or under the surface of the water at the other end of the pool, playing you so aptly that you start questioning your own perception. What really walks up there, what lies beneath the water? Not to scare, but to remind you how intricate the fabric of existence actually is, how many nooks and crannies there are, and how minuscule what we see is comparing with what we don’t. The glimpse of someone’s bare arm under the water shimmering the way you can’t quite see might be a mermaid, that cloud of something indefinite hopefully made of paint (is it? is it?) might as well be Chtulhu rising, and you can only guess why people on the other side of the pool gaze at something above your head you will never see. But what we do see, how much true is it to what we expect to be reality?
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Whole and Broken

The surface of the pool mirrors the solid objects above it. The rippling glimmer of the water casts doubt upon their very solidity. When objects or performers enter the water, their shapes shift. People get in, and we see their bodies, only a second before so perfect, distorted in every possible way. They appear two-headed, growing flippers, with grotesquely shortened limbs, bizarrely twisted, squeezed or blown out of proportion. Paint is poured, adding to the confusion of not seeing the habitual. Beautiful men and women emerge from water that now comes up to their waists, and what we see above is so familiar, so warm, so human, - while below the surface their contorted bodies are those of marble sculptures from the time and land unknown. It’s refraction, we remind ourselves. Mere refraction and tricks of light. We know what those people and things look like in reality, don’t we? Do we? However, air refracts light too, and we can never be sure if the familiar is ever what it seems. Beauty and life reflected in water or refracted by water, beauty and life reflected by the eye and refracted by air, do they have anything in common with what they are when the light is off? “The face of your friend may be quite different in the dark”, says a G.K.Chesterton character. Everything we perceive is distorted by our own perception, by the play of light and shadows; the crooked mirror of the water makes us wonder about the true shape of the so-called reality.
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Live and Dead

Blood is poured in the water, it’s only paint, we tell ourselves and body bags , no, no, only trash bags are floating on its surface. Water always means life; water always means death is one step away; water means the border is thin. Young Ophelia is standing on the pool edge, dressed in white. She adds a discordant note, putting on something garishly colored, reminding us of the breach in the fabrics of existence that is the fragile borderline between life and death. She floats in the water, the colored coat opening and spreading around her, like Ophelia’s flowers: rosemary for remembrance, memento mori. More performers swim underwater, shipwrecked or drowned, and then alive again. Everyone keeps dressing, undressing, changing, getting in and out the water clothed or naked. These are stages of existence, switching between life and death. A girl paints her face white, denying us her vitality; Oleg Soulimenko himself takes off his shirt, denoting change, Oliver Angel swims naked as we come into this world, reinforcing our sense of mortality. Only the living can die, every change is a step, and every step we take gets us closer to the end. The end comes with the pool being gradually covered, the swimmers getting pushed further and further towards the edge… and as a radiant closing note they all get out. We are all alive, after all.
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Clear and Confusing

What did we see, clear and confusing as water alone may get? The arched hall of the pool is reminiscent of a cathedral; by inevitable association, this is a place destined to reveal rather than to conceal – but to reveal things that surpass, extend our everyday experience and common comprehension. The pool became such a space, first dissociating and then re-associating the fabric of reality, a space where all coherence is abandoned and then brought back to us, reassembled. In this tangle of revelations and apparitions, we were confronted by the categories of our existence, reflected and distorted. We were reminded that our personal perception may be but the reflection of shadows reflected in water. They are here one moment and gone the next, obliterated by the cover on the surface of the pool, leaving us puzzled and enlightened, exhausted and replete, wistful and inspired.
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Performers: Oleg Soulimenko, Nanina Kotlowski, Johanna Nielson, Oliver Angel, Daria Nosik , Jasmin Hoffer and others.
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