still: Acclimatisation


A photograph  of the artist who as a qualified  swimmer  obeys the rules overseen by official bodies, The Channel Swims and Piloting Federation or Channel Swimming Association. That hierarchy  is somewhat undermined by her  determined stare  signalling her being in control. That  is a salient point of the whole enterprise.  On one hand she learns the rules and skills to achieve a prescribed goal in the process which has a clear beginning and end.  On the other, she swaps that for an installation in an art gallery, no clear end, nor guaranteed achievement.



“In the hierarchy of channel swimming there is also a King and Queen of The Channel, the man and woman who have each swum the channel most times” (Press release) The gently poetic and slightly humorous neon  crown rewards dedication, discipline and commitment, and is  – not  wearable, being attached to a lead and suspended in the air.  Instrumental value of its origin is for grabs, viewers of the exhibition took selfies as if wearing it.

The gallery press release below identifies the exhibition and the artist as belonging to a set of habits and skills – all connected to swimming.




Nothing Great is Easy

Lisa Stansbie

5 – 26 September

Opening 6-9pm, Thursday 4th September

Nothing Great is Easy is an exhibition of sculpture, film, drawing and photography that proposes reconstructed narratives using the sport of swimming and in particular the collective interaction and identity of the channel swimmer. The work utilises the processes, rituals/rules, language and the apparatus of sport.

“Nothing great is easy” are the words on the memorial to Captain Matthew Webb who was the first man to swim the English channel in 1875.

Lisa Stansbie is an artist whose work crosses the disciplines of film, sculpture, installation, photography and digital practices. Stansbie has undertaken residencies and exhibited across Europe and the U.S. Stansbie’s films have been shown internationally at galleries and festivals from Bury to New York. Her PhD from Leeds Metropolitan University Zeppelinbend: Multiplicity, encyclopaedic strategies and nonlinear methodologies for a visual practice was completed in 2010 and exists solely as a

Visit for more information.


One of the rules allows the swimmer to grease the body before the swim.  This rather pretty  lump of fat is a reminder.  It is  a sculpture on a pedestal and as such an analogy to the use of fat by J Beuys, claiming a strong pedigree.  It is also a site where useful and disinterested mingle.


vaseline sculpture

There are therefore two sites: one forged by the culture of the particular sport, the other of displaying, disseminating  visual art.  Their meeting is softly surreal, although in this case I tend to link it to Dada (play) and Duchamp’s insecurity whether any object may become art.


The interest in the insecurity of found objects was favoured by many artists during the last quarter of the 20th C.,e.g.  Warhol’s Brillo boxes and  granite shapes by Ulrich Rueckriem (1938),  and is still entertained by younger generation, e.g.  climbing routes by Dan Shipsides.  Climbing like swimming are clearly framed cultural activities tightly bound to survival.  The site were they and art immerge into one another, hang out together… is the site of survival.  As swimmers or climbers they know their goal and when it is reached.  As artists they do neither.  The site where the pooling of knowing and not knowing happens has an exquisite tradition, from which I fish out, just one,  catharsis –  described by Homer  in Illiad as  a liberation from fear. There is a price to pay. Simone Weil’s essay, “L’Iliade ou le poème de la force“, published in 1940, holds that “the true hero, the true ­subject at the centre of The Iliad is force”, which she defines as “that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing”.

Indeed, instead of Lisa Stansbie swimming over The Channel, the installation displays things.


The tool that made it possible is in many cases a lens,


although appropriation of made objects offers a powerful helping hand.


That directed me to  think about Pierre Bourdieu(1930-2002)  and his concept of  habitus.  It being a modern take on Aristoteles offers already  support for Bourdieu’s  notion of structured structures  capable acting on the viewer (reader) as structuring structures. 

It works convincingly in the otherness of the “full portrait” of a swimmer out of water, with devices that are not permitted “in a standard attempt to swim the Channel”.



An image is a result of  knowledge (structured structures), of acceptance of hierarchy of the given network.  The deliberate deviation  from rules signals self-exclusion forged by experience of the power art offers. It is open ended, it is failing to fit the expectation, it is dysfunctional as “swimming”. The doubt that it is art and not document or cartoon, lifts it out of the telluric strata into the realm where  gnomic verses rule.   It recalls not Achilles going to the battle, but Helen embroidering the scene of fighting.

I mentioned Bourdieu’s take on habitus above, here I hasten to add that it has its counterpart in Aristoteles, in his  concept of hexis. Bourdieu is nearer Marcel Mauss’s thought that habitus  is a body of daily practices. bodily skills, learned habits.  Bourdieu sees habitus as durable and transportable.

The aesthetic force of the art so rooted  will depend on dominant aesthetic category.  I have in mind something like the ability of Hermes  to be a messenger of gods and conductor of the men… and women.  The installation was stronger on conducting – with a witty dionysian satyr playing a new instrument.


In addition – Lisa Stansbie is  a cerebral artist –  playing with collage and nonsense – like Humpty Dumpty wrestling the meaning from meaningless  fragments of elegant drawings.



Machines for swimming. The whole wall of them.



The wall foregrounds the non economic form of  domination – which Arachne would have woven from imperfect fibres into a perfect denouement.



Swimming Machine 6


Images courtesy the artist and Platform Arts Belfast






About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
This entry was posted in essay, review and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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