Swimming around The Mastaba

I’ve been meaning to get this post out for weeks, before the open water swimming season came to a close for those of us not seasoned enough not to wear a wetsuit. I need to remind myself that this is short form writing and that it only has to be good enough. Maybe I am being too hard on myself? Is having a 3-year old a 6-month old and having a new job on the horizon excuses enough? Nonetheless, I managed to do the Swim Serpentine open water swimming festival at the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park this September. With my kids in tow; not on or in a tow float – maybe this is the future?
The weather had gone from warm and sunny in the week to cold and wet. And normally I would say that the water is the best place to be when it is cold and wet, however snuggling under my duvet with my girls sounded pretty nice on that freezing, drizzly day. My driving force is usually the amazing freedom to just swim, however on this day there was another magnetic force drawing me to the water: Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s London Mastaba, a massive temporary floating sculpture constructed of A LOT of hyper-coloured oil barrels on the Serpentine lake just in front of the lido. All I could think about was getting to swim around it. What a treat. Had I been better organised I would have signed up for the Super Six, so I’d get to swim around this sculpture six times instead of one, but I didn’t. One circuit was going to have to do, and so I did my one mile, savouring it. Boy oh boy was it cool.


Imagine a pyramid nearly as tall and wide as a standard 25-meter swimming lane, with the apex snipped off one quarter from the point, like a flat-topped triangle. Now imagine that this shape is three-dimensional, well four- dimensional because it is in the physical, public arena with sight and sound and splashing and tactility. It is in the air and lives and breathes with the swimmers and flora and fauna surrounding and living underneath it. Now imagine that this enormous shape, right out of a box of building blocks or Lego has a pixelated, mosaic appearance, red and white dots on the east and west sides and blue, mauve and red dots on the north and south sides; from afar the north and south sides look hot pink. Depending on the weather and the light the entire construction might look like a dark creation of science fiction emerging from the lake, the tip of the ice berg.

While the swimmers were reminded ‘not to touch’ (the birds can poop on it, how typical), the kayaker/invigilator safety crew got to hang out and sit on the edges of the sculpture, watching us as we swam around, making sure we stayed out of trouble, and presumably didn’t touch it. I even saw a few with thermoses drinking warming beverages, reminding me of a wetter version of the 1932 photograph of workers eating lunch on a beam of the ascending Rockefeller Center skyscraper.

We made it out to the lake in good time for my 1.15pm one-mile swim, which was a good thing as compared to last year, the organisers seemed disorganised this year: the women’s changing tent was overflowing with ladies elbow to bum getting suited or tow-floated. The queue to drop our bags was long. My red-capped wave was overpopulated. Likewise, after 35 minutes and 11 seconds of trying to swim away from inexperienced open-water swimmers and avoiding the Las Vegas style photo points on the lake including the one on the finishers’ gantry (I do not need photographic evidence of my chin covered in proverbial brown pond scum thank you very much), I waited over 10 minutes in the queue to get my medal and then waited again to pick up my bag. The bag drop area reminded me of those stuffed toy arcade games, where you have to position the dubious metal grabber over the desired toy, that you inevitably never manage to grab anything with. Bags clobbering other bags, tumbling upon unfindable, piles of renegade bags with useless humans unable to match our registration numbers with the bag tags. I ended up with one in the end. Thankfully it was mine. I did change next to a lady whose bag was lost. She didn’t swim in a wet suit either, and so stood in the changing room in front of a fan heater and a borrowed towel while one of the volunteers personally searched for her belongings.

The dis-organisers of Swim Serpentine could have celebrated swimming around the sculpture. In their ‘Final Instructions’ PDF information pack there is a simple, objectively written account of what we were to be swimming around, as if it were an oil spill or weather warning with a touch of irony: “This year, you will be swimming around The Mastaba, which is a 20m high and 30m wide sculpture of 7,506 barrels stacked on a floating platform in the Serpentine Lake. The creation is by world renowned artist Christo and is a sight to behold. Please do not attempt to swim up to The Mastaba as this area is only for the safety boats.” It could have said “This year you GET to swim around The Mastaba!” And the writers forgot to mention Jeanne-Claude, Christo’s wife and life collaborator, who certainly would have given them an earful for such a dull description and for omitting her contribution.

Serpentine Gallery could have joined forces with Swim Serpentine to promote and make more of this opportunity. What a unique way to experience this sculpture. I can’t find numbers for 2018, but over 4,500 swimmers swam in 2017. If we imagine even more entered this year, then that’s a lot of loops around Tthe Mastaba and what an inimitable, shared experience? Maybe most swimmers didn’t take the time to look up, to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the Mastaba? Maybe they were paying close attention to their time or trying to avoid getting a novice foot in their face? Maybe the majority of the over 4,000 swimmers also thought swimming aroundThe Mastaba was equally cool and a novel way to experience public art?

I visited New York City in February 2005 and got to see Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s Gates in Central Park.

the gates

I imagine for the regular commuters walking in the park or for joggers, on opening day The Gates made the mundane interesting, a foil to the workaday jog. But over time, they became lived with and part of the furniture. From afar The Mastaba reminds me of passing a big red barn off a Midwestern American highway.

BarnThe Gates, like The Mastaba, were temporary, and now exist in the memory and as a marker of time, place and shared experience. For a limited time, we got to see and swim the world a little bit differently, to swim a lap around a towering, colourful architectural impasse rather than colourful bobbing buoys (also reminiscent of arcade games). For me swimming is about freedom (more of later). Jeanne-Claude and Christo are masterminds of prepositional physicality, an affinity that they share with swimmers: swimmers swim up and down, through and under, over, in, by. This artistic collaboration challenges and makes visible the freedoms we take for granted and exploit. They cover and wrap bodies, and the body politic (think the Reichstag).


The Gates were about openings, looking and moving through, like metal detectors with no agenda and no policing. Their Paris oil barrels in the 60’s was a protest to the Berlin Wall. In a worryingly, and increasingly intolerant world, The Mastaba is a statement about and a stand on tolerance and freedom. Being created and displayed in London where we are reminded by the Mayor of London that everyone is welcome, is a joint statement empowering those without voices and freedoms. What we know from our artist friends Turner and Monet, when it comes to the confluences of clouds, water, and floating objects, they merge and refract and meld. It’s a wall, but you can go around it. And maybe even under it.



Swimming in the Seine

Welcome back ladies and gentlemen.

It’s been a long while since I last posted. What began in December 2017 as the Museum of Swimming was meant to be a more frequent affair- perhaps mirroring the regularity at which I find myself in the H2O. Alas, life happens. In the many months since the first post, I have visited my family in the US, swam at the newly opened Thames Lido in Reading, which I promise to write about, and had a baby (artfully swimming long-course the day my waters broke, no pun intended). So, the summer season is in full swing and I confess because I have a three-month old baby, unsurprisingly, getting to the lake to swim is a challenge and I can count the events I’ve entered on one finger (Swim Serpentine)! My kindred swimming buddy kindly helped me pack the kids in the car a few weeks ago so that we could swap swimming and looking after the brood on a hot evening at the ever-changing Liquid Leisure in Datchet. It was bliss. In the absence of frequent open water swimming and in the spirit of the heat wave we have been having in the UK I offer a reflection on Seurat’s Bathers.

Seurat's Bathers

I have chosen Seurat’s Bathers, one, because right now I fancy taking a dip in those cool river Seine waters, and two, because this time last year I was preparing a family art workshop for the National Gallery, from which I took inspiration from one of my favourites, Georges Seurat’s very large painting from 1884, Bathers at Asnières. The Sunday drawing workshop was situated in front of the larger-than-a-hot-tub painting itself, affording direct visual and verbal dialogue with the painting. Likewise, looking at real paintings in the gallery space with the buzz of other visitors is crucial to the interaction, and situating family learning in the gallery spaces showcases that the gallery is for families, for everyone.

[Coincidentally, this painting inspired a #drawwithus afternoon at St James Park as part of a campaign that my fellow educators have organised to support their class action case against unfair dismissal from the National Gallery. I encourage you to support their courageous cause. Connect with them on Twitter and Instagram at @StandWithNG27, or on their Facebook page (search ‘Stand With NG 27’). Learn more at https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/nationalgalleryeducators/%5D

We started this Drawing Sunday workshop by exploring and talking about the painting together, using it as a launchpad to discuss our own experiences and thoughts interspersed with history titbits. Testimony from Seurat’s peer group suggested that he was CRAZY about drawing, so we drew too. We used conte crayons for our drawing activity, the same sorts of crayons made of graphite, clay and wax that Seurat used to make his preparatory drawings, and on paper similar to the textured Michellet paper he used. We focused on individual objects like the hats, boats (how many can you spot?) and the dog, which was very popular. Likewise, we looked for shapes like triangles, curves and circles, squares. We had a few batman contributions as well. Using our drawings we then made a collaborative reconstruction of the painting, took a photograph of the arrangement and printed out a photo for each child.

So what does this have to do with swimming, you’re wondering? Well, first of all, what kind of swimming are the figures in the painting doing? Can you spot any of the four competitive strokes? I don’t see any, though I had one child suggest that the figure whose back is to the viewer may be doing breaststroke, which is a possibility. From what I gather, breaststroke was the predominating stroke of the time, besides backstroke and then the Trudgen Crawl. But if you look at the figures’ bodies, they are frozen in place like stone statues of a Medusa glare, fixed into position, moving less than the suggested breeze told by the blades of grass, not making a splash, and not even horizontal in the water.

There is not actually much swimming happening in this painting at all. Several children suggested the figures were ‘having a paddle’, a British term that means having a splash about or wading. As a part-time swimming instructor, I encounter this term quite a lot, but always found it an odd term. ‘Paddling’ in my US English meant something you do in a canoe, or an action you make with your hands and arms in swimming. I was to discover contextually that a ‘paddling pool’ in the UK is the US version of a ‘wading pool,’ (in the spirit of the painting, une pataugeoire in French), like the British ‘sand pit’ is to the American ‘sand box’ (or ‘litter box’ as my cats would call it). So indeed, Seurat’s figures are ‘having a paddle’ and cooling down on warm summer’s day in a spot also used to water horses.

Seurat is typically characterised as a Post-Impressionist, recruiting subjects like leisure, capturing the effects of light, taking advantage of newly manufactured brushes to create a range of strokes and dabs and dashes, and using colour as a means of expression. Probably best known for Pointilism, which emerged several years after Bathers at Asnières was completed (he did experiment in a couple areas of the painting after it was actually finished, see the boy’s orange hat), Seurat’s approach to combining and applying colours led to the colourful, Ben Day-like dots that our mind fuses to create and read specific colour categories, using the principle of juxtaposing complementary colours to amplify impact.

He was however a very academic painter, planning his compositions and using life models to produce a body of preparatory drawings and creating painterly sketches produced ‘en plein air’ as dazzling as the finished work. Seurat had this monumental canvas custom-made, a size usually reserved for canonical history painting. It would have been near impossible to paint on location because of the size of the six square meters canvas. The painting and many of the preparatory figure drawings were executed in Seurat’s studio. You can even see an easel in the background of the ‘breast stroking’ model.


For this painting Seurat takes inspiration from the extracurricular activities of the working class, clerical urban dwellers and bourgeois pleasure seekers (see the chauffeured row boat with the top hat, parasol and the tricolour French flag). Likewise, he has created an image of solitude populated by internally distant swimmers and sunbathers. Was Seurat a swimmer? I do not know, but perhaps he knew a little about the independent pursuit of swimming. No one talks to each other, but it is a shared moment, like looking at a painting in a gallery. Or the silent pursuit of lane swimming, which despite the isolation and repetition of our own lengths, we share the love and freedom of the water.

At the end of the nineteenth century swimming and water sports became more popular and accessible as folks had more leisure time and train transport away from city centres was more readily available. Likewise, the institutionalisation of health, hygiene and sanitation during fin-de-siècle France brought greater visibility and credence to aquatic pursuits. Seaside resorts popped up and were filled with holiday makers seeking the long-associated health benefits of water- or at least being close to it. Additionally, the first municipal pools were opened.

Most importantly, this painting prompts a whole load of questions about picturing swimming in the Nineteenth Century I’d like to learn more about. What was swimming in the Seine like before it was outlawed in 1923 and then revived in the 21st Century? Did folks race or try to beat their personal bests? What did nineteenth century breaststroke look like and could I try find some film footage, like in the Moscow film I saw at Pompidou the other day (more on later)? I want to know more about this historical culture of swimming. As I find out more I will share it with you.

For further art historical reading on Seurat’s Bathers see: Seurat and The Bathers. John Leighton, Richard Thompson, et al. National Gallery Publications Limited. London, 1997.

Welcome to the Museum of Swimming

KIM Museum Icebreaker

Welcome to the Museum of Swimming. This new blog focussing on the junction of art, museums and swimming has moved in and replaced the former Stanley and Friends blog I wrote for my nephew.

This blog began as an Icebreaker exercise on a volunteer training day with Kids in Museums. I began volunteering with Kids in Museums this year, and to jumpstart the experience I was invited to their spring training session. Upon arrival we were presented with paper and coloured pencils and asked, in a word, to create the museum of our dreams to present to our peers seated around the table. What a daunting task.

Having recently encountered several curious images on the theme of swimming, being an obsessive swimming and lover of art, the idea for The Museum of Swimming was born.

My chicken-scratch prototype is posted above. It includes a gallery of images, illustrations and paintings on loan; I envisioned Seurat’s Bather’s at Asnieres, a 16th century illustration entitled ‘An Introduction for to learne to swimme’ I encountered at the British Library, and a page on ‘Natation’ from a 1950’s Larousse Dictionnaire francaise I found at a second hand shop in Hanwell, London. I envision the gallery would also include poetry and other art forms like Busby Berkeley’s films, to get folks into swimming.



The Museum would also include an aquatic centre with an Olympic 50 metre indoor swimming pool, an outdoor 50 metre lido, a recreation pool for children, an area for lessons and demonstrations (try different strokes, improver and taster sessions for all ages), café, a gallery about health and well being, an outdoor park, artists’ installations, testimonials from swimmers from all walks of life, a gallery of water in culture to discuss things like the symbolism of bathing and baptism, and gallery of ‘your questions answered’ like “How do you poop during a Channel swim?” or “What do I need to take in my swimming bag when going to the pool with my toddlers?” and of course community engagement to keep the space relevant, including satellite outreach activities in the community.

With my prototype in mind, I welcome you to take a dip, swim or dive at this evolving, virtual Museum of Swimming where I will share art and images, news items, musings, histories and anything else related to the culture of swimming. Bienvenue!

Easter Weekend

Stanley had an amazing Easter weekend, not least because he got to eat his fair share of chocolate and other goodies, but because he also got to go on the tube! The tube is London’s underground rail system, the oldest in Europe and the first in the world which opened in 1863. Stanley got to ride the Central Line and the Victoria Line, getting off at Finsbury Park which is also home to Arsenal, a popular British football team.Image That would be football, as in the American game soccer. Which highlights another interesting point in Stanley’s outing on Saturday. He went to a housewarming party and met lots of people: British, American, Slovenian, French, and Greek. In the video, you can hear Foteini, Miranda’s friend say “Hello Stanley” in Greek.

There are lots of different nationalities of people living in London and over 300 different languages spoken here too! That means there are probably a lot of people here. In Stuart, there is a population of nearly 1700. In London, the population is over 8 million. That’s like squeezing 5000 x Stuart, Iowas into one place. It also means there is less space for each person that lives here, which is why lots of people share houses and flats (a flat means an apartment in the UK). Which is why Stanley went to the housewarming on Saturday, to celebrate a friend moving into a new flat with a really nice new roommate.


One thing that everyone found really perplexing was Stanley’s outfit. What was he wearing? An astronaut uniform? Remi figured out that Stanley came in a Patriot’s uniform, as in American football team garb. Which is strange to see in the UK because American football is not very popular and you don’t see many folks out wearing American football jerseys. Most kids don’t even play it, and you definitely don’t have high school or college football here.It’s all about soccer! (Or football, depending on where you are from).


Stanley got his picture taken at Oxford Circus (that’s a very busy underground station near lots of shops) and he even got a picture with an interesting poster advising people not to throw their trash on the tube tracks. He liked how he was nearly the same size as the little man throwing his litter away. Stanley had a full weekend and met lots of nice people. This morning he went swimming with both Remi and Miranda (he got to ride the bus!), and this week he gets to go to school with Remi, so watch this space!



Out to eat


After chilling out for a while, Remi came home and everyone went out for dinner. It was last day of school before the Easter holidays so it was a special occasion. Everyone went to eat at the local Italian and Stanley even got his photo with the owner! On the way home he walked by the nearby underground station and got really excited about taking public transport, which he decided would be the next adventure.

The Dave Brubeck QuartetChilling on the sofa

When Stanley got home he was glad to rest on the sofa. Miranda turned on some Dave Brubeck on the stereo. Do you like Dave Brubeck? Click on the link above and listen.

Busy afternoon

After the first glue treatment, it was time to cut Stanley out. He was tired of laying down and was ready to get active. He had a big afternoon ahead of him. He was going to go outside and ride a bike!
After the first glue treatment, it was time to cut Stanley out. He was tired of laying down and was ready to get active. He had a big afternoon ahead of him. He was going to go outside and ride a bike!
After being cut out Stanley had one more glue treatment to make him waterproof. He forgot that in England it rains a lot. Miranda wanted to make sure that no matter the weather, Stanley was ready for action. He German teacher once passed on the wisdom that “there is no bad weather, just bad clothes.” Stanley agreed. After the second glue treatment on both front and back, Stanley was ready to go. But first, lunch!
Coucous and coffee
As Miranda was going swimming, and Stanley was her guest, they ate the same lunch. Stanley had never before had coucous and never had coffee. He liked both a lot. The coucous had different nuts (pistacios, walnuts, brazil, and pecans) dried fruit, tuna and pumpkin oil. He really liked the pumpkin oil, it was kind of greenish and sweet. It was something he had never tried at home. He asked, “Where’d you get it?” Miranda said, “Sainsbury’s.” Stanley asked, “What’s Sainsbury’s?” Miranda replied, “It’s the grocery store. We’ll go sometime during your visit. It’ll remind you a little of Hy-Vee.”
Pandoro: Italian sponge cake
After the couscous, Staney at some sponge cake. It was sweet, and would have been nicer with strawberries. What else do you think would be nice to have with it?
The bike
After lunch, Miranda and Stanley got on her bike and cycled to the pool. Miranda had a long swim to do. Good thing Stanley brought a book! What do you think he read?
The sports centre
They entered the sports centre, saying “Hello” to the staff. Everyone was very friendly. Stanley even got to meet a real lifeguard who had a funny accent. Stanley noticed that British people speak differently than Americans do. He decided each night before bed he would practice saying “Hello, my name is Stanley” in a British accent. How about you try?
Stanley made himself comfy with a nice cool bottle of water and sat in the waiting area with his book while Miranda swam 5 kilometers. How long is 5 kilometers? Well it’s just over 3 miles. That’s about the circumference (the distance around) Stuart, Iowa, if you were to walk all around it. It probably would take less time to walk than to swim. It took two hours and Stanley was glad he brought two books, one for each hour. After the swim, they went home to wait for uncle Remi.

Stanley gets sturdy

Stanley gets top treatment in the kitchen on his first morning at uncle Remi’s and aunt Miranda’s. So he can do some real sightseeing, Miranda has pasted Stanley onto some mountboard.

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