Whitechapel Gallery has today unveiled the transformation of its ground-floor gallery into a vast, eerily abandoned public swimming pool. The Whitechapel Pool (2018) is a large-scale site-specific installation created by artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset. It relates to the gentrification of London’s East End and is created especially for Whitechapel Gallery as part of This is How We Bite Our Tongue, a major survey exhibition of the artists’ work opening tomorrow until 13 January 2019.
The commission is accompanied by a fictional narrative charting the swimming pool’s rise and fall, from its philanthropic founding in 1901 to its rise as a famed public amenity and its politically sanctioned and commercially driven decline. The Whitechapel Pool is empty of water, its municipal tiles grimy and plaster peeling. Visitors to This is How We Bite Our Tongue are immediately transported to this deserted civic space.
The work points to a loss of faith in public space in an era of austerity. Elmgreen & Dragset said:
“East London saw intense gentrification in the last ten years. Bars where artists used to meet closed, artists’ studios were turned into luxury loft apartments. At the same time poorer boroughs experienced the effect of austerity politics. Our derelict swimming pool relates to this metamorphosis of local communities. It is also a sentimental image of painful transitions in general – the shift of values – and how it can be difficult as a human being and as a citizen to adjust to such challenges.”
The artists’ fictional history for The Whitechapel Pool stresses the civic function of the pool. Founded through social reform in 1901, renovated in 1953 and used daily for decades by Aldgate residents, The Whitechapel Pool is reputedly the site where artist David Hockney made his first drawings of a swimming pool’s water surface. The artists’ narrative tells how the pool lost its funding during Thatcherism, was squatted, abandoned, and in 2016 sold to a developer during Boris Johnson’s last year as Mayor of London. Next, the pool will be renovated to become the main feature of a luxury hotel spa.
Exhibition curator Laura Smith said:
“In The Whitechapel Pool Elmgreen & Dragset express nostalgia for the loss of civic spaces, demonstrating how individuals are impacted by government policies.”
In the environment of The Whitechapel Pool, gallery assistants become security guards patrolling the space in padded jackets with jangling keys. The artists also present additional works within The Whitechapel Pool. On one edge of the pool lies Some stayed on while others left (2018) a fallen statue of a headless male body evoking a classical sculpture and a time with different ideals. Nearby is Gay Marriage (2010), a work that consists of two urinals with their plumbing tangled and connected and Too Heavy (2017), a huge aluminium rock weighing down a trampoline. The swimming pool has been a recurrent theme in Elmgreen & Dragset’s work, from Death of a Collector (2009), where a fictional art collector was shown floating face down in a private pool, to Van Gogh’s Ear (2016), a swimming pool displayed vertically and placed in central New York. The Whitechapel Pool is Elmgreen & Dragset’s first work about a pool that is public and municipal in scale.
Elmgreen & Dragset: This is How We Bite Our Tongue 27 September 2018 – 13 January 2019 Galleries 1, 8 and 9