Annelies Jahn and Dominika Kieruzel in Conversation
Recorded and edited in December 2022 by Dominika Kieruzel
Annelies Jahn: It was beautiful in the water this morning, I saw an octopus.
It was very cute, it was right in the crevice. It was hiding but its legs underneath were bright orange, so...
Dominika Kieruzel: Was it big?
No, it was not very big. Earlier in the year there were a couple of quite big octopii in there, so I think they mated, and now we’re starting to see the little ones come up. This one is probably a hundred millimetres across, but they do stretch out. It sits in quite a narrow crevice which is thirty or forty millimetres wide and quite long.
They can find a den and sometimes you can only see their eyes. This one was on its side and underneath its legs were slightly exposed. You can usually tell where they are because at the opening of the crevice there are lots of little crab shells and other shells, because that’s what they’re eating.
This guy, I was watching it for a while and I was trying to call my friend Lisa over, and it spotted me, and then I saw that long tentacle pull across. They cover themselves with debris to try to camouflage. So it started pulling stuff up onto its legs, to stop itself from being seen properly. They’re very clever.
There’s one woman at the pool that goes on the weekends, her name is Crystal, we call her The Octopus Whisperer. She’s really good with them. She always sees them. She also feeds them sometimes. She’ll find something she knows they like to eat. She’s got this special relationship with the octopii. They’re curious little creatures. It’d be interesting to see how this one grows. Because I suspect it will grow out of the crevice at some point and will have to pull itself out into a more obvious spot. There’s lots of little nooks and crannies
for them to hang out.
What colour was it?
The top of its body looks like a rock, sort of brown, nondescript. But they have the ability to change colour. Its underneath tentacles were orange, really quite bright orange with circular suckers that were white.
The bigger ones, when we see them wander across the pool, have mostly brown colour. But when they’re agitated, they go kind of ghostly white colour. The little one was just trying to hide itself. It was very funny.
I remember seeing little creatures, just little crabs, beautiful little crabs in Melbourne in the sea, during a walk one day. It made me happy for the whole day... and I still remember it.
There’s something about knowing that you are sharing an environment with a wild thing. You feel that you are a part of the natural world, which we’re not on a day-to-day basis.
Tell me a bit about the pool. It’s just outside of Sydney, right?
It’s in Coogee, so in the eastern suburbs. South of Bondi, which most people will be familiar with. It’s part of a run of beaches which is joined by a coastal walk. So as an area it’s quite popular. It is part of Coogee Bay, so it’s a fairly protected area for swimming. The bay itself gets lots of swimmers. There are these series of pools...
There’s one, the North of the Bay, Giles pool, which used to be the men only pool. Which is very wild and not really structured in any way. It’s quite open to the ocean, because a lot of the structure has collapsed.
Then there is Coogee beach and then at the South end of the beach there’s the public pool which is very small but very protected. It sits right by the surf club. And then just after that, there’s the ladies pool, McIvers pool, which is the only ladies and womens pool that still exists. And it exists through the mutual relationship with the council. The only people that can go there are girls and women and children, so boys until the age of 11 also. And then South of us is Wylie’s Baths which is open to everyone, it was renovated a while ago and it has lots of facilities.
The ladies pool is run by volunteers, it’s a really interesting community. There’s the same women that show up every day, every morning, rain, hail or shine, winter, summer. It’s not that we even know each other’s lives so much. It’s just that we have passion for that place and being in the water. That shared experience of what that brings to us. I think we all feel this kind of innate calm, awe.
We all see how it sets us up for the day. Everyone, when they come out of the water, there’s a smile, a beam. It is the power of the action of putting your whole body into something. It sort of washes away, temporarily washes away concerns, it puts things into perspective. Because all of the sudden you recognise yourself in a greater space. There’s that big horizon. There is the sense that beyond that there is the endless ocean. The majesty of the place. How it changes daily. One day it’s calm, the next day is wild and you can’t swim. It keeps you in touch with things beyond your control and beyond yourself.
I think that is a very healthy way of negotiating everything in your life.
I often think that we turn into customers, to the detriment of our humanity. Somewhat simplistic social hierarchy is not comparable to complexity of a wider and a more intimate context, a human living in nature, living on Earth.
I think you’re right, I think it puts you in touch with more fundamental humanity. It’s quite extraordinary. We have to drive there. We see in the distance: the ocean, how the light is playing. Then when we get there, there is this real sense of evolving drama to each day. What is the sea doing and how is the light... Some days it’s so calm, it feels like it’s just resting. Doing nothing. The beauty of that shift from day to day, from experience to experience, it’s kind of involving. You just want to take it with you, which is why all the photos and the videos started in the first place, from trying to hang on to that moment, that picture in time, for just a bit longer.
I have this big window where I live, and for the first time I also have big long curtains. And now when I open them every morning, I realise that it’s so theatrical, that theatre, drama, must have come from people experiencing weather. Opening the curtains and seeing what’s going on, and sharing in that... not really a plot... an event I guess.
Yes, the event of the day, the time. And the interesting thing about it: we go, we swim, there are a few days when things might be similar, but there’s always that shift, and you start to get familiar with the rhythm of the ocean and the tide and the moon.
The connections become so much bigger. You start to get the feeling of the interplay of those things. The seasonal shifts, the cosmic shifts, the weather shifts. It’s quite fascinating. It opens things up to beyond of what it is itself.
And all of the sudden, those rhythms, which we are all familiar with, you start to recognise how fundamental they are to how we negotiate any day or any time or ourselves. How they play on you or against you or for you. It’s really fascinating to observe a single place every day over a period of time. All these little things that you wouldn’t normally attend to, become much more apparent.
From the first time I saw them, I felt that your ocean videos exposed something in me. I recognised that I was missing something.
That deep yearning... You talk about a much grander environment, it makes me think of living in the countryside back home, in Poland, and seeing the stars, the night sky, almost every day. That contact with the rhythms of nature, and how they awaken a certain inner depth and that there is something strangely easy in aligning of that vast outside with the deep inside.
On a personal level, I feel like being in the water is in some respect like coming home to yourself. You become so aware of your own embodiment. You’re aware of yourself and it’s as though you don’t exist at the same time. You’re kind of consumed and consuming all at once. I think it’s a place where you can be whole. I know people get this sensation by doing other things like meditation or yoga...
But there is something about the medium of water that is so visceral. It can give the body a complete cellular experience. Because all of you is in the place. The videos in some way are trying to capture something that is beyond that visual experience - the sky looking amazing or the water being calm. There is something about that physical feeling, that’s what I’m trying to get. I don’t know what it is, self awareness or self knowledge, or understanding... maybe not knowledge, because that is too presumptuous.
There is something about immersion into liquid. I think about it sometimes because we are born into liquid, we grow within this fluid sack and that feeling of having your whole body saturated inside and out, is an extraordinary experience and maybe it taps into that vague prenatal memory. I don’t know. That might be a bit convoluted. I’m not trying to re-birth myself, but I wonder whether this is why the feeling is so powerful.
I think it makes a difference, what sort of water it is. Perhaps there is something about that water that feels like it’s entirely its own. That it’s not the water that is shaped by a human. Tap water can feel almost... I call it ‘stressed water’ and ‘relaxed water’. I think when water can be its own thing, you can sense it, that it is relaxed into itself.
Yes, exactly... You hope that it is that. We have terrible storms sometimes and can’t swim because the water isn’t in its natural state, because it is polluted by run offs, and it doesn’t look good when that happens. You are aware of this polluting layer of humanity. I guess on another level when you take yourself to that place every day, that also builds a real sense of responsibility to an action for this, rather than just an engagement with water. And it builds an understanding that everything that you do outside of it, miles away, will affect it somehow. So those sorts of questions get asked in this work as well.
Though it might not be the prime motivation for taking the videos, a lot of it is just recognising: this is what I do and it’s an everyday experience.
Thinking about a human in the landscape, in the double videos, you can sense the rhythm of your breathing with the rising and falling of the horizon...
Very much so, because when you see them side by side you are very much aware of the shift in the horizon. Which is, I think, me breathing. I am holding the camera, which is on my phone. It’s not sophisticated, there’s no tripod. I was thinking a lot about it: the rhythm of the breath of a person standing there and being in the place. You can say that it’s a flaw of the video but it is also what puts you there, I hope. It ‘s that natural bodily movement, you know we never actually keep still. We can even think about the rhythm of the ocean as being like a breath. The wave movement of drawing water into the ocean and then pushing it back on to the shore. It is like breathing movement, inwards and outwards, and it’s constant.
Every now and then it is soft like a soft breath, light, lapping, like a sleep, every now and then it is like heaving. And then all the other places in between. When we’re down at the water, we often muse “oh it’s an angry sea today” or “it’s pushing us around”, or “we’re having to fight it today” or “it’s being really gentle and easy”. So there are all those kinds of qualities that for all sorts of purposes as swimmers we put on to the ocean. It becomes a way of building a really personal relationship with all the good and the bad that come with it.
It is so interesting because this search for one horizon, that has something poignant to it. If there is a moment of unity of the horizon in both videos, it is very brief.
For me when we started developing the idea, I was thinking that we will be just playing one video after the other. But when I was trying to eliminate videos, putting them side by side, the power of that hovering horizon became really apparent. And the power came from that direct relationship and comparison.
We haven’t mixed up the mood of the water, but it’s interesting to see the slight variations across days. The dates don’t correspond, they’re not running chronologically. So it’s this comparative note in a way... of the breath of the ocean or the action of the ocean, the sea and the sky, the colour.
The sudden shift. Even though the days you think: “oh that’s a similar day to that day”. But then when you see them side by side you get a sense of each day having its own unique quality. And that is really hopeful I think, just on a personal level, each day throws up something new, something different, not necessarily good or bad, better or worse but just, the only thing that you can be sure of is that it will be a slightly new experience each time.
I’m watching the videos while talking to you. Listening to your voice, and what you say, I feel like I am starting to align with that rhythm of breathing.
I thought about your pieces of string, the pieces of tape, one that you use to measure spaces with. Perhaps you could say a little bit about those?
Those site specific installations that I do, which are inevitably about measuring space, because it seems to be the thing that I’m curious about. So part of that is looking, taking in a place or thinking about what it is that makes it specifically different, unusual or peculiar, particularly against another place. I guess that comes down to my experience of other places beforehand, and what is peculiar about this particular one.
Part of a play of the kinds of things that I’m thinking about, on a broader level of what my practice might be as an artist, is that we have a universal measure that we agree upon, we decide what a millimetre or a centimetre or a metre is, as a way of negotiating and understanding, a universal understanding of what a measure of a world or a place is.
But on a really basic level, for all of us, an understanding of what a metre is or a centimetre is, is individual. Because in the end, we walk into a space or a place with our own bodies, and our bodies are all different heights, levels, the way we perceive and see things are all measured from our own understanding. Although we have this agreement about things, the perception is our own. A part of what I’m trying to reveal or show is my understanding of what that measure might be. Or - my understanding of what that space’s size and equivalence might be.
Then what you’re doing is, you’re kind of making people rethink how they negotiate something. That the norms that we agree upon aren’t really universal. They might be medium or average, but they don’t relate to each person. Nevertheless each person learns to negotiate their whole life around them because that’s what they’ve been presented with.
You have mentioned systems and rhythms. Even though you say you tend to work with systems, I see your work as moving away from systems and towards rhythms, or even natural rhythms? And particular rhythms of particular things rather than, as you say, the medium levels.
Yes, I mean, it’s a peak of curiosity and often the curious is the thing that doesn’t sit within the pattern. It’s the thing that breaks the pattern that becomes the object of curiosity. It does two things: it breaks the pattern and it reveals the pattern. I remember when the kids were little, we used to go on holidays up on a central coast, and you’re walking along the beach, looking at shells and shells will be picked up. And regardless of whether the shell was more beautiful or not, than everything else, it was the odd one out that the kids immediately drew their attention too, whether it was different colour or different shape. It’s because it lacked the average or the ordinary of the situation. The average and the ordinary become like background. They become the surface for seeing the curious thing, or the non average. It sticks out. You just see it. It’s sitting strangely on the ground. It just becomes this thing that grabs your attention. I guess that’s the way we work. The camera sees everything with an equivalent value when you take a photograph, but we have this thing where we are able to eliminate so much visual noise and information from our life. I think that part of me is responding to that, but also the flipside of this is that a lot of the time I’m picking up rubbish that people don’t want to know about...
Something that is personally curious to me, because I live in a different country to the one I was born in, I wondered about the connection to land. Growing roots, specifically with that place. I know you have to travel to the pool a bit?
Yeah I do, on a good day it’s about fifteen minutes drive, and I travel with my friend, and we take each other on occasion. Having to travel there is not necessarily a bad thing. I am conscious of the fact that we often drive, which is environmentally a bit of a nightmare.
But we do share, we usually go with a full car, her children sometimes come, my children sometimes come. But I think the power of the feeling of being in that water, it makes it... it’s kind of overwhelming. Earlier this year, we couldn’t swim for a couple of weeks, because the weather was so bad in Sydney. We had huge storms and beaches were being ripped apart and we went a bit stir crazy, because we couldn’t swim in the ocean.
And actually even during Covid, when we had our last big lockdown and there were restrictions put down on how far we could travel, the ladies pool was out of bounds for us by about a half of a kilometre. We couldn’t travel to Coogee out of our area and, interestingly enough, we did find another place to swim and that was a harbour location. It wasn’t the same. But at least we kept the swimming up. There was something about the act of swimming, even beyond this location, which helped both of us.
There is a reason for not giving up. The comradery of going with someone, this relationship to women, who probably would never be in my circuit of friends, that I see daily, and a lot of them are really interesting, wise women. There’s that understanding among all of us, the power of what this thing does for us on a daily basis. Physically and mentally. And I think that power, that overwhelming feeling of wellbeing that comes from that experience, physically, visually, the sounds, the smell, everything, makes it very easy to do the trip.
We’re quite high above the sea level, and as we’re approaching, you look across the horizon to the ocean and we’re travelling down towards the ocean. As soon as you see that glimpse of light in the horizon, because of course we go in the morning, the sun rises in the morning above the ocean in Sydney... It’s a powerful vision. It can be blinding, the light on the water can be glary. Even from a distance you can see the choppiness of the water, the horizon, if it’s clear or not.
There’s those amazing days when you cannot see the difference between the sky and the water because the horizon disappears. There’s those beautiful monochrome days, then there’s the endless blue. I think there’s a whole range of experiences in the travelling there. And the travelling back, which is always very different.
Always very calm.