Head Above Water


Head Above Water is a nationally-touring exhibition which investigates our love of sea swimming – coming to Plymouth 23rd July – 3rd September.

By Jo Clarke, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

Head Above Water Online


For many of us, learning to swim is closely associated with family rituals and the complex experience of our parents both holding onto us and letting us go. Once we’ve mastered the art of staying afloat the sea can be many different things: a place of silence, a place for reflection, a place to splash about and have fun, a place to forget.

In ‘Head Above Water’, a new nationally touring exhibition which comes to Plymouth from 23 July to 3 September, it’s the experience of the shallows that will be explored in depth.

“It’s about that experimental zone where you’re safe and in peril all at once,” explains curator Lara Goodband from Sea Swim, a Yorkshire-based organisation dedicated to exploring how swimming in the sea liberates the imagination and transforms the body.

“Most sea swimmers will tell you that it’s one of the greatest pleasures to dive into the waves and find that unique place where you can relax but also experience a frisson of danger at the same time. ‘Head Above Water’ looks at the sensations, stories and psychological effects of sea bathing that, as an island nation, we are both culturally and personally aware.”

The exhibition, which will be displayed at Peninsula Arts, reveals the swimmer’s experience through film, photography, sculpture, drawing and poetry.

Featured artists are Sally Barker, Tessa Bunney, Gary Coyle, Dorothy Cross, Lynn Dennison, Peter Matthews, Heinrich & Palmer, Simon Pope, Gayle Chong Kwan, Anna Sikorska, Kit Wise and Sea Swim.

Many of the artists are sea swimmers themselves or, as Kit Wise describes himself, “a hopelessly addicted cold-water ocean swimmer.” Peter Matthews’ work is produced by drawing and writing in the sea, sometimes for hours at a time, taking what he describes as “a very direct approach and relationship with the ocean.” Aside from occasional illness and foreign travel Gary Coyle has swum in the sea every day for the past 15 years. He describes his swims as “a meditation, a time out of my regular life, when my mind just empties out.”

Gayle Chong Kwan ‘Atlantis’ detail © The Artist


Head Above Water – A Swimmer’s Perspective © Sea Swim

A special day of events on Saturday 23 July will celebrate the opening of ‘Head Above Water’. In the morning, artist Gayle Chong Kwan will lead a family-friendly workshop inspired by her ‘Atlantis’ installation. In the afternoon, curator Lara Goodband will take people on an exhibition tour and artist John Wedgwood Clarke will talk about his work.

Further family activities are set to run on Wednesday 17 August. If you can’t make Lara’s tour on the opening day, there’s a further opportunity to be shown around by a member of the exhibition team on Wednesday 24 August.

A display of historic photographs personally selected from the city archives by Lara will be displayed in one of the large cases in Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery‘s foyer while the main exhibition is on display at Peninsula Arts.

Special film screenings at Tinside Lido will also take place on 22 and 23 July in partnership with Plymouth Arts Centre.

‘Head Above Water’ will travel to Folkestone and Scarborough after its showing at Peninsula Arts who are delivering the exhibition in partnership with Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. This is the first of many joint projects that will take place over the next 4 years in the build up to the opening of the Plymouth History Centre in 2020.

For full details about the exhibition visit www.peninsula-arts.co.uk

Tessa Bunney, Porthtowan Pool, Cornwall from the ‘Tidal Pools’ series © The Artist