Combining visual art and long distance swimming

When Vanessa Daws moved to Dublin in 2011, she did something that might seem unusual to most people, but has become a habit for her.

“The first thing I did was arrange a swim down the Liffey at dawn. What I normally do when I go on art residencies or move somewhere, I find the nearest body of water and I swim in it.”

The idea of swimming across the M50 was quite interesting, but it was scary.

She tells me that she does this to feel more at home in a place: To bond with a place. To be accepted by the city. Connecting, submerging, in the city.

“If I swam, I just knew I’d be able to relax in the city. I knew it would be alright. I got in at the Ha’penny Bridge, down the ladder – it was a bit guerrilla,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot since. Now I’m a proper swimmer in Dublin, I know the right way to go about these things.”

In unchartered waters

Daws is an artist and an open-water swimmer. She originally came to Dublin to study for a Masters at NCAD – and her work brings these two worlds together. Her art explores place through swimming.

She has swum in many “urban watery spaces”, as she calls them – in the UCD lake, through fountains and across the aqueduct that carries the Royal Canal above the M50 motorway.

“The idea of swimming across the M50 was quite interesting, but it was scary because it was a bit manky. I was just worried that there were a lot of dodgy things in the water,” she says.

Often, Daws films her swims using a head-mounted GoPro camera and later screens the videos as part of an exhibition or installation. She then draws images from the videos for the small books she publishes about each project.

One of her films was even projected onto the wall of a building in the Dublin Docklands as part of a series of artistic installations in the area.

Exploring Dublin’s coastline

She’s also a sea swimmer and, while researching and swimming all the way around Lambay Island – she tells me she’s the first person to circumnavigate the island – she came across the story of a shipwreck off the north Dublin coast.

The RMS Tayleur was an iron-hulled clipper ship chartered by the White Star Line that, on its maiden voyage to Australia in 1854, went off course in a storm, ran aground on Lambay Island and sank in deep water.

It’s your playground. You’re part of the city, you feel like you totally belong.

Some estimates say there were nearly 700 people on board and, perhaps, 300 or more lost their lives. Daws wanted to know more and spent some time researching the shipwreck.

“There’s many theories of different reasons why it went down, but I suppose one of the main things was the fact that it was a metal boat and they hadn’t tested the compasses,” she says.

According to Daws, it’s thought that the iron hull caused a magnetic deviation in the ship’s compass. This meant that the ship’s crew thought they were sailing south when, in fact, they were sailing west.

Diving deep for some inspiration

Her interest in the wreck wasn’t about focusing on past tragedy, but rather exploring the wreck “as an object at the bottom of the ocean” in the present moment.

Although she’s not a diver, Daws knew she had to go below the surface and explore the wreck. And that’s exactly what she did – with some other, more experienced divers from the UCD Sub-Aqua Club.

When we’re jumping off bridges, we do feel like we own the river.

“Once I was down there, it was kind of beautiful,” she says. “It’s all flattened – it’s not like a stereotypical ship at the bottom of the ocean, but it is beautiful. It has anemones and things growing on it. It’s got this sediment all over it, and these creatures and things starting to grow on it, and lots of little starfish. White starfish. Very poetic.”

Daws’ project about the Tayleur is called Other Space and it has brought her into the company of subsea surveyors and salvage divers.

Some of her other projects include The South Wall Swim, a swim journey explored through an audio and film art installation at the Half Moon Swimming Club, and Swimming a Long Way Together, which saw swimmers tow illuminated sculptures up the River Liffey to Temple Bar Galleries.

A breathtaking love of the Liffey

Although Daws’ artistic practice has brought her out to sea in the search of new subjects to explore, Daws retains a fascination with the River Liffey – as demonstrated by some of her recent work.

Every year, she also takes part in a charity jump from O’Connell Bridge, which is organised by her friend Robbie Clarke in aid of cystic fibrosis. And seven years ago, she jumped off every city bridge along the Liffey – “all seventeen of them”.

Vanessa Daws' drawing of swimmers jumping into the River Lifey

“One summer, we did it in sections of… was it four bridges each go? Because of the tide. There’d be a couple of hours at high tide” when it was suitable for jumping in. “So I think it took us four goes to get them all done,” she says.

“When we’re jumping off bridges, we do feel like we own the river,” she says. “You do feel like it’s your playground. You’re part of the city, you feel like you totally belong there.”

To see more of Vanessa Daws’ work, visit her website or check out her Twitter.

Karl Whitney is the author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin (Penguin). A keen explorer of Dublin, his research has brought him to some unusual places – including the city’s main sewage plant and the underground tunnels through which the River Poddle flows. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the London Review of Books.


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