Home Shows Somewhere to Swim

If the topography for the Uncanny in the 19th century was the Haunted House, the SARS-CoV-2 virus secured empty public space’s spot as representative for the uncanny of our time.

Sigmund Freud wrote that “the uncanny arouses dread and creeping horror”. That dread is largely caused by something once familiar becoming changed in an immeasurable way. See: a childhood home with someone else’s furniture. Or seeing your grandmother without her glasses for the first time. Or maybe a blue tiled swimming pool. Just like the one we visited on our holidays. Except, empty. Desolate. Void.

Photographer Anna Dobrovolskaya-Mints confronts this phenomenon in her provocative study, ‘Somewhere to Swim’. By eliminating people from her photographs, her unnerving images tell the story of a life once lived, quick forgotten. She points her lens at the vacant public spaces and exposes the breach in familiarity. Her photographs force the viewer to reckon with the very thing humans work tirelessly to avoid; that the world exists without us. Growing up in Post-Soviet Russia, Dobrovolskaya-Mints often lived between two worlds. Her father, an art collector, surrounded her with beautiful things. Dobrovolskaya-Mints was cocooned safely when at home but, outside those walls hers, was a country in recovery. The scars made by the uncertainty of economic collapse were fresh on the flesh of the infrastructure. It was amongst the playground of abandoned buildings that Dobrovolskaya-Mints first discovered the uncanny in spaces void of life. She was instantly captivated by the whispers of mortality that forever haunted the neglected foundations.

Now, decades later and hundreds of miles between, Dobrovolskaya-Mints stood in the tiled room of an empty hotel swimming pool and found nostalgia in the emptiness. She stared into the eye of the uncanny and couldn’t leave it unwitnessed again. During the months of lockdown, when COVID imprisoned us in our homes, she journeyed around England in search of hope and instead found perspective in the void. While the world averted its eyes to the economic and emotional impact of the pandemic, Dobrovolskaya-Mints’ camera challenges the viewer to gaze upon it. The hotel pools displayed within the frames of each photograph should be alive with pleasure but instead are united only in the absence of humanity. There is something dystopian in the stillness of the pools; this is where we came to relax, to recharge, to enjoy. The blue tiles and high ceilings are unchanged from the holidays of the before times and yet it is somehow impossible to imagine ever existing in the space at all.

Infrastructure and productivity may have placed rose-coloured glasses on our faces but the uncanny haze that haunts Dobrovolskaya-Mints stark lines and sharp edges refocuses the eye into the new world. A world where we have no choice but to hold the earth’s inevitable decay in our hands.

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