Deep Breaths: Steps Across The Floor; Ink Across The Walls.
The site of Govanhill Baths [open to the public 1914 – 2001] is a now a world within its own walls; the chipped tiles are home to verdant ferns and tracing ivy, the peeling paint falls like autumn leaves spiralling from lofty heights. And yet the site is decisively not – surprisingly perhaps - one that speaks today of loss or emptiness. Instead it is a space crammed with presence and belief, as the building's rooms, pools, and corridors are punctuated by the work of more than 20 artists, many from the surrounding community.
Punctuated? Or perhaps Inhabited. Because the artists' work here seems less to demarcate or define the rooms it occupies than to take on their shapes as we may take on the character or idiosyncrasies of the places where we live, becoming moulded just as we adapt and change them. In a building already so steeped in the lyrical, the meaningful, the unexpected and the out of place (hairs of mud on the pale tiled floors, concrete arches like great red ribs, the lost and found face of a resuscitation dummy) the work takes on a quiet certainty as it reveals rather than discovers, presenting rather than laying claim to this much loved, much contested, once-public space.
There is little unity to be found in the approaches, media, or languages of the artists' work, and in many ways this reflects the generosity of the Baths themselves. There is much that we can find here, and no single line that we should take. The building is big and sprawling and wears the history of its long use explicitly. Here it is elegant and spacious in its period detail; there it is adapted, truncated, and UPVC-ed. And yet Govanhill Baths consistently overflows with a sense of the human, the personal, and the ergonomic, and it is this very fact that re-assets that palpable sense of variety.
Artists have worked to select and to articulate; to contradict and to celebrate; to memorialise and to embellish; to reinforce; to historicise; to invent; to explore; and to reveal. They have worked at every scale from the monumental to the intimate. They have occupied every corner and run the fingerprints of their consideration over every surface. As visitors, we can vicariously feel the artists' attention, their thoughtfulness and their decision-making. We might even feel that their care has become an act of love for the building they have chosen to work within, or that Deep Breaths is, in fact, less an exhibition than a series of gifts.
This once-public-ness seems an indelible quality of the Baths as we now experience them through the wholly voluntary efforts of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust. These were after all, rooms that were once well known, frequented, and shared by a whole community. Then, we felt that this place was ours, whether we chose to use it or not. Now the building is no longer public. Now the doors to the Baths are closed and the windows are shuttered to our curiosity. Now we need permission from outside agencies to be able to be here, and today we understand that the artworks have become part of that invitation. We have come to see the artwork but, we admit, we have also come to see the Baths themselves. There is a power in walking these corridors. By coming here we are stating that we have not forgotten the world that waits quietly behind the padlocks.
To make our way through the rooms and subdivisions of rooms within the Baths is to read trace upon trace of human activity. People have walked, thought, made, swum, talked, laughed, lived, tried, learned, believed, wept, remembered, imagined, triumphed, trusted, and breathed here. The artworks in Deep Breaths remind us of that. And although the tone of the individual artists' responses varies widely, the very presence of these artworks hints at hope for the Baths' future, as well as regret for their present state. Because Govanhill Baths is inarguably a place of people and a place for people, which is perhaps why its decay seems so bodily as well as so poignant. The peeling paint that earlier reminded me of falling leaves is, on second glance, more like sloughing skin. When the doors close on this weekend, a space that was once a shared and public place will once again be closed and dormant. Not dead we know, but only sleeping.
Glasgow City Council closed Govanhill Baths in 2001, without any local consultation. Its loss is still keenly felt by the Govanhill community.
Ruth Barker is an artist who lives in Govanhill.