An Artist of the Floating World
Floating is associated with a raft of neurological and physical benefits which are well documented but if you have not floated before you might be looking for endorsements that are a little less technical. If so here are a few ways of thinking about it written from the perspective of a visual artist. Robert Fitzmaurice has been floating with us regularly since 2016.
Back in the early 1980s I would often visit Durham Cathedral. On one such trip, while I was queuing to enter, I noticed an American tourist and his wife ahead of me. They were both clutching video recorders and looking keenly at the historic edifice before them. After buying their tickets I heard the husband say to his wife: “Right, you do the outside, I’ll do the inside, and I’ll see you back here in half an hour.” I kept an eye out for them and sure enough this is what they did, and then happily set off to capture whatever was next on their agenda. Setting aside any concerns over the speed of their sightseeing the episode provides a useful entry point for this essay.
We have always been an inquisitive and acquisitive species, with a tendency to record and share experiences in order to say, perhaps to ourselves as much as anyone else: ‘Hey, I was here. Hey, that was me’. While this has been a characteristic our condition since our earliest hunter-gatherer communities, technology, especially social media, has turned this trait into an obsession. Today our lives are presented online as carefully curated feeds, with our most select and precious moments distributed for others to inspect and respond to with ‘Likes’, emoticons and more bespoke forms of vindication. I participate, and I suspect most people reading this do too. There are benefits, especially in terms of keeping in contact with friends and family around the world, but in recent years the dark side of social media and the internet have left no doubt that our digital accounts are also Faustian pacts.
Whether we use social media for entertainment, promotion or debate it all takes place on the ‘wall’; that instance of the screen where so much of our lives is now played out. Any wall divides, and depending upon your position to it you might well feel included or excluded, admitted or denied, protected or exposed. If you are inside you might well feel threatened from those on the outside; likewise if you are one the outside you might well feel an overwhelming urge to get in. The historical manifestations: the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, Offa’s Dyke, and the Berlin Wall are major real-world examples, but any wall divides, no matter its scale or material nature.
If we travel back three decades to the couple with their video recorders one may possibly feel some nostalgia for more simple negotiations with existence: “You do the outside, I’ll do the inside and I’ll see you back here in half an hour.” Later, they would no doubt sit at home in front of their television, watch and remember. A similar couple, three decades before them, would leaf through a photograph album, and a further three decades before that perhaps recall trying to standing stock-still for a family portrait.
Clearly our relationships with memories and experience have fundamentally changed. Today our inquisitive, acquisitive natures can summon and manipulate context in ways that would have been unimaginable for previous generations. Whether we like it or not we must today learn how to navigate a vast, unruly and sometime terrifying, sea.
The extent to which we understand this has a direct bearing on mental wellbeing. Without some some way of moderating input we end up overloaded visually, conceptually and emotionally. This is where a regular floating habit can help. Floating is certainly paradoxical in that you enter a confined space that can become in a very real sense boundless as the generally accepted norms of exterior and interior experience fall away. Think of the pod as a safe saline realm where all walls dissolve.
If I include my student years I have been practicing art for over forty years now. This has involved me thinking about such things at length and exploring ways that they can be expressed through form. In contrast I’ve only been floating for a couple of years but I am already struck by a number of touchpoints between the two activities, and although I would not describe my experiences inside the pod as a game-changer for my art they do serve as a very powerful complement.
One of the central preoccupations of art since modernism has been the relationship between the exterior, physical world (the world as experienced) and the interior, subjective world (the world as interpreted). In my figuration the figure is a central concern, both thematically and compositionally. I often utilise my pod-time to reflect and process images in these dual senses, conscious that my both physical position and psychological state inside the pod are operating as both subject and object.
With this in mind, if we return to the couple capturing Durham Cathedral, my reasons for starting with them may become clear. “You do the outside, I’ll do the inside and I’ll see you back here in half an hour.” If one can think of the cathedral as representing the dual nature of existence and the couple acting in unison as one entity, I think we arrive at a good metaphor for the way we move through life: motivated to witness and understand our existence from all angles, yet attempting to do so at a speed which compromises our findings. Floating offers us a way to significantly slow down both mind and body and really appreciate what is going on.
Blue Fixer - Robert Fitzmaurice
My floating adventures took off in 2016 when I received an invitation from Michael to participate in his project ‘Beyond the Pod’ which offered two free floats if the artist would create an artwork inspired by the sessions. I readily agreed to participate but really had no idea what to expect. Would I enjoy it? Would I fall asleep and roll over? Would I see things? I had heard about sensory deprivation tanks back in the eighties but nothing about the benefits of floating for health. The words ‘deprivation’ and ‘tank’ suggested a laboratory rather than a spa, and it was hard not to recall watching the hyper-trippy film Altered States. I’d enjoyed it, but only in the way that one enjoys a rodeo, from a safe distance.
Of course it is understandable that people with no experience of floating may harbour a range of anxieties about it. Some may doubt the bold claims about floating’s many neurological and physiological benefits, others will no doubt be unsettled by claims that entering into a dark and confined space will grant their mind unlimited space to roam. Freedom may be great in principle but when it asks us to step outside our comfort zone we are sometimes less than ready to embrace it.
My first float dispensed with such misperceptions. I had found it strangely uplifting and relaxing but it would take another couple of sessions to fully appreciate all it has to offer.
If you are unsure I really encourage you to give it a go at least once. Try it with an open mind and see what the experience tells you. If really unsure call into the centre and read the comments book - you’ll be encouraged by the positive testimonies, but only by floating yourself will you discover that behind the adjectives that regularly appear on the page - relaxing, restoring, calming, energising - there lies something way more particular: the opportunity for a unique and personal encounter with your self, or, as I prefer to think of it, selves. So book yourself a pod session and escape those walls, the push and pull of inside and outside. We’ll see you back here soon enough.
Originally from Coventry Robert Fitzmaurice studied Fine Art in Sunderland 1980-83 and got his MFA at the University of Reading 1984-86. He became a full-time artist in 2015 and holds a studio in the town at OpenHand OpenSpace. Last year he held two solo shows ‘SOLDIER’ at Sandham Memorial Chapel and 'Companion Pieces’ at no format Gallery, London and previously has had works selected for The RA Summer Exhibition, ING Discerning Eye London and NN Contemporary, Northampton.
His next Solo exhibition ‘NO EDEN’ will be at Greenham Common Control Tower, 16th March - 29th May.