EDINBURGH — At the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016, one country’s pavilion stood out. Presented by Aileen Sage Architects, the insightful and enjoyable offering from Australia was dedicated, as the blurb on the wall stated, to “a bridge between people … a well-known public space, where the personal and the communal intersect”: the swimming pool. An angular, shallow wood-paneled pool cleverly abutted a full-length window that looked down onto the canal running through the Giardini. The installation highlighted how swimming pools and water are a crucial part of our lives, not only for the pleasure and sustenance they provide, but for the way they connect us to architecture and nature.
I was reminded of this when I saw “Gateway,” the most recent work by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos at Jupiter Artland, a breathtaking 120-acre sculpture park on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland. (Other artists who have contributed permanent site-specific installations here over the past few years include Cornelia Parker, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, Laura Ford, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Phyllida Barlow, Marc Quinn, Anya Gallaccio, Charles Jencks, and Andy Goldsworthy.)
Even on a gray-skied Scottish day, “Gateway” conjures joy and warmth. Measuring 9 meters (nearly 30 feet) in diameter at its widest point, the installation is, in essence, a colorful, fully functioning swimming pool. It’s made from 11,366 one-off hand-painted tiles, meticulously produced in a traditional ceramic workshop in Portugal; up close, you can see the individual brushstrokes on each one.
The overall design is based on the shape of a splash. Six tiled paddle-like arms of various sizes stretch out from the circular pool of water. On the paddles and at the bottom of the pool are ribbons, swirls, and spirals of bright orange, red, pink, purple, blue, and yellow, mimicking the ripples and cross-currents of waves and creating a striking iridescence on the water’s surface. Each line of color weaves through the paddles and eventually into the water; you can pick one to follow like a yellow-brick road. Scorched black bricks, arranged in a beautiful parquet pattern, frame the pool. Fanciful topiary mounds and two wrought iron gates enclose the whole area, like a secret garden.
Vasconcelos first caught international attention at the 51st Venice Art Biennale in 2005 with her provocative sculpture “A Noiva (The Bride),” a five-meter-high by two-meter-wide chandelier made from thousands of white tampons. Last year, she had a temporary indoor show at Jupiter Artland (also called Gateway), where her monumental and adventurous installations again candidly addressed subjects such as femininity, gender inequality, immigration, and craftsmanship: “Coração Independente Vermelho (Red Independent Heart),” for example, is a large heart-shaped sculpture constructed from intricately filigreed red plastic cutlery. For the exhibition, it rotated inside the opulent ballroom of Bonnington House, the orange-plastered Jacobean manor on the estate of Jupiter Artland.
The “Gateway” pool doesn’t have the same political volition as Vasconcelos’s previous works, but it’s not weaker for it. Her inspiration this time came from the supposed spirituality of the grounds. Two Celtic leylines — which are thought to channel the earth’s energy and link sacred places across the world — overlap where Bonnington House was built. The pool is aligned with one of these, and if you float to its center — marked by a purple hexagon on the pool’s floor — the acoustics change dramatically. Voices become louder and reverberate. Another interactive moment occurs on the steps that lead into the water. Their gentle incline deliberately slows your pace, encouraging contemplation and, potentially, a spiritual feeling, much like an immersion baptism.
“The piece is like a threshold to another universe that we’re not conscious of but through which we can flow,” Vasconcelos told us at the press preview, dressed in a kaftan and swimwear that matched the patterns of “Gateway.” She incorporated astrology, too. “I wanted to find a way to sign the project,” she explained. “And to connect the elements of sky, earth and water.” Scorpio, her own zodiac sign, can be spotted underwater, discreetly located on one side of the pool as a dragon-like form, next to an abstract yellow spiral that represents the sun. Nestled within the patterns on the six paddles are the different zodiac signs of Nicky and Robert Wilson’s family, the art collectors and founders of Jupiter Artland who live in Bonnington House.
The public can book slots to swim in the pool until August 22 as part of Edinburgh Art Festival, but Vasconcelos and the Wilsons intend “Gateway” to be used for years. Changing facilities are elegantly hidden inside a mirrored-glass geodesic dome in one corner of the site, adding a futuristic aspect to the work.
“Gateway” feels as though it is in another dimension or intergalactic. It breaks down the boundaries between art and architecture, and makes both accessible. It pulls off the ambitious task of blending into its surroundings as well as enhancing them. The area of water could be bigger (it’s not for lane swimming), but discovering the pool’s halo of color behind a maze of tall green plants provides a frisson of excitement. It’s “an experiential space that is inherently social, playful, and shared,” says Claire Feeley, the Head of Exhibitions at Jupiter Artland. Vasconcelos has turned a swimming pool — something that is often overlooked or generic — into something both lighthearted and stunning.
Joana Vasconcelos: Gateway is open for the season at Jupiter Artland (Bennington House Steadings, Near Wilkieston, Edinburgh, Scotland) through September 29. Slots for swimming can be booked through August 22.