Denise Batchelor | One Breath (Long Island, Bahamas, 2015)

Arriving back at Auckland airport late at night and walking out into a stormy wintry blast is somehow akin to my arrival at Nassau airport a month or so ago, only the opposite! Both leave you feeling like you’ve landed on a different planet; the after effect of thirty odd hours of international time travel.

Earlier this year I was accepted as one of seven artists to participate in Deep Anatomy – a performance/art/cultural event on Long Island in the Bahamas – that runs concurrently with Vertical Blue, an annual international free-diving competition.

Deep Anatomy, directed by Sam Trubridge, is part of a global network of performance studies, Fluid States Psi#21. His brother, world champion free-diver William Trubridge, directs Vertical Blue.

This was a unique opportunity to explore my project One Breath within an international context; a cluster of athletes, performance studies academics, and the local community.

Denise Batchelor (2015), ‘On route to Long Island, Bahamas’.

The entry point to the many islands of the Bahamas is from the capital, Nassau (pronounced na-SAW). As I entered the immigration lounge, I became immediately aware of a distinct Caribbean ‘beat’. It turned out to be a Calypso band (located in the farthest corner) playing for new arrivals, and certainly made for a relaxed entry into a foreign land. I couldn’t help but wonder why a similar form of cultural entertainment is not offered on arrival in other countries.

After a short stopover in Nassau, I then boarded a smaller plane for Deadman’s Cay, the entry point to Long Island, and was immediately rewarded with views of the islands below. Surrounded by typical white sand beaches and gloriously turquoise water, it was reminiscent of the picture perfect posters you see in the otherwise boring windows of travel agents.  Now as anyone who knows me will attest to, the ‘tourism’ usually associated with destinations such as these, has never been a lure. I prefer to work in the quieter and slower pace of the unadvertised environment  – where one can get lost in solitude and be serenaded by nature’s vocal chords.

I needn’t have worried. Long Island with a population of approximately 3,000 and just the one main road spanning its length (named the Queen’s Highway) is a trail of very small villages. Clarence Town, the main centre, is located on the edge of the harbour and is immediately recognizable by the prominent spires of the SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church – it sits atop one of the few elevated sites on the island. I had photographed this church on a brief stopover on a yacht delivery in 1998 and had climbed one of its spires to get a better view then too.

Denise Batchelor (2015), ‘SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Clarence Town, Long Island’

While many days were filled exploring and gathering footage from the outer reaches of Long Island’s historic ruins and coastline, nothing could have prepared me for Dean’s Blue Hole, the world’s deepest blue hole of its kind, at 202 metres deep.  It is truly awe-inspiring, and my first anxious swim across it felt somehow reminiscent of past mid-ocean deep-water swims on sailing voyages – only this deep-water cavern had a clearly defined entrance.

Mick Douglas (2015) ‘Artist photographing Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island’.

Observing these athletes dives from the water at such close proximity was fascinating, as they truly seemed at one with their underwater environment. Looking down into Dean’s Blue Hole as they descended to depths unimaginable – and after what seemed an eternity, re-ascended – I pondered on breath. And as I strained to keep a descending diver in my sights, I perceived that he/she was being inhaled, deep down into the darkness of giant lungs that would eventually exhale, returning the diver to the surface. This was for me, the beginning of a new engagement with the ocean.

Denise Batchelor (2015), ‘Safety diver descends in Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island’.

Unable to dive into the deep however, I found my comfort zone just below the surface, where the light more fully illuminated the play between water, hue and reflecting sunlight. This placement of body and breath felt somewhere other – not surface, not sky and not fully submerged.  Here, incapable of producing an unmoving frame (as has been common in much of my previous work), I instead embraced the flux, becoming almost a part of the ebb and flow of water, light and the projected reflections made by both.

Denise Batchelor (2015), ‘Untitled’, photograph.

At the conclusion of the Vertical Blue competition, William and Sam Trubridge gave a talk from the diving platform, projecting a slideshow onto the cliffs surrounding Dean’s Blue Hole. I also projected my experimental video piece – of light on lagoon sand, filmed in the shallows during daylight.

Denise Batchelor (2015), ‘Experimental projection, Cliffs of Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island’.

The inspiration for my project One Breath, came from my brother Vaughan Robertson, who for forty plus years has been a free-diving paua fisherman on the Wairarapa coast. Now back in New Zealand I will be developing the work and begin the editing process, culminating in a solo exhibition at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, February – April 2016.

Denise Batchelor

 Image credit: Mick Douglas (2015), ‘Denise Batchelor, Bahamas’.