This stunning media performance documents Sarah Jane Pell's attempt to fly underwater with DaVinci's glider as winged instruments of the ocean. Presented in galleries as a large-scale video slow-motion looped projection with a haunting 'underwater breathing' soundscape, the footage is often paired with the silent fast-paced and frolicking media performance Revolution. Both may be installed as a distinct media performance installation or shown as part of a museum-style exhibit accompanied by the two performance apparatus: the silver "wings" suspended and spot lit; and the silver "wheel" precariously positioned so as to lure and temp visitors with the desire to either take flight or chance a ride!
The design of the custom-made wings replicated a sketch by da Vinci held at the Natural History Museum London. The first-edition wings were constructed by Floating Passions, Fremantle from molded cane, chicken wire, nylon and rabbit-skin glue as described. They were scaled to my 185cm long body minus the yoke crossbar. After some preliminary testing the wings were modified. The second-edition wings made away with the chicken wire for a thin acrylic sheet which acted a transparent sail/arm fin/paddle for greater propulsion.
Sarah Jane Pell with Underwater Wings, Beatty Park Pool 2002 Photo: The West Australian. Sketches Of Glider By Leonardo Da Vinci - Getty Images.
Underwater cinematographer Paul "Wooly" Wolstenholm and Production assistant Marco Mona travelled to picturesque Rottnest Island with the wings, an ABC TV crew and me for one afternoon of shooting. I had performed some tests and rehearsals at the Beatty Park dive pool with assistants Luke Pither and I was painfully aware of the limitations of the winged prosthesis. The chicken wire cut into my skin. The “hi-tech cable ties” attached along my arms (replacing the glued nylon) did not have any elasticity so when I moved the wing from my ‘hinged-elbow’ it was the limb itself that had to accommodate the compression and extension and not the fixture. In a short time, I had very little feeling in my extremities. The temperature of the water was low and the vasso restrictive costume meant that I was getting very cold even though I was producing a lot of body heat by working hard. The scale of the ‘fin-like’ wing with its 3.85m span caused an immense drag and required considerable shoulder propulsion without any point of advantage for the body. The workload correlated to an increase in air consumption and, as my cylinder depleted, it became more buoyant. I had to address the issue by wearing an unsightly weight belt. The weight belt lowered my centre of balance waywardly and I found it difficult to propel the wings without folding my torso over in a butterfly motion to push and pull the wings through the drag of the water to emulate flying. The resulting performance attempt was akin to the poetry of ‘The Falls’ 1980 the bird film by Peter Greenaway in the sense that it is, as the title suggests, “something of Georges Bataille’s delight in the puncturing of those human pretensions which the fall of Icarus so concisely symbolises”. [Baker 2000] This being said, the movement investigation came from the desire to see if it is possible to loose all sense of navigational coordination and to disappear into a particular spatial orientation that comes with it and the gleeful abandonment of directionality. Can I loose sense of gravity momentarily to connect to and separate from the cosmos? Can I feel totally empowered and utterly inconsequential in one breath? This could not be achieved by emulating flying. Once I forgot about my self-imposed instruction to fly and let myself flounder and fall, I began to enage with the performance possibilities. Paul Wolstenholm, the underwater cinematographer, positioned himself nearly seven meters below me to make the best of the fading light. He captured my silhouetted movements from above against the sunlight beams cutting through the water particles and glistening behind my form. I remembered the birdman contraptions and gave myself the opportunity to laugh at the ridiculousness of my endeavors. The movements that followed this surrender to the sea were wonderfully poetic.
I presented Second Nature: Second Skin composing in part of an underwater performance pre-recorded in Western Australia. My quiet aquatic work looked lost amongst the audience and the venue; I guess I felt it too – as I let many of the pre-choreographed and rehearsed elements of the work dissolve into the confused eyes upon me. What remained was a kind of separation anxiety for me: a fish out of water, sitting with her audience, looking up at a porthole projection of an aquanaut moving about in her aquatic world. While the journey of Second Nature: Second Skin was difficult, it was also cathartic. I now have a greater understanding of how components of my research could be better installed.
Sarah Jane Pell, Platform Performance New Territories 2003 Photos: Live Art Archives Bristol University UK