Why I swim

JUST breathe: Alex Halligey in Unfathomable. Photograph courtesy Alex Halligey.

LOSS. IT’S SOMETHING that has characterised so much of our emotional landscape over the past two and a half years, and yet it’s so enormous and universal and specific and intimate that none of us are able to fully cast ourselves around what it means. It’s stupendous. And this is the deeply complex and beguilingly direct message in the work Unfathomable, a 40-minute film made by Alex Halligey and Athena Mazarakis, which screens at the Bioscope this week, and is available online until the end of the month.

Rich with the to-ing and fro-ing of personal narrative that breaks chronology with asides and red herrings, it is about the fragility and robustness of memory and the haphazard nature of the pieces that form a life, remembered. On paper, and in its minutiae it is about Halligey’s late father, Paul. In its essence, it takes the universality of living and losing and splays it out across broken, ink-stained tissues thrust against the meniscus of water. It’s about deeply personal losses. Your brother. My mother. His life partner. Her friend.

And water is the thread that punctuates yet contains the words and gestures, the memories and texture of this compelling and beautiful piece. It’s about freedom and tears, glass jars which hold difficult thoughts, fears and the unknown. It’s about how transparent mediums – light, glass, plastic, water, play magnifying tricks with reality, consorting with horror and ghosts as they distort what you think you know.

Deep in the nexus between personal narrative, the nebulous meeting place of water and tissue paper, and jazz, is the basic healing principles of the Alexander technique. There is movement, even joy here, and while you’re watching the piece, there are moments in which the lightness of pianistic sound seems to jar with the complexity of the emotions at play. As the work evolves, however, there is a logical flowing together of values that leaves you lifted.

Unfathomable is created with a disarming candour in its language. It’s a tale about a well-loved shirt, and the insatiable anger of a seven-year-old. While it paints a portrait of Halligey’s father in complex nuances and layers of facts, memories and pain, it holds on to the idea of the unpredictable fragility of the human body, as it is about making peace with your own ideas of losing a central character in your life. And burying them. Again. And again.

Like Peter Terry’s work At All Costs, it is short in duration but opens a vein in your understanding of your own humanity and aloneness in the wake of a death, that enables you to forget time. And when the credits roll up, it feels as though you have been sitting and watching the gymnastics of water and flimsy film, against the backdrop of Halligey’s history for decades, layered with transparency and ritual, with regret and old ghosts. With the shadows of what could have been, what did happen and the tracings of why things happen in specific ways.

Evocative of the extraordinary work Noah, created by the Forgotten Angle Theatre Company in 2018, the work allows water to do its own inscrutable thing, as it forces the words of the piece up and around and through the skin that holds the water. But also resounding with the values of The Eleventh Hour, an artist’s book created by Minnette Vari in 2017, it has no easy or palatable answers. As you watch Halligey submerging herself in the water, you don’t feel as though you’re drowning. It’s a cleansing. A clarifying.

  • Unfathomable is directed by Athena Mazarakis and performed by Alex Halligey. Adapted from the stage play by Halligey and Mazarakis, it features creative input by Jenni-Lee Crewe (design), Benjamin Muir-Mills (lighting), Nicola Pilkington (videography and film editing), Zain Vally (sound recording, edit and mix) and Daniel de Wet (music). It will be screened at The Bioscope on 19 and 20 July, and is available online via Pop Art until 30 July 2022.

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