Wednesday, 2 January 2013


Multi-monitor video portrait, 1990     © National Portrait Gallery, London

National Portrait Gallery, London until February 10th.

Duncan Goodhew's life was changed forever when,  at 10 years of age, he fell 18 feet from a tree and, through a damaged nerve, lost his hair. The story is told that, already dyslexic, he decided to harness his talent for swimming. He did it with such vigour and determination that in time he became the best in the world. He won the  men's 100 metres breaststroke Gold  Medal at the 1980 Moscow Games and this multi media video celebrates his brilliance as a swimmer. To see the Olympic race from start to finish go to

The work can be seen in Room 37  at the National Portrait Gallery, in a small exhibition entitled Poetry of Motion. When I was there it felt like a quiet side chapel in a bustling cathedral, viewers concentrating on paintings and sculptures which were trying to do the nearly impossible: depict dancers and athletes not as subjects sitting for a portrait, but as moving, living performers.

In the centre of this still image, the medal sparkles below Goodhew's characteristic bald domed head and between the turquoise pool water reflected in the pupils of his penetrating eyes: .But in a moment it will be gone. At one point all ten screens are flooded with choppy vibrant  water, with the remaining eleventh image at the base showing ten toes balanced on the edge of the pool; a few moments later he's braced for a dive, flexing his fingers, his hands. his shoulders, his trunk, waiting, waiting in silence; suddenly he is diving on every screen from every angle - back, front, side, close up under water, gaping mouth emerging for breath. Another set of stills shows eleven identical close ups of his hands pressed against the black and cream tiles of the swimming pool edge, perhaps the moment of arrival - or even victory.

The artists' use of a video sliced into moving segments is a perfect choice of medium.  Championship swimming must mean chopping up a huge task into little bits; precision as well as unleashed energy; patterned repetition; and times of  silence, times of stillness.
Toned bromide print on Kentmere paper, May 1996
13 7/8 in. x 13 7/8 in. (354 mm x 354 mm)  © National Portrait Gallery, London
This remarkable bromide print (1996) by Alistair Morrison is another view of  Duncan Goodhew's arresting appearance and memorable eyes.

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