Under the Water

Naoko Miyaji



Translated from Miyaji, N., Can We Love Trauma?, Otsuki-shoten Publishers 2010



"Summer was the season of water, and under the water was a quiet beyond where a different time reigned."

-Keijiro Suga, Honolulu, Brazil.


At the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, there is an exhibit by Leandro Erlich titled "The Swimming Pool."


From the outside, there is what looks like an ordinary pool complete with a silver ladder, but you will sometimes see people walking in it. Enter the white museum building beside it, giving off an air of translucent cleanliness, and go downstairs from exhibition room 6. Beyond a narrow corridor, the space underneath the pool awaits you with its mouth wide open. It is a "space" in the most literal sense. Like the bottom of a pool emptied at the beginning of winter, it is merely an enclosure surrounded by blue flooring and blue walls.


The acrylic glass ceiling above supports a 10 centimeter-deep mass of water. Once you know the trick, it is actually simple. But it really does feel like you are holding your breath inside a pool, looking up at the surface.


I visited the museum on a very sunny afternoon in the middle of winter. A clear blue sky spread beyond the undulating water, and the sun cast a slanting yellow-white pattern resembling a heat wave on the blue walls. I saw people gazing from outside into the pool from time to time. Surely they saw me too through the ripples in the water.


Memories of the smell of chlorine from swimming class at elementary school, and the salty taste of Baby Star Ramen that I ate while walking under the blazing sun with my friends, tired of swimming, come back to me. I sat at the corner of the pool nugging my knees, tirelessly looking at the surface above, sometimes leaning against the wall.


People would occasionally come and go, staying only for a rather short amount of time despite voicing their enjoyment, but once I had sat down, for some reason everybody who came in afterwards sat down and spent time gazing at the surface as well.


What would it be like on a rainy day? How about a snowy day? Or nighttime? Surely a world more beautiful than any abstract painting would be stretching out on both sides of the water.


From above, a little child sitting by the pool put his hand into the water and touched the acrylic glass. Ripples had spread irregularly. Amidst them, a face full of curiosity drew closer. Apparently the museum staff do not force their strict rules on children. Suddenly, I found that the child had come into the basement without me noticing. An elderly lady, seemingly his grandmother, was watching him as he toddled and almost stumbled. She smiled to me and said, "I could see you from above the whole time." In turn, I offered to take their family photograph.


Come to think of it, what I enjoyed the most when I used to go scuba diving was gazing up at the surface from time to time, feeling the undulating light spread out above my head. Rather than being stunned by the unimaginable forms of coral, or being surrounded by colorful fish, I would stare at where the light came from, barely staying within the light pouring down, in a world completely silent save for my own breathing. And like a mermaid, I would imagine the outside world full of air, the sound of waves, and light. My breaths would rise up as bubbles, and big schools of small translucent would fish sometimes pass by in between.


Yes, I was doing the same on that day. I find it slightly embarrassing, but I once almost died while diving. I was diving in a rather rough tide in a group of several people. I got very tired, and I was breathing heavily. Then suddenly, something got stuck in my throat, and I choked and lost my breath. How long did the sense of suffocating last? It could have been near a minute, or maybe just several seconds. My mouth let go of my mouthpiece. And then I took a deep breath and tried to float towards the glittering surface. Under the water, the tiny bubbles, rays of light and shadow danced with me.


At that moment, I was feeling a genuine joy. Even if "joy" is an overstatement, I could still call it a feeling of release, though my memory may be exaggerated as this was more than 20 years ago.


I heard from a friend accompanying me that afterwards, I was pulled up aboard, remained unconscious for a while, and received artificial respiration from a handsome diving instructor. I must have been such a nuisance. I think about how sad my parents would have been if I had died that day. Back then, I had just graduated from university, and my life was about to blossom.


But at that moment, I was certainly euphoric, even though I have seldom mentioned it to anybody. I felt that it is not a sentiment I should share. It is not that I wanted to die. What was in front of me, what I was heading towards, was not death. I was heading towards a world made of light dancing on the surface of water, sound of waves, fresh breeze, and eternal hope that stretches far beyond.