Pools You Can't Swim In

Pools are hella fun. Millions of people the world over spend time diving into, floating around in, or suntanning beside swimming pools.

But while pools are definitely good places to have fun and cool down, it's also impossible to separate these seasonal oases from what they represent. Public pools serve as communal sanctuaries while private pools signify wealth and status (and, arguably, underscore the need for water conservation).

The blatant symbolism of swimming pools, combined with the unusual aesthetics made possible by the refraction of light in water, have made them alluring subjects for artists including painters like Henri Matisse and David Hockney.

Some contemporary artists have opted to portray pools in a more three-dimensional way, creating sculptures and installations that won’t be cooling anyone off anytime soon.

So put down your towel, change out of your bathing suit, and take a look at some of these tantalizing pools that aren't open for swimming.

1. Elmgreen & Dragset - Van Gogh's Ear (2016)

Photo credit: Public Art Fund

Photo credit: Public Art Fund

Viewers may wonder why a giant swimming pool, which looks like it's meant to be enjoyed as a private oasis, is placed in one of New York City's most commercial and trafficked interstices. According to Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, stopping passersby in their tracks is precisely the point.

Viewers might also wonder about the title. Are the artists highlighting the simple fact that the pool looks like a detached ear, or attempting to thrust this everyday object into a more surreal and mythological realm?

There are no simple answers. But Elmgreen & Dragset, who use swimming pools in their work pretty often, have cited the influence of “readymades” — one of the more absurd practices of art history, which turns mass manufactured objects into pieces of art.

2. Caitlin Cherry – Mute City, Big Blue, Port Town (2014)

Photo credit: Cargo Collective

Photo credit: Cargo Collective

This mixed-media piece by artist Caitlin Cherry fuses painting and sculpture with the aesthetics of a community swimming pool. The focal point of the work is an abstract oil painting which is placed under water and suspended between two panes of plexiglass. The submerged painting is surrounded by a sculptural “frame” that looks just like a tiny pool — complete with a “NO DIVING” sign and towels splayed on its ledge. Bonus points: the water is even chlorinated!

3. Tino Razo - Party in the Back (2017)

Photo credit: Anthology

Photo credit: Anthology

To be fair, all abandoned swimming pools that have been repurposed for skateboarding have a place in this list. But they're represented exceptionally well in this book by Tino Razo.

The back story: Razo and his friends would use Google Earth (and their own deductive skills) to identify empty pools that they might be able to skate in. Then, they’d clean out any debris or muck, and skate around undetected for short bursts of time. Party in the Back is a charming, if legally dubious, document of the thrill of re-claiming suburban decay.

4. Leandro Erlich - Swimming Pool (2011)

Photo credit: MoMA PS1

Photo credit: MoMA PS1

The brainchild of Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich, this artful optical illusion is created by placing two pieces of glass with 4 inches of water between them above an empty swimming pool, and inviting guests to view the work from both above and below. Those beneath get the visual sensation of being trapped underwater, while onlookers above are perplexed by the sight of people milling about on what looks like the bottom of a pool.

Swimming Pool explores our perception of not only light and water, but also of our fellow man. According to Ehrlich, "the work invites our active involvement in its spaces — once we catch on to its deception — and produces a sense of connection between people looking at each other."

5. Alfredo Barsuglia - Social Pool (2014)

Photo credit: designboom

Photo credit: designboom

When this pool was opened to the public in 2014, people were technically able to swim in it. But, we've included it on this list because it was almost impossible to access. Anyone who wanted to take a dip in the Social Pool would have to go to the MAK Center in Los Angeles to obtain a key to the pool’s cover, as well as the GPS coordinates of its location. They’d be directed to the middle of the Mojave Desert, where they’d then have to hike a mile or so. The work is a mirage turned tangible reality that serves as a social experiment exploring the lengths people will go to experience luxury.

Though most of us only pay attention to the feeling of the water on our skin on a hot day, swimming pools have the ability to provide us with sensory experiences of almost every sort. We just have to dive in.