Artist Sue Austin is planning to perform swimming pool acrobatics in an underwater wheelchair this week in London.
Austin has been wheelchair-bound since 1996. In a wheelchair designed with help from dive experts and academics, the self-propelled model will be used in a performance due to take place in Weymouth.
The artist says on her website:
“Over an extended period of time her practice has operated as a vehicle to open up a thinking space around the materiality of the wheelchair. This is being used as a metaphor to raise questions about the value of diversity to society through raising the profile of ‘difference’.”
Of course, being in a wheelchair has impacted on Austin’s life — and she has turned this into a muse for her artwork. The prototype, built with funding from the Arts Council’s Impact Scheme, first came to her after learning how to scuba-dive.
It uses a propeller to move the chair, and custom fins positioned at the back of her legs steer below water, operated by foot through an acrylic strip.
Originally, the design proved difficult, as most propeller models are based on hand movements — and the artist does not have the strength to maneuver them properly. Instead, Austin and her team bought a National Health Service (NHS) chair, spending months making it more buoyant. The heel plates were modified to create the fins, and the strip attaches to her legs for steering. The seat has also been modified so it can cope with the pressure of performance.
Austin said in a press release:
“I’m thrilled that lots of people have been inspired by the project already, many of them telling me how seeing the wheelchair underwater has made them want to try it too. They’re realising that it’s actually extending the boundaries for all of us.”
The exhibition is called Creating the Spectacle.