Water ensures the sustenance of life itself. Human bodies constitute of a very high percentage of water and it is no surprise that the survival of humanity is also linked to the disposal of water. From our daily consumption, to agriculture, sanitation, industry, energy generation, all are dependent on the water source. The infrastructure of the urbanized metropolises around the world relies on water among its most integral needs.
However, Art on the other hand is conceivably not a necessity of the human kind. What is the position of Art is a debate for another day but for the sake of this article I want to look at how water, art and human sustenance are linked conceptually and in reality. Back in the Modern time period, Art mainly concerned itself with aesthetics, formal components and materiality. Various versions of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ ideology have dominated the art theory in the last century. The subjectivity and objectivity of Art overlapped tremendously. But Art in the contemporary times is more contextualized than ever before and responds to the stimuli of its immediate environment. With the contemporary times, the definitions of Art are less constrictive. Today, Art actively engages with its context and promotes the views of its maker.
Conversations around eco-friendly art are a direct offspring of the contemporary world and its complexities. Art today is politically responsive, socially active and environmentally conscious. Terms like Land Art, Public Art, Earth Art Movement, and Environmental Art seem to dotting the globe. These art movements are engaging with the landscape of the earth, its materials, its growth and its resources. Artists are involved in processes that interfere with the natural environment to improve it and to highlight activism related to access, restoration, quality of life and ecological concerns.
Art creates conversations about things and us. It acts as a reflection of our individual and collective behaviors, our choices, our dreams and our desires. These conversations are often unresolved and need subjective pondering. But when it comes to environmental art and in context of water; its shortage, its misuse and its resourcefulness are all very solution-driven problems, where design and architecture can play a more active role. Design may provide timely solutions for engineering devices that may change the course of our future. However, Art can provide us with the much-needed discussions around issues of awareness, cause and effects and empathy. Art can create an emotional bond; it can create a metaphor that may change our attitude towards the subject matter. It can affect our responses to certain facts. But it cannot change the facts themselves.
The 1995 Kevin Costner film, ‘Waterworld’ portrayed a doomsday scenario where the world has run out of drinking water after the melting of the snowcaps and polar glaciers. A community of survivors is shown pursuing a mythical dream of reaching dry land and fresh water. Of all the dystopian and apocalyptic scenarios painted by cinema (including predatory attacks by life-sucking aliens, takeover of zombies, and nuclear annihilation of the world by Russians. Etcetera) we, the humans of the earth seem to have found our first real threat; cities of the world are running out of fresh water. Cape Town is one of the first cities that is running out of fresh water and may have to shut supply to its city dwellers of around four million. Other major cities of the world like Mexico and Somalia have been forewarned of this fast approaching catastrophe.
Water conservation seems to be the most important action that the urban sector of the world populace needs to adopt as a strategy to counter the almost inevitable fate of our collective near future. So how is art responding to such a sensitive issue? The California drought since 2013 has inspired many artists to document the effects of the water shortage in the area and documentaries, photographic works, awareness campaigns by students and artists have been put into motions since then. Design solutions that help recycle water from sinks and showers to use for flushing toilets have many variations like the sink/water closet combo and the sink/urinal combo. Timed, wound, pedal and sensor-operated faucets are coming into a wide use in commercial and residential fittings. These time-based, game-like, cause-and-effect mechanisms are part of a (arguably) new branch of design referred to as Emotional Design. Emotional Design employs tactics to elicit certain prescribed responses from the user based on the understanding of human behavior.
Poor Little Fish Sink is an emotional design piece by Yan Lu that gives the illusion of draining water from the little bowl of the tiny gold fish as you wash your hands in the sink thus risking the life of the fish. The success of the design is immeasurable but the trick is to change the narrative of the endless supply of water that erupts from a regular tap to that of a reduction from a source, in this case the fish bowl. This creates guilt in the user that may result in responsible behavior towards water wastage and may discourage prolonged use. However, I do feel that the nature of this emotional blackmail and discomfort could be effective only culturally and perhaps falsely accounts all users to be conscientious and responsible human beings.
Another quirky design by an artist Elisabeth Buecher is that of shower curtain titled Spikey. The shower curtain inflates in the shape of long plastic cones when it comes into contact with water for more than 4 minutes. The shower curtain in its water infused state forces the bather out of the shower after the said minutes ensuring minimum usage of water in the shower. This method also relies on the bargain with the user to expose them on a self-inflicted metric of check and balance. Design often relies on the user’s consent towards being actively responsible citizens and sharing the utilities like water and power with other people of the community. When water becomes a privilege, as in the case of the Cape Town such design arrangements may have to be replaced by less democratic procedures of rationing and load shedding, where the participation of the user may be involuntary.
Making Waves is an-going workshop and project by a Berlin based artist Daniel Seiple. The workshop invites refugees from the Berlin area to participate in a technical experience of learning how to build model boats, eventually leading up to a life-size motorboat project. The team of refugees with the help of technical support is building a boat that they will use to recreate an improved version of the journey that they undertook from Turkey to Greece. They are also offering experiential gestures for engagement with the public where the boat will offer tours; it will also be available for rent. The project also includes poetic gestures like; one can have the name of a loved one shouted into the lake when the boat takes its virgin voyage. So in many ways the project is a reenactment but also a metaphorical and symbolic experience of sailing in a vessel that the immigrants have agency over. Much like the Noah’s Ark, they will have built their own boat.
The project is meant to be a cultural and creative investigation between the immigrants and the people of Berlin. It enables the immigrants a life skill where the boat becomes a vessel that carries their dreams and hopes of integration into a new people and a new land. Several other artists including Ai Wei Wei have been working with refugees on similar ideas of loss and displacement. Undertaking an illegal and unsafe sea journey as the only final resort for survival further magnifies the capriciousness of the lives of war-torn people. The world was shaken by the image of the body of a Syrian toddler swept up on the Turkish beach. Ai Wei Wei recreated the pose on the Greek seashore where he was living and working with the Syrian refugees. Since the beginning of time, the open waters have brought wars, carnage, reinforcements, help, news, trade and hope to many.
The precariousness of life and death; the open water being the difference between life and death or perhaps the reason for one or the other is also an exploration for the Karachi based artist Fazal Rizvi. Rizvi’s exhibition Rooms Afloat in Karachi earlier this year had a site specific audio tour that involved taking a boat ride from the Kemari harbor out into the Arabian Sea. The rhythmic motion of the waves, the visual scenery of the waterscape and the audio piece all layered on one and other for the far-reaching experience. The twenty-five minutes audio piece starts with the sounds of waves sweeping on the beach in a successive cadence. The audio of breathing gradually grows heavy and takes over the sounds of the water completely. The breathing reaches a crescendo of sorts, almost giving way to breathless gasping and then silence. The crescendo could be a climax of pleasure or of life itself. The audio eases into a narrative in Urdu by multiple voices taking turns; speaking of bodies, sites, spaces, slaves, boats, fish and water. The work speaks of sailors, perhaps fishermen crossing into untraceable water borders and arriving into new lands.
The time-based piece is an experiential and participatory work that engages multiple senses of its witnesses. It offers very little relief to its audience as they listen to this claustrophobic description of spaces and breathlessness of fish while they are seaborne on a small boat in the sea. The openness of the seascape contrasts starkly with the airlessness of the narration and the limited space on the boat itself. There are very restricted options for movement or action for people on the vessel. The audio ends with a fishermen song, sung in chorus at a distance.
Art can offer us the resolution to value the life we have and celebrate the freedom, choices and agency that comes with it. The representation of our own history, our cultural values, the significance of our lands and waters are tied together by Art. Poetry has been recited about the open waters and ballads of pirates, sailors and heroes written. Stories of new lands, mythical creatures and unwavering courage of the human spirit to take on the mighty ocean have carved our literature across many languages. Songs of loss, captivity, freedom and victory capture the complexity of the human suffering and joy. Art holds the humanity’s story and her survival in the face of adversity at the heart of its legacy. It creates pictures out of ephemeral qualities like time and space. And idols out of moments, thoughts and visions.
Facts about the author:
- Her father is a retired Master Mariner.
- She has sailed on merchant ships as a child.
- She cannot swim.