On the eve of a summer already overshadowed by the spectre of climate calamity, two timely exhibitions explore our relationship to water. Tiatia’s works appear in an extensive exhibition called Water, at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, while at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Sublime Sea charts Australians’ enduring obsession with the beautiful but sometimes menacing stuff that surrounds our island nation.
Tiatia is clear that although art might not offer specific solutions to issues such as rising oceans, it does help connect our daily lives with sometimes abstract scientific projections. In this case, art highlights, with a strong emotional resonance, how water is becoming a source of enormous political tension and anxiety.
Around Tuvalu, climate change is experienced on an immediate and human scale. Tiatia’s work is a lament to what is being lost. ‘‘I wanted to present a poetic visual alternative to the way the climate emergency has been presented,’’ she says. Tiatia spent a large chunk of her childhood among family on the island of Savai’i in Samoa, where the Pacific Ocean – the moana – was revered as a vital source of human sustenance and connection, and a provider of life and wisdom. In the face of devastating drought and bushfires at home, along with last year’s UN warning that we have just 12 years to avert environmental catastrophe, it’s an attitude we’d do well to adopt.
But alongside those darker forebodings, there is much room to celebrate. Water is intimately connected to our basic biology and daily sustenance, and also central to our experiences of the seasons: rain and fog in winter, followed by the pleasures of entering the sea, rivers and swimming pools in summer.
This seaside passion is especially rich in Australia; even internationally, our cultural affinity with water is well-known. Little surprise so much TV and cinema (from Seachange to The Last Wave or On the Beach) deals with it in some way. Our literature, meanwhile, evokes the beach in everything from Puberty Blues (Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey) or Breath (Tim Winton) to Bluebottle (Belinda Castles) or The True Colour of the Sea (Robert Drewe).
This inspiration has endured globally, with an extraordinary array of music, from Handel’s Water Music and Debussy’s La Mer, to Cry Me a River or Purple Rain. Water has always been deeply embedded in Western mythology. In his epic book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama unpacks the symbolism of rivers from many perspectives. He describes how ‘‘fluvial myths’’ flourished in antiquity, embodying ‘‘circulation’’ as a governing principle. As he tells us, rivers are central to civilisation, circulating in a cleansing, life-giving way through the centre of most cities, and out into the vast expanses of the sea.
Vivien Gaston well knows the power of the sea; she describes our oceans as sublime in the truest sense of the word – invoking a mixture of beauty melded with terror. It is, she says, ‘‘something that overwhelms you and makes you realise your insignificance’’. A curator and academic, Gaston says her research for the Sublime Sea exhibition began with the focus of ‘‘doing honour to the past’’ through historical artworks about the sea; eventually, the show also became a message for the future.
‘‘The sense of wonder and the sublime in the presence of nature involves a recognition of our place in the universe, which is small,’’ Gaston says. ‘‘It comes with a sense of our relative vulnerability and insignificance, especially in the context of environmental chaos.’’
Several works in Sublime Sea are intended to arrest us with their power, such as Tamara Dean’s Endangered 1 (2018) in which she captures images of people swimming beneath the surface of the open sea in dappled light. Gaston describes this ‘‘extraordinary shoal of naked bodies’’ as a ‘‘deep, dark, beautiful rapture’’, where people are full of freedom yet vulnerable to the elements.
With that double-edge in mind, Gaston wonders whether it is the role of artists to simply pay homage to the fragile untouched beauty that remains on Earth, or whether they are bound to draw attention to issues such as sea levels, increasing ocean acidity, over-fishing or inundation with plastic? As a curator, she has taken the lead (the subtitle to the show is Rapture and Reality) and while she says some of the works are ‘‘anti-sublime’’, the inclusion of museum artefacts (such as a preserved polar bear) among the more inspirational art will draw us back to the scientific underpinning she has strategically threaded throughout.
Likewise at GOMA, Water curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow has been thinking about the power of large and smaller-scale artworks to balance an imaginative, playful experience with a more serious, fact-based edge. Working on the exhibition for the past two years, Barlow wanted to create a broad conversation full of questions and consideration of ‘‘future places of possibility’’, taking in diverse aspects such as water’s key role in the evolutionary history of life on Earth, the way water divides (rivers, oceans) and joins us (migration, trade), and its simple, immersive sensual quality.
‘‘I want to give an idea of water connecting us all,’’ she says. Debates about water can get polemic – government responses to environmental hot topics such as Barrier Reef protection and Adani, and the role of climate change in increasing floods, fires and droughts, have been deeply divisive – so Barlow has focused on works that might provoke constructive discussion around valuing and nurturing our water resources.
The exhibition takes up the entire ground floor of the large gallery, and includes two especially massive works. Cai Guo-Qiang’s Heritage (2013) features life-sized pairs of animals sipping from a large water-filled pool, while in Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed (2014), a creek runs through a rocky landscape recreated majestically within the gallery.
For both works, a lot of hydraulic expertise has been involved to manage the volumes of water required. ‘‘Riverbed really appealed to me,’’ Barlow says. ‘‘With many museums, there is a desire to bring in immersive/interactive works in a way that can be quite spectacular and performative – but Riverbed is radically quiet, with all those stones and the greyness of it, and the purity. And I felt we needed at least one work where you can touch water.’’
Born to Icelandic parents in Denmark, Eliasson has said Riverbed is an attempt to capture the landscapes he visited in Iceland as a youth. Barlow links it, too, to the Australian experience of drought, but also to the beginning and end of time – the work seems primeval and apocalyptic in equal measure.
Working closely with Eliasson’s studio, the GOMA team used 3D modelling to install the work over eight weeks, beginning with a hand-cut timber-truss support frame lined with waterproofing material and ‘‘geotextile’’ fabric. All of this was covered with 100 tonnes of sand, small river pebbles and large hand-selected basalt rocks. The installation was underpinned by pump systems to regulate the flow of water through the channel.
While this ‘‘real’’ experience is bound to draw visitors, there are other equally profound moments on offer in Water. In his Heat (2018) series, Australian photographer Paul Blackmore considers water from a spiritual perspective. Blackmore, who has photographed water-based scenery for many years, recalls shooting the Kumbh Mela ritual, held in 12-year cycles at four riverbank pilgrimage sites in India. It attracts millions of Hindus.
‘‘Watching that mass of humanity going to the water for that spiritual cleansing, I could see clearly how water connects us to each other,’’ Blackmore says. ‘‘I swim every day – and for me it is like a baptism. There is a sense of renewal.’’
The Heat series was the first time Blackmore had shot photographs in the surf and below the water. ‘‘I had to fall into a rhythm with the ocean,’’ he says. ‘‘I had to anticipate how people were moving … it is a bit of a dance between you and the subject matter.’’
Also investigating the ocean’s depth, but in the context of animal origins in the sea, is Melbourne’s Vera Moller, a German-born artist who once studied as a scientist, and who now makes extraordinary sculptural installations that suggest (but do not mimic) underwater animals and kelp forests. Her practice is astonishingly tactile: she makes thousands of her organic forms by hand, using air-drying clay, and then paints them to create intricate works such as Vestibulia (2019), containing families of would-be organisms in a display case stretching 15 metres along an alcove at GOMA.
With a deep interest in biology, ecology, surrealism and the dreamworlds those avant-garde artists explore, Moller says her works contemplate the sorts of underwater worlds we might find snorkelling or diving, but also draw attention to the sorts of catastrophes underway.
‘‘We are at a point where our reefs and sponge gardens are dying very quickly,’’ she says. ‘‘I do try to show my audience where they should look. I can’t help but want to engage and develop empathy and to contribute to its protection. But you first have to get people to look.’’ With all this abundant life on Earth under threat, it seems ironic that there was so much excitement a few months ago when – for the first time – astronomers identified water vapour in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a distant star. That world, unromantically known as K2-18b, sits in what is called the ‘‘Goldilocks’’ zone – meaning its position, temperatures and water-vapour content make it potentially habitable (and also a likely target in the search for extra-terrestrial life).
But it’s hardly Plan B; even in the unlikely event we could live there, we are 111 light years away from K2-18b. Watery Earth is all we have.
Water is at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, December 7 – April 26, 2020. qagoma.qld.gov.au. Sublime Sea is at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, December 14 – February 23, 2020. mprg.mornpen.vic.gov.au