As Australia burns it seems almost callous to call an exhibition Water. When this show was being planned the curators at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art could hardly know it would coincide with one of the worst bushfire seasons of all time. They were more likely motivated by the drought that has dragged on since 2017 and shows no sign of ending soon.
This elaborate survey, which features work by both international and Australian artists, is a sincere attempt to make a connection between the rarified world of art and the issues that confront us as a community, a nation, a planet.
It may not be easy to find positives in the bushfires but this summer’s apocalyptic conditions offer persuasive evidence that global warming is real and needs to be addressed with the utmost urgency. The fires have also highlighted the disconnect that exists between a general public concerned for their children’s future, and a government that wants to pretend everything is under control, and sees no need for long-term policies.
One of the reasons democracy is dying is that politicians have found they can obtain excellent results with spin rather than action. Just keep boasting and spouting, generating inquiries that give the impression of activity while doing nothing to solve a problem that becomes more critical by the day. How good is that?!
Water addresses the political issues in an oblique but positive manner by bringing together artworks that look at the vital element from many different angles. Curator, Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow sets the tone at the beginning of her catalogue essay: “Today, we face significant challenges in caring for water and the life it sustains.” This activist undercurrent runs through the entire show.
The star of Water is Olafur Eliasson, born in Denmark to Icelandic parents, but as close as any artist comes to being a citizen of the world. Since his exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012-13, Eliasson’s standing has only continued to grow, which is hardly surprising as he is the leading ‘environmental’ artist of our age, and nowadays there can be no bigger topic.
Eliasson’s work is distinguished by a formidable, wide-ranging intelligence and a collaborative ethic that enables him to realise projects of monumental proportions. His installation, Riverbed, was first seen at the Louisana Museum, Denmark, in 2014. He has reprised the idea on a massive scale at GOMA, covering 600 square metres of floor space with tonnes of grey river stones. The set-up alone is an extraordinary feat, requiring vast quantities of sand, sheeting, wood and piping. Rocks had to be imported from as far away as Indonesia while engineers grappled with the problem of how to introduce a stream of running water into the middle of the gallery.
The result is a rocky field that suggests either the dawn or time or the end of days. Visitors are invited to clamber over the rocks like explorers, contemplating the modest stream that represents life in the midst of so much scenic barrenness.
This is not the only interactive work in the show. Artist-choreographer, William Forsythe’s The Fact of Matter, challenges visitors to make their way across a space using gymnasts’ rings. I declined the invitation but could see this was no simple matter for lesser athletes. To progress a few metres one has to plan a strategy and put in a huge effort. The moral of the story? We shouldn’t take forward movement for granted.
Water has provided GOMA with an excellent excuse for getting Cai Guo-Qiang’s Heritage out of storage. This installation debuted at the gallery in 2013 and is still an eye-opener, even if it is only a half-sized version of the full work. Of 99 animals clustered around a clear, blueish pool of water, 44 have returned for this second showing. There are still some surprising juxtapositions, as it’s not often one sees an elephant and a wombat nudging up against one another at a waterhole.
The danger with exhibitions based on large, abstract topics is that curators are faced with an almost limitless range of possibilities. The final selections can feel slightly arbitrary, as if any work might be replaced with a similar one without altering the overall nature of the event.
Water is not immune from such charges although there are several strands being pursued, notably a strong indigenous component, which includes an impressive Children’s Gallery designed by artists from Erub Island working with driftnets. It’s appropriate that Yolgnu artists are featured as fresh water and salt water play such a crucial role in their world view and sense of identity.
There is also a lot of photo-based work, perhaps a little too much – from Peter Dombrovskis’s classic 1979 image of the Franklin River that helped mobilise opposition to the building of dams in the Tasmanian wilderness; to Patrick Pound’s found images of reflections on water, or people diving into water; to Trevor Paglen’s photos of the deep sea cables that carry Internet signals across the world.
The problem with filling a show with photography is that unless the imagery is especially striking, such works give the impression of conveying information rather than engaging the viewer’s imagination. Films and still images of swimmers – with the possible exception of Martina Amati’s freediving sequences – represent unremarkable experiences. I’ve always found Tacita Dean’s videos to be more interesting to read about than to watch, and her contribution to this show, Disappearance at sea (1996), is no exception.
The obvious drawcards are the large-scale installations of Eliasson, Cai Guo-Qiang, Tomas Saraceno, and the Mata Ato Collective, which take advantage of the opportunities afforded by GOMA’s cavernous spaces. In Brisbane, where summer temperatures and humidity can be unbearable, there are two other pieces that should appeal to local audiences.
Julian Charrière’s The Blue Fossil Entropic (2013) records a performance in which the artist tried to melt an iceberg using a blowtorch – only to see the water freeze again almost immediately. Charrière’s tiny figure propped on top of an iceberg reads as a symbol of futility, a measure of our own insignificance in the face of Nature.
One final work, acquired for the gallery’s permanent collection, has definite iconic potential. Fischl and Weiss’s Snowman, (1987/2017-19) might be a familiar figure in Europe or America but in tropical Queensland he becomes an alien being, kept alive by being imprisoned in a fridge. By extension the snowman in the fridge is an emblem of our own, insecure state in the face of an increasingly hostile environment. In years to come we may all rely on technology to create conditions in which we are able to survive on an overheated planet.
If we see the snowman as a refugee from the northern hemisphere there’s a certain irony in the fact that we’ve got him safely locked up. This is, of course, Australia’s preferred official method of dealing with refugees, let alone those who might prompt us to start thinking about unwelcome issues such as climate change.
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, QLD.
7 December, 2019 – 26 April, 2020