Troubled Waters

This water-themed feature appeared in Dutch translation in the summer issue of Metropolis M magazine:

Maria Thereza Alves, Phantom Pain, 2019, installation from the Toronto Biennial of Art, 2019, courtesy Toronto Biennial of Art, photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

A vital resource and a habitat we have in common with other creatures, which we have harnessed to our own ends without heed to the environmental consequences, water has been of growing concern to artists and curators all over the world, partly due to the rising awareness of climate change, rising sea levels and other pressing ecological issues – from overfishing to nuclear waste dumping and deep sea mining – impacting on water, its declining quality and access, but also in connection with the ongoing migrant crisis that has turned the Mediterranean Sea into a mass graveyard. The spate of recent biennials and art festivals that have featured the liquid element as an overall theme or a thematic strand reflect this surge of interest in water.1

Under the banner of The Shoreline Dilemma, the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art set out to address the question ‘How do we listen and learn from the lake?’ In their curatorial statement, Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien drew attention to ‘the radical reshaping of the city’s waterfront, which calls into question the rights of land and water in light of accelerated development’. Like the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), happening concurrently in another city located on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, The Shoreline Dilemma gave due prominence to a land acknowledgement, typically recognizing that a given event is taking place on the ancestral territories of different Native American or indigenous peoples. ‘Rights and reclamations’, one of CAB’s four curatorial frameworks addressed the rights of humans and nature, as did artist Oscar Tuazon’s ongoing Great Lakes Water School (2016–) project, which travelled to Chicago for CAB from the Michigan State University.

One line of thought artists, curators, environmental campaigners and indigenous community leaders alike have been exploring is the legal dimension of questions pertaining to water in its many guises, and in particular the need to secure a legal framework to back the growing Rights of Nature movement. New Zealand’s Whanganui River, which gained the legal status of a person in 2017 on the basis that the Māori people deemed it to be their ancestor and a living entity, has set a precedent in this respect. The Ganges and the Yamuna Rivers, sacred to the Indian people, and the Atrato River in Colombia soon followed suit. In 2019, a grassroots initiative in the city of Toledo, Ohio resulted in the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which was overturned by a court ruling the following year. The concept of environmental personhood, which has been used effectively to combat pollution, is nonetheless problematic since it implies that the only way to safeguard our rivers and other bodies of water is to treat them as humans.

In a bid to connect Toronto to its waterfront, the bulk of the three-month programming of The Shoreline Dilemma took place at venues and sites located by or close to the lake. Two of the city’s lost rivers inspired São Paulo-born artist Maria Theresa Alves’s twin biennial offerings: Phantom Pain (2019), an outdoor sculpture in the shape of a meandering river cut into the lawn at Riverdale Park West, reflected the wayward trajectory of the Don River before it was straightened as part of city planning in the 1880s, while the installation Garrison Creek (2019), consisting of jute bags filled with soil and stamped with the name of the creek, called on residents in the Bedford Park area to exhume the eponymous body of water, which had made way for a residential development in the 1920s.

Collections of water

Museum of Water, installation Perth festival, Australia, 2018, courtesy Amy Sharrocks, photo: Jacqueline Jane

The poetic statement issued by the Toronto Biennial of Art acknowledged, among other, ‘the many lost rivers below us that vein across the city, continually moving water south. These rivers connect us all, physically and psychically, to the lake.’ Led by local community-based initiatives such as Lost Rivers and Rising Rivers, participatory walks followed Toronto’s hidden waterways. This approach is not unprecedented. For one, London-based live artist Amy Sharrocks charted the course of six of London’s underground rivers in a series of public walks that spanned a year, starting in June 2008. Her long-standing engagement with the protean substance that makes up 90 per cent of our bodies and covers two thirds of the planet has coalesced around her Museum of Water, a collection of publicly donated water and related personal narratives that have been accruing since its inception in 2013. The Museum of Water – whose name nods to Roni Horn’s VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER permanently installed on the north west coast of Iceland – had its first outing in London’s Soho to mark the bicentenary of the birth of epidemiologist John Snow (1813-1858), who discovered that cholera was a waterborne disease by tracing the origin of a major outbreak in 1854 to the Broad Street Pump. On that occasion, Sharrocks installed a Water Bar serving nothing but tap water next to the historic water pump.

The Museum has since travelled around, typically engaging with each new context over a period of two years. It took the artist and her locally based collaborators 18 months to gather the water displayed in vintage cabinets lining the wall of Het Gemaal op Zuid, the water pumping station for South Rotterdam, where the Museum of Water set up shop in September 2016. Working with several languages so as to give direct access to the archive of oral histories informing the collection, it catered to the multilingual population of what is among the most diverse neighbourhoods in Europe.

Sharrocks’ Museum of Water in its different incarnations illustrates how closely these waterworks are tied to a given context. Each new place has thrown up its own questions to do with water and called for a site-specific approach. In Western Australia, for instance, the Museum travelled around the state in a mobile trailer and it soon became apparent that showcasing the collection in old-fashioned cabinets would not do. In Ontario, which is the Museum’s next destination, the chief concerns are water pollution and contamination. Moreover, a disproportionately high number of water advisories in place happen to be on land apportioned to First Nation communities. At the time of writing, the Museum of Water was going to open in Toronto this summer as part of the Luminato Festival, but the coronavirus outbreak has put that on hold. ‘We are struggling through a world currently overcome by a pandemic caused by low systems of care for the more-than-human world,’ Sharrocks comments. ‘Environmental law affects us all.’

Ocean Life

Joan Jonas, Moving Off the Land, 2019, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 26 februari 2020, performance by Joan Jonas, Ikue Mori and Francesco Migliaccio, facilitated by TBA21—Academy, photo: Roberto Ruiz | TBA21

Timed to coincide with the Venice Biennale preview in May 2019, Joan Jonas’s Moving Off the Land II was the inaugural exhibition at the newly opened Ocean Space designed to showcase the activities of TBA21-Academy and its nexus of affiliated artists, scientists, activists and researchers brought together under Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza’s patronage. Since its launch in 2011, the itinerant platform has developed its own brand of ocean advocacy, drawing on the language of the arts. It has organized a number of research expeditions to remote destinations such as Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, French Polynesia and Tonga aboard a dedicated exploration vessel, the Dardanella, affording the participants a rare insight into some of the environmental challenges specific to each of these places and the ocean as a whole. The resulting experiences, discoveries, and artistic output were then shared in the context of biennials and art festivals. In fact, Moving Off the Land in its prior incarnation was initially performed in a public square in Kochi, Kerala as part of a parallel event convened by TBA21-Academy in 2016, on the occasion of the opening of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, dedicated to – among other things – water and hidden rivers.

For Moving Off the Land II Jonas repurposed some of the materials featured in her solo presentation They Come to Us Without a Word at the US Pavilion during the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, mixing it with video footage she had filmed on repeat visits to various aquariums and off the coast of Jamaica, as well as shots of biofluorescent sea creatures from the archive of marine biologist David Gruber. He also made the hydrophone recordings of sperm whales whose clicking sounds filled the nave of the Chiesa di San Lorenzo that now houses Ocean Space. The moving image works were projected on monitors and screens set within five looking boxes and installations belonging to Jonas’s My New Theater (1997-ongoing) series but made specially for the show. In addition, Jonas had worked with glassmakers from Murano to produce a glass sculpture recalling an aquarium and a set of more or less clear mirrors.

The show has since travelled to the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. Speaking on the eve of a performance staged alongside it at the Museo del Prado in February 2020, Joan Jonas insisted that she ‘wanted to show the miraculous quality, not the tragedy’ of the underwater world, since we already know about the plastic polluting it. The densely-layered live performance that evolved from the ‘lecture demonstration’ Jonas experimented with in Kochi did exactly that. It conveyed the majestic beauty, resilience and intelligence of fish and other sentient sea creatures living in the wild or in captivity. Jonas’ tenderness towards them was palpable above all in the way she performed amid their projected images, espousing and adjusting to their movements, gliding along with their fleeting outlines, as if she were one of them.


1 Titled Tamawuj, a noun that conjures a wave rising and falling in Arabic, the 13th Sharjah Biennale dedicated one of its off-site projects curated by artist Kader Attia in Dakar, Senegal to the keyword ‘water’. Staged in an ecological art park in central Finland, Art li Biennial in 2018 explored the concept of water, fittingly enough given its location on the banks of River Lijoki. The 15th edition of the Lyon Contemporary Art Biennial, meanwhile, borrowed its title from Raymond Carver’s 1986 collection of poems Where Water Comes Together with Other Water.