The Value of Water

September 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Lisa Schubert, St. Francis Day, 2010

I’ve written so much about The Value of Water exhibition at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in my capacity as Cathedral writer-at-large, that I wonder what I can say about it that’s new, that’s all my own?

First of all, the opening was spectacular, 1500 people wandering through the bays and chapels, looking at the Kiki Smith, the William Kentridge, the April Gornik, and on and on. All the work depicted water, was about water, or used water (Nobuho Nagasawa’s magical ‘electric’ chair used the recorded sound of the Pacific ocean and her heartbeat), and you know what? Water is a very appealing subject. There’s a reason why most people prefer their art to have a bit of water in it.

The art related to the architecture and existing ornament of the cavernous Gothic cathedral the way those last sentences and paragraphs Proust scribbled on the galleys of Remembrance of Things Lost did not stand out or get lost in the clutter but rather added layers of depth and nuance, extending and perfecting the original meaning. (If you haven’t read Proust, which I hear is common, though inexplicable, substitute your favorite densely textured novel, poem, or piece of music.)

Of course, some of the art stands out, and some gets lost. But as a whole, I felt that everything was where it should be, at home, and though this was odd at first—at most art exhibits, the work is displayed boldly against a white or neutral background and challenges you mano a mano—it was quickly extraordinarily pleasing. It was as if the art had been there for ages, and I only now noticed; there was no dazzle, but a quiet “Oh.” And then, “It’s so beautiful…look, look at this one…”

Thanks is due to Fredericka Foster, for her superb curating job, and to Lisa Schubert, for doing the impossible putting it all together.

The purpose of this exhibition is to explore how water is seen by artists, and to assert that the way artists see—and the way we see when we give ourselves to art—is a great power that can and must be used in the current water and climate crisis. Imagination is denigrated in this society to the extent that even artists feel more than a little embarrassed saying that art can change the world. W. H. Auden wrote, in his elegy for W.B. Yeats,

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Yet the poem ends,

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

That’s where this exhibition wants to do, or begin to do, or make us think about doing. Before anything changes, people have to want change very badly. They have to see the desert encroaching on their rich farmland; they have to recognize the desert in the heart that prevents them (us) from taking action.

The exhibition and the symposium on Saturday made me feel very strongly the need to take more action myself; I’ll begin by focusing more of this blog on water. News? Science? Poetry? My own watery musings on rain, tears, rivers and oceans? Probably a little of each of these. As one apparently bound to her bed and laptop by invisible chains, I’m not sure the physical action I take will be noticeable to anyone. But the challenge of thinking about how imagination can be kindled in people of disparate mindsets; and the greater challenge of trusting and respecting this force not only in my work and for myself, but for the loud, crude, two-fisted world… well, I can either attempt this or give in to despair, my faithful hound.


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