To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Student ‘Water’ exhibit provokes sustainability discussion

“Water,” until recently on view in the Shapiro Science Center, is a multimedia exhibition comprised of sculpture, oil paintings, photographs and other forms that engage with the nature of one of our most precious resources. In a deeply changing world, these questions become even more vital. After viewing these works, I am still contemplating how we here at Brandeis can individually and collectively change our habits and policies to preserve and foster water-supply stewardship and access for everyone.

It’s an important question. The fate of the human race relies on us all having an adequate supply of drinking water, something that I take for granted. In our luxurious American bubble, it is easy to forget just how important water really is.

Coordinated by Matt Hoisch ’19, an environmental studies major, “Water” uses student artwork submissions to explore five core questions: “Where does your water come from? Was there ever a time you needed water and couldn’t get it? Is water peaceful? Have you experienced a flood? What does it feel like to float?” I enjoyed seeing the diverse responses to these questions, the varied ways of thinking about this universally precious resource.

Hannah Chidekel ’18 used photography to respond, emphasizing the transitory nature of water. Her work here is a series of stills, each showing outstretched, cupped hands attempting to capture a stream of water. But, because of its inherently fluid nature, the liquid drips and seeps out of their grasp. “As water’s value rises,” Chidekel’s artist statement says, “our ability to intelligently use and wholly understand this resource seems to be slipping through our fingers.”

Next, Heather Galloway’s ’17 piece depicts a stormy inlet, with two boats being tossed about by the maelstrom. “Coming from a tropical island, I have a very special connection to water. In Bermuda we collect rainwater since it’s the only source of freshwater for 700 miles,” she said. Galloway’s piece demonstrates the inherent duality of the liquid, using a localized perspective of a place in which water’s power is especially potent. It emphasizes the hidden power water harbors, demonstrating “a moment in which both sides can be seen in the eye of a storm.”

Third is Allison Fritz’s ’19 piece, a three-dimensional work constructed from paper, cardboard, paint, a plastic water bottle and other media—a facsimile of a sink and mirror. Fritz encourages the viewer to “imagine yourself standing in front of a sink and turning on the water. You watch as your water bottle … fills with reddish brown water.” The filthy, polluted liquid coming out of the spigot is well-executed; Fritz did an especially good job creating the visceral splatter of the rust-color for the water on the sink.

The inspiration for the work is the ongoing tragedy in Flint, MI, where residents’ water has been contaminated for years. Fritz concludes her statement by encouraging viewers to visit HelpforFlint.com to contribute to relief efforts.

For its aesthetics, I particularly enjoyed senior Margot Field’s piece. It is dirty and brown, and close-up, it looks like a collage of photos of clouds. But when you take a step back, an image reminiscent of a Rorschach test appears.

“I’d been experimenting with photo transfer using a gel medium as a technique, but results were inconsistent,” Fields says, “With the addition of oil paint I ended up with what reminds me of a melting Polaroid.” I like the murkiness of this piece. The brown, polluted nature of the clouds that have been turned 90 degrees, showing how they have been interrupted from their natural function by errant human endeavors.

Courtney Garvey’s ’19 piece, a watercolor on canvas with a newspaper element, attempts to “capture the vitality of water and how integral it is to our very being.” Blue lungs bleed from a black and white skeletal ribcage, and on the right side, a three-dimensional heart hangs, “constructed from painted recycled newspaper clips from the ‘Ideas’ section of The Boston Globe.” Garvey aptly summarizes her piece (and, indeed, the entire show) by saying, “To destroy our natural water supply is, quite simply, to destroy ourselves.”

In viewing these works, I became very much aware of how extensively water composes everything in our world, and Yimi Wang’s ’17 two large canvases effectively demonstrate this. The first, a deep blue nightscape, depicts a serene lake at the foot of a mountain range, with a large white moon hanging in the sky. A few spindly branches reach out over the moon’s surface, covering a part of it—I like the visual depth and scale this detail adds to the overall work. Wang’s second piece provides contrast, with its bright oranges and reds, with almost no blue in sight. It is from the perspective inside a watery cave, looking out on a setting sun. It feels much more apocalyptic, pointing to the broader problems our planet faces regarding our water supply.

A sculpture by Will Irvine ’19 finishes the show. A bowl with a head inside it, Irvine’s texture work here is impeccable; he manages to create a fine, watery sheen over the work, making it looks like it is dripping wet. “I approach this piece with the idea of subdued acceptance after struggle and defeat,” Irvine says. “This is a piece arguing against settling for the destruction of the earth when there is so much that can be done right now to save it.”

I appreciate the conversation that this show is attempting to start, and I wonder what practical next steps we could take. Could the university make dramatic changes in how we consume water, such as installing more reuseable bottle refill stations, and shift away from wasteful practices, like even selling water in plastic disposable bottles? Good art should motivate the world and affect its viewers, and after seeing this exhibit, I would like to continue the discussion, to consider how we can sustainably approach our own local drinking water supply.

While there were slightly apocalyptic visions of environmental pollution and devastation, I still emerged from the exhibit feeling hopeful and optimistic that these artistic visions could help shape our conceptions of how precious and powerful water is, and to treat it with the respect it requires. The only alternative: humanity’s own self-imposed annihilation.

The exhibit was made possible by a grant from Maurice J. and Fay B. Karpf Peace Awards. “Water,” part of the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts, was on view in the Shapiro Science Center Atrium through April 30.

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