Introduction to the Series, Imagining Water
This post is the first in a year-long series on artists who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme. Why are so many artists and institutions concurrently recognizing the relevance of this subject matter? Primarily because dramatic water events are occurring at a rapid pace all over the globe, and artists – who generally have a pulse on the most contemporary global trends – are feeling compelled to respond to the immediacy of climate change and its threat to our very existence through their paintings, poetry, plays, novels, dances, films, music and installations.
Some examples from just the last four months demonstrate the prevalence of catastrophic events related to water or the extreme absence thereof: (1) As of April 2017, almost 11 million individuals in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are suffering from extreme hunger – the effects of a severe drought, which has shriveled crops and caused a critical humanitarian disaster; (2) a huge iceberg the size of the state of Delaware and weighing a trillion metric tons, broke away from Antarctica on July 12, 2017, threatening the stability of the entire ice shelf; (3) a few weeks later in July, and perhaps of more significance to the problem of rising sea levels, a chunk of ice the size of three Manhattans broke free in the Arctic, providing a “worrying sign” for what, according to Laurence Dyke, a researcher at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, says is “happening in the rest of Greenland;” and (4) unprecedented flooding caused by intense and sustained rain in the amount of 50 inches in some areas of Houston, Texas, is devastating the fourth largest city in the U.S., today, as I am writing this piece.
As a painter and public artist, I have been engaged since 2011 with the topic of water, its impressive power, its potential for causing global conflict, and how it serves to unite us all through our mutual need for this crucial resource. Imagining Water, #1, the first installment of this series on water, addresses The Wave, my own on-going, public art project on water.
What is The Wave?
The Wave is a national, interactive, public art project celebrating water and its vital function in our lives, which I co-created with my close friend and fellow artist, Elena Kalman. Since September of 2011, The Wave has been installed in 23 museums, galleries, schools, universities, community centers, festivals and parks including: The Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA); The National Aquarium (Baltimore, MD); The Rose Kennedy Greenway (Boston, MA); The Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, CT); The Manny Cantor Center (NYC); Governor’s Island (NYC); The New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, CT); and others.
The Wave at the National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD
Origins of the Project
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.03 earthquake, centered in Japan, triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 133 feet and shifted the Earth on its axis a distance estimated between 4 and 10 inches. The ensuing tsunami devastated the island country, leaving millions of people without homes, electricity, and clean water and triggering nuclear meltdowns in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Waves resulting from the tsunami traveled across the Pacific Ocean, reaching the coastal areas of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and western Alaska.
Here, in Connecticut, Elena and I began imagining a picture of that powerful 2011 tsunami in Japan literally “connecting” us all to one another: this enormous wave originating across the world and traveling from continent to continent before washing up on our own “back door.” We talked about developing a project that would visually represent how dramatically we are all connected, regardless of our nationality, religious preferences, race or other artificial divisions, by our mutual dependence on water – one of the most fundamental requirements for life on Earth – and by our mutual susceptibility to the impact of major water events like tsunamis, rising tides, floods and drought.
The Wave as Public Art
During our conversations, we discussed an appropriate format for the project, which we eventually dubbed The Wave. Because we wanted to emphasize the universal nature of water, our individual and community responsibility to protect this vital resource, and the theme of “connected-ness,” we felt very strongly that it needed to be a community engagement, interactive, public art program.
Public art is generally described as any work that is exhibited, and sometimes created, in public spaces so that it is accessible to the general public, not just those who frequent museums and galleries. We chose to create a public art project because, by its very purpose, public art is meant to enrich communities, provoke discussion, and heighten awareness of significant public issues and events. An interactive, public art project enables members of the community, not just the artists, to participate in the creation of the work of art itself. Interactive public art inspires creativity among participants around a specific topic, generates community pride and fosters connections among the participants.
Wave Participants, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
The Wave Design
We designed The Wave with these goals in mind. Because the material we use (recyclable, polycarbonate film) is especially unusual, enticing and beautiful, and because it is so easy to simply cut a piece of it into a wave-like shape, each individual coming to a Wave site can feel successful. Thousands of children as young as five, entire school communities including parents, staff, teachers and students of all abilities and ages, adults who are normally intimidated by making art, and seniors, have all embraced the opportunity to “connect” their pieces to the growing, glowing, and undulating Wave that we hope will roll right across the country and beyond. People have asked us why we join the pieces together with black parachute cord that shows up so prominently as an integral part of the installation. Why not use transparent fishing wire or some other invisible material? And, of course, that is the point. We are using the black cord to emphasize how this Wave is being created, piece by piece, connecting individuals, communities, states and, hopefully, an entire nation, to one another.
Wave Participant, New London Public Library, New London, CT
Wave Participants, National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD
For more information on The Wave, including hundreds of photographs of all the installations to date, resources for teachers on water issues, and my own blog entitled “On Water and Public Art,” please visit The Wave website.
(Top image: The Wave at the Chase Gallery, West Hartford, CT.)
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Susan’s latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. Susan is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.