All of the artists that I have highlighted in this “Imagining Water” series over the past two years have worked in their own ways to capture the essence of water and the climate crisis’ impact on water through painting, song, writing, installation, poetry, dance, film, public art and other creative media.
These artists hail from all over the world, from the tip of South Africa, the frozen Arctic, Asia and the Pacific islands to the shores of Florida, Washington state, California and the Alluvial plains of The Netherlands. They have explored the nature of rivers, oceans, glaciers and rising tides, the scientific basis of water currents, the religious and political aspects of water, the spiritual quality of water, its fragility and power, its scarcity, its polluted bodies and more.
In her life-long career devoted to defining life’s basic element, American/Icelandic visual and spoken word artist Roni Horn has even gone so far as to transform a former library building in Stykkisholmur, Iceland into a museum entitled, The Library of Water, which contains a series of 24 transparent columns filled with water from the major glaciers in Iceland that were formed millions of years ago and are receding at a rapid pace.
Fritz Horstman, a Connecticut-based sculptor, photographer, videographer and musician, has contributed to this creative exploration of water by systematically capturing its colors, sounds and forms. Like many of the artists who have chosen to focus on water have confessed, Horstman grew up near water; in his case, on a lake in Michigan where he became aware of water’s magnetism. It was in graduate school, though, while he was reading about systems, or interconnecting networks, and their relationship to the environment, that he began to see water as the substance that connects all of the components of environmental ecology. Since then, he has made water a central focus of his work.
The Color of Water
Five Feet Under, Horstman’s first major project on water, was completed between 2010-2011. His intention was to study how the colors and turbidity of water changed in a designated location over the course of a year. To do so, he attached an underwater camera, with its lens pointed up towards the sky, to the end of a wooden object. He then lowered the camera into the water every day at the same time and at the same place so that it could capture the color of the top five feet of water and the sky beyond.
Horstman admits that his projects are quasi-scientific explorations that provide data and a different way for people to look at his subject matter. In this case, his data revealed that in the summer, the water transmitted an orange hue; in the fall, a murky dark brown; in the winter, a clearer green; and in the spring, it transmitted the blue of the sky.
Horstman’s first attempt to capture the varying colors of water provided him with a workable methodology and led to similar studies that he has completed over the last few years. In 2016, during a residency aboard the tallship Antigua, which sailed around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, he attached his underwater camera to the end of a 100’ fishing line and at regular intervals, photographed the water as the ship moved away from the glacier. Horstman describes what he captured as “an incredible range of hues, saturations and shadows that were created by the turbidity, particulate matter and angles of the sun.” The image grid that he made (shown above) of colors taken from photos of real water samples is surprisingly similar to the range of colors books of samples found in paint stores, which are created by mixing pigment. As in many of his works, Svalbard plays with the juxtapositions of nature and culture.
The Sound of Water
In addition to his color explorations, since 2015 Horstman has created a series of videos in which he records the voices of people making their own perceived sounds of water. His first water video was recorded while he was at a residency in Onishi, Japan, where he asked sixteen residents to make the sounds of the Kannagawa River. As we listen to the composite of voices on the video, we see images of the river but we don’t hear the sound of the actual water. Horstman’s intention for the piece was to put “human consciousness into the center of nature.” He explains that “we connect to human voices in a different way than to the real sound of water rushing by.” This altered consciousness provides a different way of perceiving water, and perhaps, a deeper connection to water itself.
In a 2015 video – a second project while Horstman was aboard the tallship Antigua – he recorded the voices of 22 passengers making the sounds of ice. Being in the Arctic and hearing the calving and melting of glaciers provided them with a cacophony of new sounds to imitate. Once again, the images of the moving sea ice in the finished video, not accompanied by the actual sounds of moving ice, are merged with the snapping, crackling, groaning and whishing sounds of human voices. Watching and listening to the video is an eerie, otherworldly experience and provides us with another dimension to our understanding of ice.
The Form of Water
Horstman’s series of sculptures that he calls “Formworks,” allude to other water issues related to climate change. He began the series at a time when he was working in construction and engaged in building a concrete structure. He was inspired by the process of pouring liquid concrete into wooden molds and within a few months of working the job, had decided to create a river form using the same wooden framework, but without filling the structure with either concrete or water.
As Horstman said to me, “the idea of casting a river is intentionally absurd. The Army Corps of Engineers spends a lot of time trying to control water but is thwarted” by the very nature of water to move where it wants to go, and by the growing volumes of water caused by rising tides and increasingly stronger storms. With this series, Horstman has built beautiful forms in the configuration of rivers, meant to contain water in order to show that it can’t be contained. By juxtaposing the rigid beauty of the forms with the liquid and flowing concept of water, he is providing a way for us to question how to contain water in an uncertain future.
Fritz Horstman is a prolific artist whose drawings, photographs, sculptures and videos have been exhibited widely in the US, Europe and Asia. His work has a strong conceptual quality rooted in the environment. Informed by the writings of anthropologists like Tim Ingold as well as artists such as Jen Bervin, Alan Sonfist and Olafur Eliasson, Horstman’s projects on water provide an insight into the colors, sounds and physical nature of this most critical of Earth’s elements.
(Top image: Svalbard (detail). Grid of underwater photographs taken at regular intervals at the Fjortende Julibreen glacier in the Arctic Circle aboard the Antigua, 2016.)
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate change a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing 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. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides, our new plastic seas and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She 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 in our cities and towns.