When Water Speaks for Itself

For over four decades, New Mexico-based environmental artist Basia Irland has created projects about water that focus on rivers, waterborne diseases and water scarcity. Her extensive body of work includes sculptures, installations, books, essays and videos that have connected with, engaged and educated local communities in Africa, Canada, Europe, South America, Southeast Asia and the United States.

In our recent phone conversation, Irland admitted that she is obsessed with water. She describes it in her artist’s statement as “marvelously mysterious” in all of its gaseous, fluid and frozen states, complex in its science and behavior and endlessly nourishing to her soul.

Irland’s interest in water began as a child growing up near Boulder Creek in Boulder, Colorado. She would often go to the creek for solace and contemplation, and developed a deep personal connection to water that continues to this day. Similarly, on visits to her grandfather’s farm in Texas, where a water pumping windmill drew the family’s only available water from the ground, Irland observed in real time what happens when drought occurs and access to water dries up. Although these experiences informed her work, she insists that the water itself was the greatest influence on her career as an artist. For a 2018 interview in Interalia Magazine she explained, “I am a humble student constantly learning from tiny rivulets, dammed streams, wild and scenic river systems, or major waterways.”

Since Irland is such a prolific artist and doing justice to all of her work would require a full-length book (Irland has already written two comprehensive books on her career: Reading the River: The Ecological Activist Art of Basia Irland  (2017) and Water Library (2007)), I’ll focus here on three projects that represent her commitment to integrating art with science, her method of successfully engaging community participants and her ability to imagine how water would speak for itself.

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Ice Field, detail. Petri dishes; test tubes; vials; glass beakers; glass ice; water, etched glacial deposit stones from the Athabascan Glacier, Alberta, Canada; rocks from the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior; and river stones painted with constellations, 2000 and 2015.

Ice Field

Ice Field, one of Irland’s early projects, anticipated by many years the more recent alarm over glacial melting. Twenty years ago, when climate disruption was a non-issue for most of the world, Irland spent time hiking on a number of glaciers, including those at Lake Louise, a lake fed by meltwater from nearby glaciers in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Inspired by these hikes across glaciers and her observations of meltwater, Irland began thinking about a future when there would be no more glaciers on the planet and meltwater would be the only way scientists could study them. Knowing that meltwater contains microbial populations, nutrients and metals that escape from glaciers and feed downstream ecosystems, Irland developed an installation entitled Ice Field. She used some of the instruments of scientific research – petri dishes, vials, test tubes and flasks filled with water and stones – as both an artistic interpretation of a future scientific study set in a pristine lab and an ode to the melting glaciers themselves. A second version of the original Ice Field was installed in 2015 as part of a major retrospective of Irland’s work at the Museum De Domijnen in the Netherlands.

C3. Launching BOOK XXXI into Rio. Photo by Ben Daitz.JPG
Basia Irland (in the water) and volunteer launching Ice Book XXXI by the banks of the muddy Rio Grande. Photo courtesy of Ben Daitz and Basia Irland.

Ice Books

In 2007, Irland was invited to participate in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art entitled “Weather Report: Art and Climate Change.” The exhibition was curated by renown American activist, feminist, author and art critic Lucy Lippard, who asked the participating artists to create new pieces about climate change in collaboration with scientists.

Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of what is now more accurately referred to as climate disruption or climate crisis, Irland wanted to do something that would both call attention to an important environmental issue within a positive framework, and promote activism. A sculptor at heart, she chose to carve a 250-pound block of frozen river water into the shape of an open book in honor of the nearby Arapaho Glacier. The glacier is melting rapidly and, along with the snowmelt, provides drinking water for the town of Boulder. Imbedded into the ice book was its “text,” comprised of the seeds of plants native to the Boulder Creek ecosystem.

Irland worked with a local botanist to determine which seeds to use. Ultimately, the seeds of mountain maple, columbine flower and blue spruce were selected. (See image at top of this article.) As Irland describes, “the seeds form the ecological language of the book and just as we learn from books, we can learn from the river.” Once the ice book had been carved and the seeds had been added, the book was released into the water with the participation of the local community. As the ice melted, the seeds would implant themselves into the riverbank to restore the ecosystem as they traveled downstream.

That first book in 2007 became the prototype for an on-going series of ice books, entitled “Ice Receding, Books Reseeding,” which Irland continues to make in consultation with stream ecologists, river restoration biologists and botanists. In several locations, Irland imbedded other materials into the ice books instead of seeds when local river conditions would benefit from that change. For example, she used chunks of limestone at Deckers Creek in West Virginia in order to reduce the high level of acidity in the river water that had been caused by acid mine drainage. She also incorporated krill into the ice book released into False Creek in Vancouver, Canada so that smaller fish that ate the krill would attract salmon into the river again.

The creation of subsequent ice books always included participants from the local communities around the globe where she had been invited. Whenever possible, Irland also partnered with Indigenous tribes in the area. Participants assisted with implanting the seeds into the books and launching them into the water. In recognition of their gift of participation to the project, Ireland provided gifts in return, such as seeds, maps of the river’s watershed and other items of relevance. The video below provides an overview of Irland’s innovative global Ice Book projects.

River Essays

In 2014, Irland was invited by Sandra Postel, director and founder of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow at the National Geographic Society, to write an essay on her Ice Books for the Society’s blog “Water Currents.” That first essay led to a series of 17 additional pieces that she wrote for the blog from 2015-2017, entitled “What Rivers Know.” (Irland has written additional essays in the series not published in “Water Currents”).

Each of the essays is written in the first person from the point of view of a particular river. The essays give a voice to the rivers and the sense that they have knowledge, memory and mythic powers equal or greater than our own. An excerpt from the February 2016 River Essay on the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand and the video “What Rivers Know” below provide examples of the river as subject/speaker:

On the night of the twelfth lunar month during the full moon at the end of the rainy season, communities gather along my banks to pay homage to me, and my water spirits. They thank the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha (พระแม่คงคา), which is the Thai form of Ganga, the Hindu goddess of the holy Ganges River, India. It is also a way to beg forgiveness for polluting and abusing me during the past year.

This festival of lights is called Loy Krathong (ลอยกระทง). The name is translated as “to float a basket”, and refers to the tradition of making krathong or buoyant, banana-stem sculptures that are decorated with folded banana leaves and contain flowers, incense, candles, and coins (an offering to the river spirits). These sculptures are floated on my moist skin in the evening forming a candle-lit parade dancing downstream. Lights hanging from trees and buildings, and a multitude of hot-air lanterns rising up into the night sky reflect on my body, creating a myriad of new constellations…

Basia Irland is a pioneer in addressing the complex issues affecting water. Before many artists and certainly the general public were focusing on climate disruption, she was already thinking about the eventual absence of glaciers and the interconnectedness of our global waterways. All of Irland’s work encourages each of us to become better recipients of the deep knowledge our rivers have to offer. It is her personal commitment and passion for the wonder of water, though, as well as the impact of her work on local communities all over the world that should inspire us all.

(Top image: TOME 1. Ice and seeds of the mountain maple, columbine flower and blue spruce, Boulder Creek, Colorado. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs and videos are courtesy of Basia Irland.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption 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.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received numerous grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and drawings have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – dead trees that have been exposed to salt water as a result of rising tides.

3 thoughts on “When Water Speaks for Itself

  1. Orland researches the ideas that influence her art and should be commended for her insight and thoughtful process.

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