A conversation about water through art

This post was written by Leslie Ford

Art is a conversation. Thirteen Urban Water Governance students took part in that conversation on Wednesday, July 19th at the Water ZomerExpo 2017. For many this was the first time they had considered art as a method of discussing water. Though some were skeptical, everyone was up for the challenge presented by our instructors. Each student needed to find a piece of art, among hundreds, that spoke to them. It didn’t have to be their favorite, and it didn’t have to be the most prominent piece there, it just had to make them think about water. Poised with this challenge in mind the students set off to explore the exhibits, first at the Kasteel Het Nijenhuis and next at the Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle.

Interestingly, in an exhibition about water the images that caught my attention the most were those that appeared to contain no water at all. Sometimes these images were simple, and sometimes they were more complex. As I walked through the gallery, and studied each of the works, I found myself trying to discover what the artist wanted to convey with their work. What conversation were they trying to have, and was it a conversation I would understand? Some pieces conveyed a sense of joy, love, peace, or endurance. Other works were shocking and provoked conversations about difficult topics, and yet more were not quite so clear.

Hypnopompia I (2014), by Fay Twan Tjoa * (Hypnopompia – coming out of a dream – still half asleep but waking up).

The work that spoke to me the most was titled Hypnopompia I (2014), by Fay Twan Tjoa. The dominant feature of this work is a large circle that seems out of place in the nature that is depicted behind it. On a wall of other detailed works it was simple and striking. I found myself wondering what was hiding in the green and trees behind the haze that dominates the foreground. Only part of the underlying image is visible through the line of the circle. My eye was drawn to that thin place and my imagination sought to fill in the details that were obscured. As I studied the image I was reminded of my home town in the hills of Western Kentucky. There the landscape is dominated by green trees and abundant rivers. Water abounds, and at certain times of the day it literally surrounds you in the dew on the grass and the humidity in the air. At dawn you can feel a slight chill as water blankets the ground in preparation for a new day to begin. These memories helped me to see the work as more than what was in the image. At first water doesn’t seem apparent, but then you realize that there is water in everything you see. There is water in the trees, their leaves are bright green and full of the life that only water brings. There is also water in the air. The haze that obscures the foreground of the image is fog, the condensation of water from the air when it touches a cool surface. Fog can be made in nature, but fog can also come from human breath. The very air we breathe is full of water, our bodies are composed largely of water. There are no humans in this image and yet their impact can be seen in the haze obscuring nature and the circle drawn in that haze. As it does for the trees water also brings life for humans. Our warm breath is a reminder of that.

Though you can’t see a person in this image you can see that they were there. The slightly imperfect circle on the camera lens is a reminder that even when people are gone their evidence still remains. Like water managers, the artist has touched the water created by nature and left behind their mark. The dynamic relationship between humans and nature has been captured in the haze of fog and a single circle.

Haziness can also describe our understanding of water. Water is complicated. Beyond two hydrogen and an oxygen, water has taken on multiple identities. As water managers we seek to understand these identities but often we only see a small part of the picture. We are constantly presented with the challenge of making decisions having only seen a thin line and a small part of what lies behind the haze. From that one small glimpse we can either assume we know everything or we can acknowledge that there is more to be discovered.

Classes at IHE Delft push the boundaries of our understanding of water. No longer is water something that must be controlled, but much like art, water is something that must be studied and interpreted. Our perspectives on water have changed. Instead of focusing only on water as a natural resource we are exploring how water affects people socially, politically, and economically. As suggested by the title of this piece, Hypnopomia*, we are coming out of a dream where water was simple and management was purely technical, to a more complicated reality where water management requires a more interdisciplinary approach. This new approach allows us to realize that, like a circle, everything is connected through water. Nature, humans, earth, and sky all contain water, but so do social relationships. Our challenge as the future of water management is to use this new knowledge to start important conversations of our own. Only through these conversations can we begin to dissipate the haze and fully come to understand the complexity of water.


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