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Nor any drop to drink

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Ashburton Art Gallery is tackling a big issue head on with a new exhibition that explores the cultural, conceptual and imaginative aspects of water. Francesca Emms talks to the artists and curator about this bold venture.

Canterbury (as in the region) has become shorthand for New Zealand’s water issues: pollution, use, blame, and as a result communities divided. So it is fitting that the Ashburton Art Gallery, situated in the heart of Canterbury and near the Ashburton River/Hakatere, has launched The Water Project, an exhibition that ‘engages with the complex realities of water in the 21st century.’ The Canterbury Water Management Strategy, released in 2009 and led by Environment Canterbury, Ngāi Tahu and Canterbury's District and City Councils, admits ‘There are problems with water in Canterbury – there's declining water quality, a loss of cultural and recreational use and less reliable water for farming.’ Claire McKay, Environment Canterbury’s Councillor with responsibility for water, said in 2017, ‘Water quality across Canterbury has been compromised because of the legacy effects of land clearance and farming over many decades. Urban streams and rivers typically have the worst water quality because of population density and human activity in our cities and towns.’

'Waiau River (Richmond, Severini)', Kate Woods, 2018. Photo courtesy of Ashburton Art Gallery.

Ashburton Art Gallery Curator/Manager and Director of The Water Project, Shirin Khosraviani, says the issues facing our freshwater ecosystems are diverse and not isolated from other environmental conditions facing Aotearoa. She speaks also of the 'spiritual or intangible connection New Zealanders have with water and its life-giving force which we often neglect to bring to the fore. It is a fundamental part of our identity and where we call home.' She worked with project co-ordinator and artist Bruce Foster to get The Water Project off the ground. ‘It has been a significant partnership between the Ashburton Art Gallery and the group of artists,’ says Khosraviani, ‘The generosity and interest in the show by the artists has been profound.’

Foster was one of nine artists on the Kermadec Project: Lines Across the Ocean, an initiative to bring awareness to the pollution of our oceans. Foster and three others from the project, Elizabeth Thompson, Gregory O’Brien and Phil Dadson, became the core artists for The Water Project. Nine others were invited to join them; Ross Hemera, Peter Trevelyan, Brett Graham, Kate Woods, Jenna Packer, Euan Macleod, Jacqui Colley, Dani Terrizzi and Bing Dawe. Khosraviani says they were chosen for their varied artistic practices and their ability to communicate ideas using their own visual language.

The Water Project artists spent a week in the central South Island region early last year. They journeyed from Christchurch south into the MacKenzie Country and engaged with locals, iwi and conservationists along the way. The artists then created new works to ‘challenge, inspire and call to action every individual inhabiting the natural world.’ They were invited to ‘be the water’ and bring a new voice to the discussions on the future of water in New Zealand.

Phil Dadson's sound work on opening night.

Foster, who has a long history of using environmental and water themes in his work, says, ‘We’ve been blinded by myths about the purity of New Zealand’s landscape. Water can be loaded with pesticides, fertilisers, and harmful bacteria but still look fresh and clean. The value of art is that it can make visible what we’re unable to see.’ Writer and artist Gregory O'Brien said the field trip around Canterbury ‘offered vistas of immense beauty and powerful iconic impact, but also led us to a sobering awareness of the vexed and potentially catastrophic situation currently facing our country’s waterways.’

Kate Woods has been concerned with the environment since her Nanny signed her up for the Kiwi Conservation Club as a child. She says the field trip made her feel closer to the South Island’s landscape and the whole experience was both depressing and amazing. She was particularly drawn by the plight of our longfin eels whose migration has been blocked by the construction of dams and weirs. Local iwi told her that the lack of tuna is a visual indicator of the health of a river. Her work Waiau River (Richmond, Severini) speaks to the movement of the endangered eels and the braided rivers of Canterbury, which share the same form.

Elizabeth Thompson’s work includes two brand new large-scale works, Waka, storm warning and Sentients. ‘In Eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things that require respect and care,’ she says. Waka, storm warning is about intimation of danger and the fragility of our existence. Both works are inspired by fossils. Thompson says she was interested in the history held within a fossil and the idea that these memories could be activated. Exploring the past, present and future of water was important to Thompson. If it is not treated well, ‘there will be repercussions, and we know not what,’ she says. ‘We’re all connected. We do have an effect. So we need to have an awareness of the future.’ At first Thompson felt a huge responsibility to try to say everything, but being part of a group meant she could focus on, and respond to, what affected her most. ‘We all have our own thing to say, our own interpretation.’

The Water Project has been well received says Khosraviani, ‘but we are encountering a few passionate visitors who find the discussion around water a difficult one to take part in.’ She says she wanted an exhibition which would create room for conversations free of any political or commercial standpoints. Mid-Canterbury has been at the receiving end of much criticism around fresh water, and my personal conversations with people seldom scratch the surface, said Khosraviani. ‘There is a hesitation to talk and pull apart our opinions, scientific research and financial interests in order to have meaningful dialogue without polarising each other. Art allows for a wider narrative to be discovered and the works have become a powerful voice for the voiceless.’

The Water Project is likely to tour to other galleries. Wellington’s Bartley + Company Art have already dived in, presenting a spinoff exhibition with additional works by Peter Trevelyan, Brett Graham, Kate Woods and Bruce Foster in an exhibition called Wai until 9 June.

First published ArtZone #74


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