Diving into Water

December 8, 2010

Today and for the next two Wednesdays, we welcome the staff from the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum to our guest blogger family. They will be sharing insights into and photos of their stunning Water exhibit, currently on display through January 2, 2011. If you haven’t seen it already, you must go!

Water Exhibit at the Zimmerli

By Donna Gustafson
Andrew W. Mellon Liaison for Academic Programs and Curator
Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers

Water, the element most essential to life on earth, is the subject of the current exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. The exhibition began as an idea to link the art museum with the world-renowned research being produced at the university, much of it connected to water, ecology, and the environment. We also wanted to showcase the collection of the museum which is strong in American and French works on paper, contemporary prints, original illustrations for children’s literature, and Russian and Soviet art.

Working from a core selected from the museum’s own holdings, we borrowed works from artists, galleries, private collectors, the Newark Museum, and the Princeton University Art Museum. Fairly quickly, the project grew to an exhibition of 105 works of art of all media with an interdisciplinary cell phone tour featuring faculty members at the university from a wide range of academic interests; a symposium on the poetry and politics of water (organized by the Museum, the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures, and the Center for African Studies); two documentary films (organized by the Museum and the Office of the Cook Campus Dean), a evening of experimental films (organized by the Museum and the Program in History of Science, Technology, Environment, and Health); a presentation by the Rutgers Branch of Engineers without Borders; related exhibitions at Mason Gross School of the Arts; an outdoor concert on the banks of the Raritan River by the New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra; and a 24-hour live reading of water-themed texts at the museum (organized by the museum and the Department of English and the World Language Institute).

Water brought collaborators from all over the university to the table and their contributions helped to make the exhibition an ever widening circle of ideas, expertise, and explorations.

Water Exhibit at the Zimmerli 2

Water Exhibit at the Zimmerli 3

As curator of the exhibition, I have led many tours through the Water exhibition and have developed a favorite selection of pieces. I always begin outside the exhibition where a site-specific installation by the artist Ross Cisneros titled Ice and Ark hangs. It is visible from the upstairs lobby and in view as you walk down the stairs to the Voorhees Special Exhibitions Gallery.

Ice and Ark consists of an industrial fishing net hung from the ceiling and filled with 200 bottles of luxury water. The bottled water is a specific brand, “Berg,” which is advertised as pure glacial water harvested from an iceberg in the North Atlantic. To me, this piece speaks of global warming, over-fishing and the state of our oceans, and the political and moral battles over access to water.

The United Nations General Assembly recently proclaimed access to clean water to be a basic human right, but as Cisneros’s piece suggests, water is packaged and sold as a commodity. Ice and Ark is not simply polemical, it is also beautiful to look at. The green, transparent plastic bottles are appealingly designed, their logo includes a white capped glacier, and the water within each bottle reflects and absorbs the light trained on it.

The beauty of pure, clear water and its ability to reflect and refract light, is important to artists throughout the exhibition. This piece, and the row of nineteenth and twentieth century prints showing rain in cities in Japan, France, and America and the small ink drawing of a boy holding an umbrella in the rain that are off to the left, provide a preview to the ways in which the exhibition draws comparisons between centuries and cultures to focus on the universal appeal of water in the visual arts.

Water Exhibit at the Zimmerli 4

Zimmerli water concert

Rather than approaching the exhibition as a body of knowledge that would be imparted to visitors piece by piece as they walked through the exhibition, I explore the idea of water in a series of themes. I envisioned the exhibition as an experience that would, I hoped, raise more questions than provide answers, engage a wide range of ideas, and inspire people to look at water in new ways.

As you wind your way through the exhibition there are rooms devoted to water as an element in nature, water in the landscape, water as an element in poetry and literature, water as divine (where we have installed two beautiful Haitian Vodoun flags of Mami Wata), and urban water. There is also a section called “Women in the Waves/Men in Boats” which shows how artists have differed in their representations of men and women near bodies of water. Three videos remind us of water’s capability for movement: in two of these videos, the expanse of the ocean is featured, in the third, water falls in a single constant stream over the hands of two figures who appear and then disappear from view. The last image in the exhibition is a photograph by Cary Wolinsky of an abandoned house in the Namib Desert. While the ocean of sand and the waves sculpted by the wind echo the many images of water that came before this image, I also chose to end the exhibition with this photograph of water’s scarcity to remind us all of the importance of valuing and conserving water for the benefit of all life on earth.

Water Exhibit
September 1, 2010 – January 2, 2011
Information for Visitors to the Zimmerli

This series will continue next Wednesday

All photos courtesy of McKay Imaging Photography Studio & Gallery