The space is one reason The Value of Water, a massive conservationist art show, is so spectacular. Saint John the Divine is full of turrets and nooks, mini-chapels and throughways, each of which houses a small collection of paintings, sculptures, videos, or installations. It’s easy to get lost even with a map, but turning a wrong corner and seeing a new artwork is a pleasurable feeling, and the way the space and the water-themed pieces work in tandem is a great case for alternative gallery spaces. The vastness of the cathedral and the representations of water form a communique—the hugeness of the space lends to the feeling of water’s power and immeasurability.
Except it’s not immeasurable, and that’s the point. The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski puts it eloquently:
Water has become a commodity. Like other commodities, it now divides us between the haves and have-nots. Clean water and sanitation will further define us as nations, in how we carry forward our abilities to care for our peoples and our respect for the community of nations.
That conversation is placed under the roof of this great Catherdral in the spirit of drawing us together across faiths and cultures ot understand and to answer calls to action. I find it heartening, at a time when in the name of religion people have expressed differences violently, that water has the potential—as a shared faith symbol and as basic to all life—to bring us together.
The Value of Water is a profound and not-to-miss show, exhibiting a host of well-known artists including Jenny Holzer, Robert Longo and Mark Rothko, along with many new discoveries. Here are 10 that I thought were among the most extraordinary pieces.
1. Kiki Smith, Ten Elements of Dewbow, 1999
Iconic feminist sculptor Kiki Smith’s pieces are generally less explicit expressions of emotional turbulence, so from a distance her papaya-sized, light-refracting glass tears seem surprisingly direct. Look above them, though, and they lie angled with each other in shards, broken pieces of the same thought. Often split in two halves (Five Elements of Dewbow), the full collection is a powerful meditation on the preciousness of the elements. A dew bow is a rainbow formed in sphere-shaped droplets of dew, usually dispersed with the slightest touch. But Smith’s permanent versions, in this context, underscore their impermanence—they’re natural elements preserved for posterity, as if seeing a mastodon in a museum.
2. Nobuho Nagasawa, Bodywaves, 2011
A rotund rocking chair wrapped in woven optical fiber, Nagasawa’s interactive sculpture both visually represents a neon waterfall—complete with waves, recorded at the Pacific Ocean—and is an incomplete work without a human sitting in it. Standalone, it’s a bit like a twisted-up Mobius strip, strands of light folding in on itself. But when you sit in it, the fiber picks up the notion of your heartbeat, and gleams brighter around your body, like a giant biometric mood ring or aura. The technical: “As visitors sit and rock, their motion drives the accelerometers, layering additional real-time light pulsations (similar to biofeedback) and modulate her body waves; representing her relationship with others whom she encounters in her life.” Or, a reminder of how integral we are to one another, and how we’re made up of mostly water, anyway.
3. Winn Rea, Fountain, 2011
One of the more explicitly environmentally conscious works in the show, Winn Rea dismantled hundreds of plastic water bottles and sliced them into thin spirals, hanging them upside-down from the ceiling so they cascade like a waterfall (or a melting glacier). The effect is stunning, particularly placed among the Cathedral’s bowed arches, but it provokes disgust as well—at the waste created by our voracious and earth-debilitating habit for buying water from the bodega. The sculpture’s weightless suspension directs the mind naturally to the ocean, too, and the tons of plastic bottles floating there. But then it once again captures with its beauty, reminding us that water is one of our most visually beautiful elements.
4. Trenton Doyle Hancock, The Year: Pull, 2009
A paper etching of two stark hot pink doorways atop black droplets of rain, Doyle Hancock might have the poppiest piece in the collection, and it’s also one of the lightest. Perhaps a subtle shout-out to the artist Philip Guston, the piece is kind of brilliant in its simple quirkiness, suggesting magical passageways to other lands, two feet about to dive off a board into the ocean, or just a couple ways to get out of the rain. Its subjectivity is part of the pleasure.
5. Teresita Fernandez, Untitled, 1997
A wood and glass square installation set on the floor to look like a reflecting pool (or a hot tub), Fernandez’ piece looks infinite, but is in fact impenetrable. She challenges us to consider our perception, and reminds us that nothing lasts forever.
6. Terry Tempest Williams, Ben Roth, Felicia Resor, Council of Pronghorn, 2010
This is a stunning installation of small antelope skulls perched on Lord of the Flies-style sticks and set up in a circle right in the entryway of the Cathedral. At first it’s rather humorous to see what looks like goat heads in the middle of a church. The incongruity of the religious sanctuary with this cartoonish interpretation of Satanism is a sign that the exhibit is quite unorthodox. It’s much deeper than that, though: the trio of artists picked up the skulls on a trip to Wyoming they made to investigate oil and gas development there—as representations of the antelopes’ “silent witness.”
7. Leigh Behnke, Gloaming, 2009
Behnke’s window view of sun hitting atmosphere is just beyond hyperrealistic, super-saturated painting celebrating the quiet performances of the natural world. Framed by panels of a cloudy moon and a dark water, she suggests a kind of suspension between space and time. At the same time, the sight beyond the windowpane, of the frothy sunset, gives the feeling of being an astronaut, landing here for the first time.
8. Victoria Vesna, Waterbowls, 2011
A gorgeous, full-room installation, Vesna’s vast bowls are filled with water drip by drip from elaborate glass vessels suspended above them. From one side, the water is reflected in a sphere on the wall, the water appearing oily and mutable in the light. A meditation on time and interconnectivity, the water supply in the vessels is finite. Typically, on opening night, one of the bowls became a makeshift wishing well, which further emphasized the point, though probably not in the way the artist intended!
9. Sonam Dolma Brauen, Silent Ocean 1, 2010
A dark, impressionist piece, Silent Ocean uses some of the same blues in the Rothko here (Untitled, 1969), but to completely different effect. Where Rothko’s piece tends to the left-brained, Brauen’s is more soul, her brushstrokes more fluid, as though she made an effort to channel the peacefulness underneath the ocean, the predictable order of life untouched below a chaotic world.
10. Don Eddy, A River Called in Lumen Profero, 2008
This is perhaps the most explicit link between the subject of water and the Cathedral. Eddy, a pioneer of photorealism, painted a rounded triptych in the style of Italian Christian art of the 16th century. In place of Mary, Jesus and Joseph, though: two peonies atop tiny windows framing a gorgeous, lush look at a river. Past the windows—a church view—the river flows, suggesting God in the everyday of nature. And whether you believe in something or nothing, the point rings true: lush streams of water are as sacred as religion.