The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
Two years in the making, the exhibition The Value of Water is finally open. Below, curator Fredericka Foster discusses the concepts behind her curatorial choices for this expansive project.
We are facing the largest social–environmental upheaval since the industrial age; in less than 20 years, the demand for fresh water will be 40% more than the supply. The purpose of this exhibition is to explore how 39 artists respond to water as subject matter, and to acknowledge the Cathedral as a constructive and healing force to help mitigate the difficulties we face as our access to water changes.
One comes to a cathedral to enjoy a certain kind of experience beyond the routine, and sacred architecture is created in part to assist in this shift from ordinary consciousness to extraordinary consciousness. Art also can evoke this sense of “justrightness.” As we connect to the [art] object, we forget our ordinary selves; rather, we become aware of our most natural state, that of profound respect. It is with this respect that I chose these artists.
The first concept driving my curatorial choices was the Cathedral itself. St. John the Divine is the largest Cathedral in the world. The ceiling soars 125 feet above our heads, and the stained glass windows are luminous. Cathedrals are part of the history of art, and are famous for their paintings and sculptures, determining for me the primacy of these media in the exhibition.
Secondly, I thought about the sacred nature of water, arguably our most intimate element. Water is a metaphor for our emotions. Our tears suggest sorrow and joy, despair and healing. For example, Keith Haring’s altarpiece, a gift to the Cathedral, includes images of tears in its gold carved triptych, and makes St. Colomba’s Chapel a required destination for thousands of visitors.
My third concern involves the effects on water as a result of global climate change. Artists have always found a way to interact with social change, and their work has sometimes predicted it. William Kentridge is one such artist. He uses water in his Tide Table video to show us social change and loss in South Africa. His method is to draw with charcoal and film each change as he works. Each drawing is created as much by the subtraction of line through erasure as by the addition of forms, very similar to how landscape is created by water.
The last concept that drove my choices was a particular idea of landscape, or waterscape, as an outgrowth of what has been called the first truly American painting, that of the Hudson River School. We will also include books, among them, Water Matters, a book about solutions to the world water crisis. It combines essays, photojournalism and fine art, some of it from this exhibition.
The work I have chosen is not only art for art’s sake. It is also art for water’s sake, and therefore it is art for our sakes. Similar to a spiritual experience, art allows us to experience mysterious connections as we connect to the object, either as makers or viewers. Our hope is that each viewer will leave with a deeper relationship to water, to art, and to the Cathedral.