Guest artists: “The Value of Water” at St. John the Divine

By January 21, 2013Reviews

by Diana Rico

In a beautiful convergence of holiness, water and artistic endeavor, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has just opened a new exhibition called “The Value of Water: Sustaining a Green Planet.” Curated by Fredericka Foster, a painter and photographer whose own “Waterway” series has depicted complex moving water systems, this wide-ranging show includes paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, videos and installations by 41 artists ranging from Mark Rothko and Kiki Smith to Bill Viola, Jenny Holzer and William Kentridge. In an interview on the cathedral’s website, Foster explained some of her curatorial rationale:

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….

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 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.

The Episcopalian cathedral has a history of both art programming and social action, and the theme of water has been incorporated into its signature events and liturgies. Many related events are planned for the duration of this six-month exhibition, including an artists symposium exploring how acts of the imagination can trigger advocacy and pave the way for long-term social change; conversations with water activists and writers such as Maude Barlow, Elizabeth Royte and Terry Tempest Williams; storytelling with Kewulay Kamara and Laura Simms; a reading by the acclaimed poet and translator Stephen Mitchell from his new translation of The Iliad; the premiere of “Flyways,” a musical celebration of the great bird migration between Africa and Eurasia by artist-in-residence Paul Winter and the Great Rift Valley Orchestra; and “An Evening of Witness,” a response to the water disasters of the last decade, featuring participants from Japan, Haiti, the Mississippi Delta and more.

“The Value of Water” runs through March 25, 2012, at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine,  1047 Amsterdam Avenue (at 112th Street), New York City. For more information, including bios of all the artists and more images of their waterworks, click here.