The Weight of water

Beauty, irony, loss

By Susan Byrnes

Photo: Prudence Gill, Over, Under, Around, and Through, 2015

Compared to many Midwestern states, Ohio is fortunate to have abundant water resources. Lake Erie serves as a northern border to the state, while the Ohio River creates its southern border, and buried valley aquifers resulting from ancient glacial activity provide clean drinking water for many Ohioans. As water availability and water quality are increasingly threatened in the U.S. and globally, due to the effects of global warming, such as severe drought, and man-made issues such as agricultural runoff, commodification and fracking, water has become a growing issue of concern for many people.

A recently mounted exhibition titled Too Shallow for Diving: The Weight of Water on display at the Weston Art Gallery of Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center for the Arts addresses this significant concern. The show explores water issues relevant to Ohio waterways, extending north to the Great Lakes and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The exhibition runs through June 7.

On Saturday, May 16, a Families Create “Savor the Waves” event will be held. Co-curators Carolyn Speranza of Pittsburgh and Christopher Hoeting of Cincinnati assembled a group of eight regional artists to create new works exploring water problems that impact Ohio in six multimedia installation pieces. This exhibit is the second iteration of the concept: in 2011, artist and activist Speranza curated an environment-themed exhibit at the American Jewish Museum in Pittsburgh. Hoeting, an artist who has curated several innovative exhibitions in the Cincinnati area, including some using shipping containers as galleries in public spaces, learned about Speranza’s show and invited her to collaborate in the creation of a water-oriented exhibit related to Ohio. Hoeting attributes his interest in the way water impacts the region to his experience growing up in Cincinnati along the Ohio River.

“Aesthetically,” he says, “I have been in awe of the river and had this lifelong love and experience of the river. I’ve seen the power and impact that the river has and how important it is to our lives.”

The environmental movement in art gained prominence with Land Art and Earthworks projects in the mid to late 1960s and ’70s, which consisted primarily of large scale, nature-based sculptural works. From this evolved Eco Art, a more activist and politicized creative approach to illuminating human use and combating abuse of the environment, raising awareness of environmental fragility and degradation, establishing or maintaining equity of access, and promoting remediation of natural resources. Current growth in awareness of sustainability issues has added another dimension to the environmental art movement: environmental justice and the social and economic impact of land use planning and policy.

The influence of these approaches is evident in the Weight of Water installations, each complexly woven to combine historic and current narratives of specific places and bodies of water with naturally found and fabricated objects, artifacts and literal and digital representations of water and human interaction with it. The exhibit entertains with elements of audience participation and discovery in this continuous series of immersive environments that flow from room to room, presenting viewers with images and expressions that range from beauty, humor and awe to irony, loss and outrage.

Prudence Gill’s dimly lit, shimmering piece traces the path of the Mississippi and its tributaries through a suspended LED sculpture of the watershed and small lenticular photographic panoramas depicting 94 points on the Ohio and Mississippi, where she also collected water samples displayed in vials. Her artist statement explains how she sees all water as connected.

“No water problem – no matter how far or small – is an isolated water problem; every water problem is our problem,” Gill says.

Speranza has also mapped the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, but in terms of their history of racism, human trafficking and social injustice. In her statement about the piece, Speranza explains, “The river separated not just geographic states, but also the states of being a slave and of a free man.”

Her installation cascades down the Weston’s stairway guiding visitors through an historic river map with several “stops,” such as a grid of headshots of young black men killed in states bordering the rivers (including Ohio’s John Crawford), and at another stop, a full wall mural of internationally celebrated Olympic champion Muhammad Ali as he throws his gold medal into the Ohio River after experiencing racism upon return to his hometown in Louisville, Kentucky.

Numediacy, a collaborative group consisting of Jason Gray and Caitlin Sparks, created a documentary-based installation that addresses the impact of a current multimillion dollar project to “daylight” Lick Run, a waterway and combined rainwater/sewer overflow in the South Fairmount neighborhood which, in flood conditions, currently flows untreated into Mill Creek, which then drains into the Ohio River. The daylighting project will improve the massive pollution problem, however, the completed project will displace a large section of a longstanding neighborhood. Numediacy’s installation gives voice to a variety of South Fairmount residents sharing their experience of the changes the area is undergoing. Brad McCombs surrounds the viewer in a quiet setting of green moss, with a driftwood pool, and in an adjacent room, piles of coal emanating video smoke. Richard and Doug Harned, brothers who are artist and scientist/filmmaker, respectively, cast a bobbing “Happy Drinking Dippy Bird” in their piece “Water Theatre” to use absurdity in ironic contrast to the seriousness of climate change. Roscoe Wilson collected and assembled hundreds of post-consumer plastic caps from bottled water to comment about demand, commodification and conservation of water from the Great Lakes.

The show is ambitious and important. Broad in addressing aspects of regional waterways that have global implications, it is also specific in its illumination of the very real impact on individuals in a local community.

Too Shallow for Diving: The Weight of Water is on display through June 7 at the Cincinnati Arts Association’s Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St. in Cincinnati. For more information, please visit cincinnatiarts.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Susan Byrnes at SusanByrnes@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Susan Byrnes
Reach DCP freelance writer Susan Byrnes at SusanByrnes@DaytonCityPaper.com

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