March 14, 2018


Meaning and play run deep at the ‘Museum of Water’

By Miriam Cosic

Photography by Bo Wong

The Perth Festival event encourages reflection on a precious resource

The Museum of Water, developed for the Perth Festival but continuing until March 23, is a delightful exercise in participatory storytelling with a deeper, more crucial, significance.

For more than a year UK artist Amy Sharrocks toured one of Australia’s driest states in a rusty trailer, accompanied by custodians of the land, collecting samples of water and the memories that they represent. A sculptor and filmmaker, as well as an artist, Sharrocks first began her water project in London in 2013 and has since toured it across the UK and Europe through 50 sites. In 2016, she curated Do Rivers Dream of Oceans?, a festival of water across the English city of Reading. The Perth event is the third major iteration of her project as she continues to make her point: we can no longer take this most precious resource for granted.

Her theme, presented with imagination and humour, is described as preparation for the drier future that we can expect global warming to bring to many parts of the world. With 70 per cent of Australia classed as desert, arid, or semi-arid, and Perth fretting about urban water shortages, Europe’s future is WA’s present. Quite apart from its obvious role in irrigation for agriculture, for example, water makes up some 60 per cent of the human body.

As the festival’s dedicated webpage instructed: “Choose your water. Find a bottle to put it in. Tell us why you brought it.” More than 500 bottles and jars and other receptacles that came in are laid out on tiered surfaces in a room of the Fremantle Arts Centre. Some of them were given directly to the centre; the cut-off date was the final day of the festival, March 4. While the festival was on, the centre also ran a variety of water-related workshops on everything from how to have a three-minute shower to how to build a boat to how to make ceramic receptacles. A number of talks on the science of water were also presented.

The water samples and their stories range through kitsch, cute, interesting and deeply moving. All are thought-provoking and the sheer variety of ways people responded to the idea is thoroughly absorbing. “Water”, as creative producer Sarah Rowbottam told me, “becomes a symbol for starting to talk about so much else.”

One of the donations is a collection of shells placed in water in squat, silver-lidded jars. The children who made it are being home-schooled and their mother encouraged them to take part as an education project. When we were there, they were upstairs at the boat-building workshop.

There are some Asian-language contributions and stories from the Waylen Bay Sea Scouts. An empty green bottle on its side with its cap nearby is what remains of a spiritual adventure. A surfer put some water from Rottnest Island in a bottle for the project before experiencing qualms about his entitlement to do so. He returned to Rottnest, asking the ocean for safe returns of surfboard riders as he poured the water back.

Perhaps the most moving story came from a 16-year-old Year 11 girl who had kept a small half-empty bottle of water on the dresser in her bedroom for months as an aide-mémoire. One day, she had seen a homeless man begging on the street and she gave him what she had in her hands – a sandwich and a bottle of water. He accepted both gratefully, drank half the water and gave back the bottle. She kept what was left where she could see it every day, to remind her how much the smallest things matter to those who have nothing, and how easy it is to help them.

The walls of a room next door are festooned with written accounts of what people would have done for the installation if they could have. Some slips of paper outline complicated scenarios of captured water; others are cheeky responses, clearly from adolescents, which nonetheless got a democratic showing.

The project sent out film crews to make four documentaries in cooperation with schools. Both donors and the custodians were asked about the significance of the water. Some questions, Rowbottam says, are answered in two words; others took a long time to tease out the import. And a slow but fascinating hour and a half of Sharrocks’ findings is recorded in a podcast followed by some commentary and 16 of the donors’ personal stories.

The Museum of Water is one of those exhibitions that combines art and science in an intriguing exercise of empathy and imagination. Along the way it teaches us plenty, about the importance of water to the environment, to biology, to history and, via memory and symbolism, to our deepest psychological selves.

Miriam Cosic attended the Museum of Water as a guest of the Perth Festival.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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