December 2019 – January 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Water water

By Patrick Lau
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
GOMA’s ‘Water’ exhibition brings an Icelandic stream indoors in Brisbane

“GOMA’s actually known as being quite chilly,” Geraldine Barlow explains. “The QAG is often known to people as the fridge. And GOMA’s like the freezer.”

Barlow, curator of international art at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, is chilling in the foyer of GOMA and contemplating a photo of artist Julian Charrière blowtorching an iceberg. It’s the image that will welcome visitors to the gallery’s summer exhibition, Water.

“It’s kind of cool, but with this burning at the heart of it,” she continues, “which goes to that key issue, our energy use and habits.”

Although the show has been in development for around two years – one early concept involved dual upstairs/downstairs exhibitions called Ice and Fire – activity has ramped up in these last few weeks before opening. At the entrance to the exhibition, artist Megan Cope and a team are meticulously loading a midden with oyster shells. In the loading dock downstairs, the crates for Cai Guo-Qiang’s Heritage have been piled up, but the life-size animal replicas need to migrate to the conservation lab for their blow-dry treatment. “Then we’ve got the snowman; I think I had a reminder in my diary that he might be arriving tonight. So he has to go and get plugged in and then start to frost up.”

Outside, Brisbane’s air quality is reportedly worse than Beijing’s, the result of bushfires feasting on a parched country. Inevitably, Water will be a political exhibition, but Barlow explains that it will be a forum for discourse and even play rather than agitprop.

“I feel like a lot of exhibitions which have dealt with environmental issues have taken a tone of using statistics, saying ‘We need to all be aware of this,’ ” she says. “I wanted to try and take it back to an elemental level but really imbue it with challenges and critical messages.”

Riverbed is the monster of an installation at the heart of the show: an Icelandic stream, transposed into a single room of the gallery. GOMA’s version adapts from artist Olafur Eliasson’s original, shown in Copenhagen’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2014, which feinted and crawled through three rooms of that gallery’s modernist architecture. The (much) higher ceilings and views of the Brisbane River mean that Water’s version is not an exact replica.

Michael O’Sullivan, QAGOMA’s design manager, explains that it’s “not trying to be the same experience”.

“I think for it to be impactful, the context has to be familiar to the audience. You’re seeing the building, but suddenly seeing it in a very different way … Nature, pushing back and re-imposing itself on the built environment.”

Once Riverbed is installed, O’Sullivan says that “it’ll be this incredible mass and wave of landscape, surging forward”.

Eliasson has done other large-scale work that might have been suitable for this exhibition. His Ice Watch installs glacial offcuts from Greenland in public spaces; Waterfall drapes cascades off bespoke urban gantries; Green River dyes rivers green. He also has plenty of technically simpler pieces, which deal with weather and climate on a more intimate scale.

But in fighting hard to bring Riverbed to Brisbane, QAGOMA set itself a huge engineering challenge. It’s taken the design team a year to model the contours of the floor sections with software, cut them by hand, procure and fit out pump systems and lighting rigs, and source more than 100 tonnes of sand, gravel, pebbles, rocks and boulders. The resulting installation is a kind of canyon, greeting visitors with a small pool at the entrance before grading 44 metres back and 4 metres uphill towards the wellspring. Supporting Riverbed is a cave system of struts and joists, fire detection systems, waterproofing and protective fabric skins.

Barlow and her team are aware that visitors are going to get tactile with this work. They’re expecting to keep an eye on stone-skipping, and to encourage making “cairns and little dams”, says O’Sullivan, but will rake the landscape back together at the end of each day.

“We’ll let people explore the work in that way,” O’Sullivan adds, “but also be committed to returning it to a default state each day for the new audiences. So the landscape won’t evolve.”

Riverbed bounces off other works in Water, most obviously Cai Guo-Qiang’s neighbouring Heritage, a room-sized watering hole complete with animals and a similarly faux-naturel setting and scale. It also speaks with the Brisbane River flowing past the gallery’s Watermall space, and the artificial lagoon of Streets Beach further south.

But in its praxis Riverbed seems most conversant with Lee Mingwei’s Guernica in Sand, which was performed at GOMA in 2008. Lee publicly composes Picasso’s bomb-blast tableau in coloured sand; visitors and assistants then walk over it, and sweep it up as if in a zen garden. Like Guernica in Sand, Riverbed is neither a static nor solitary meditation on creation and destruction. It’s a work that encourages tides of people to move together, and perhaps even think together. Critical theorist Donna Haraway – an acknowledged influence on Eliasson’s recent work – has written about this kind of “sympoiesis”, or “with-making”, as an important mode of navigating a multi-species existence.

Although he’ll give a keynote to open Water, Eliasson himself will not be stationed in the room to build sandcastles with visitors. Perhaps he’ll be overseeing The presence of absence pavilion at his current retrospective at the Tate Modern, or discussing optics and Icelandic architecture with a documentary crew, or directing some of the 100 staff at his Berlin studio.

“My work is completely dependent on the spectator turning ideas into art,” Eliasson recently told a Netflix series on designers. He characterised Beauty (1993), his misty indoor rainbow that shifts in relation to the viewer’s perspective, as “a space totally dependent on you being there. When you leave the exhibition, there’s nobody in the room; there’s also no art.”

When Barlow talks about Riverbed, she positions the absence of humans at the centre. The landscape is “pre-historic” or “post-apocalyptic”; inactive but not inert, quietly waiting to succour microbes or macro­societies.

“The water coming up really feels quite precious,” she says, “the way that it moves through that rock. It seems to evoke that sense of the beginning of time, and the first stream and the emergence of life.”

“In a way, this is all illusion,” admits O’Sullivan. “It’s all theatre.”

Patrick Lau

Patrick Lau is a Sydney-based journalist who covers business, the environment and culture.

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