By Dovilas Bukauskas
People have migrated, murdered, and made laws over water for as long as humans have existed. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest codified laws in human civilization, says, “If any one open his ditches to water his crop, but is careless, and the water flood the field of his neighbor, then he shall pay his neighbor corn for his loss.” Today, the World Health Organization reports that one in three people on every continent are affected by water scarcity. A list compiled by the Pacific Institute counts 69 water-related conflicts from 2000-2010. Whether it fosters peace or incites conflict, water is undeniably a pivotal force in global human relationships. With climate change, a growing population, and the rapid industrialization of the developing world, ensuring the availability for water is becoming an increasingly difficult—and important—task.
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, in uptown Manhattan, will be displaying works of over 40 artists whose works encourage viewers to meditate on water scarcity. Visitors are invited to "The Value of Water" to “strengthen [their] awareness of water, and to prompt [their] imaginations in the contemplation of water, from wells and underground springs to surging seas and mighty rivers.”
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine has a long history of facilitating public advocacy, and Lisa Schubert—vice president of cathedral events, marketing, and communications—says its current efforts are very much in that vein. “Part of it was getting all of these water advocates in the same room to facilitate the discussion. We wanted to foster the creative imagination, to have people connect the dots. We looked for people who were intellectually driven, who were culturally driven.” Indeed, the art exhibit has been accompanied by a flurry of speakers and advocates who have approached water issues from almost every direction, from children’s storytellers and spiritual leaders to political activists and ecologists.
The artists have made full use of the cathedral’s monumental but still-unfinished space. Daniel and Jonathan, a pair of artists who prefer going by their first names, installed a light projection of a water and life cycle that plays out against a column spanning almost the entire height of the cathedral. Mandy Greer’s "Mater, Matrix, Mother and Medium," in the form of a large river, hangs down from the Cathedral’s southern aisle. On the other side, Greer’s piece is mirrored by Michelle Loughlin’s fibrous "Waterfalls." On the ground, the smaller works are no less impressive. Lisa Schubert, vice president of cathedral events, marketing and communications, said, “we hope that people will be able to make an emotional connection with water here. The cathedral, I think, can help that happen.”
The perspectives on water represented by the artist’s works are also diverse. Some pieces represent primarily aesthetic depictions of water, while others, like Gregg Schlanger’s B.W.R. (Basic Water Requirements), make more explicit social and political statements about water. Schlanger’s piece represents the daily water use rates of countries around the world in a visual arrangement that highlights the link between a country’s water consumption and stability. Winn Rea’s "Fountain," constructed out of spiral-cut one-use plastic water bottles, addresses the wastefulness and lack of sustainability in the bottled water industry.
Schubert believes that the exhibit may truly influence how people look at water issues today. “A lot of people think that supposed ‘advocacy’ has not resulted in the change they’d like to see. We hope that this exhibit might spark something. After all, a lot of people visit this cathedral every year. By the end of this exhibit, at least 200,000 people will have seen it. And not just New Yorkers—tourists, school groups.” Fredericka Foster, the exhibit’s curator and a participating artist as well, says, “People really change when they make emotional connections. I think that did happen here. Maybe now people will consider what they see here the next time some crazy bill comes up related to water.”
In addition to the exhibit and the speakers, the cathedral has partnered with a series of water advocacy groups, especially Food & Water Watch. In Water Matters, a collection of essays that Schubert says was hugely influential in the exhibit’s concept, Food & Water Watch’s Executive Director Wenonah Hauter writes, “if we remain on the current path, industrialized agriculture will drain the planet’s freshwater resources and leave only agrochemical pollutants in its place. The choice is ours, but we must do the work that is necessary to realize this vision for the future.”
The cathedral’s exhibit represents an attempt to bring water issues to the public’s attention and to make water an issue that people care about. The attempt to at once create a spiritual and emotional connection with water and an intellectual understanding of world water issues is no easy feat, Schubert admits. “If you take care of it, there will be enough,” she says. “How do you teach that?”
Dovilas Bukauskas is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
(Art: Fredericka Foster – San Francisco Diptych)