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To Raise the Level of Water in a Fishpond (1997), Zhang Huan To Raise the Level of Water in a Fishpond (1997), Zhang Huan
ROBERT LEONARD CURATED GREY WATER, AS PART OF BRISBANE’S RIVER FESTIVAL, IN RESPONSE TO THE CURRENT ANXIETIES ABOUT WATER AND IMMIGRATION—ANXIETIES ABOUT “PURITY”, AS HE PUTS IT IN THE CATALOGUE. JUST INSIDE THE DOOR, HIGH IN A LITTLE ROOM OF THEIR OWN AND SPEWING FORTH SOAP BUBBLES LIKE A CHILDHOOD PARTY DREAM, ARE TERESA MARGOLLES’ BUBBLE MACHINES, LOADED WITH THE SOAPY WATER USED TO WASH DOWN CORPSES IN MEXICO (HOW DID THAT GET PAST QUARANTINE?). TO ENTER THE ROOM IS TO BREATHE IN TINY LITTLE BITS OF THE DEAD, MOLECULES FROM THE SKIN, WATERY HOMEOPATHIC VIBRATIONS. IT’S HARD NOT TO HOLD ONE’S BREATH, BREATHE SHALLOW, INVOKE THE FIVE-SECOND RULE OF FOOD DROPPED TO THE GROUND AND GET OUT QUICK. DEATH IS THE GREAT POLLUTER, SOMEONE ELSE’S PROBLEM, SOMETHING TO QUIETLY DO LATER. MARGOLLES BRINGS DEATH HOME, OUT OF DENIAL AND INTO THE MIDST.

Down the hall and in a largish room are Marian Drew’s longitudinal photograms of water, made by direct exposure of submerged photographic paper. The effect is microscopic, clinical and forensic. Slowly sinking to the bottom of the clearest lake and looking up in one last frozen moment at leaves, moths, tadpoles, the sprayed droplets from a hose, ripples running like a creek.

To the back a Peter Greenaway video is running, bodies being dragged from the Seine, the sound up a bit too loud and dominating the room. At different spots in the room, the artist not wanting them displayed together, are photos of the surface of the Thames by Roni Horn. The photos are arranged with image above and footnotes below—definitions, asides, stray thoughts about water and the Thames. The river’s motion is frozen, its surface brought close, where it glistens like the skin of an ancient traveler, tanned and leaden from centuries in an Irish bog.

Also in this room are two portraits by Roland Fischer. In each an individual woman stands in water to the shoulders so that she becomes like a marble bust—like one of the thousands that litter European museums as remnants of ‘Rome’ and ‘Greece.’ At first I thought the two portraits were of the same person but they are not—they just share the same even makeup, impassive gaze and icy, no-fucking-I’m-glamorous stare. Shot in LA, they seem immersed in the cool green waters of commodification.

Flotsam, Bill Culbert, 1992/2007 Flotsam, Bill Culbert, 1992/2007
Courtesy Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland
Next door is the hit-you-in-the-eye show stopper—Bill Culbert’s Flotsam. Lying on the floor, scattered amongst a few dozen fluorescent tubes, are beautifully cleaned de-identified plastic bottles—detergent bottles, home cleansers, bottles that once came with safety instructions—all plopped on the floor in some sort of display of equivalence—rubbish as a condition of equity. Some of the bottles are cut to make them appear to sink into the floor, but most are not—it’s a sort of nod to illusion. The fluoros glint, the white electrical cords curl like ripples on the cement floor of the gallery. Although Culbert is a tad older, I am reminded of work by Tony Cragg, David Mach and Bill Woodrow—art in the transformation of detritus.

There are a couple of rooms set aside for video works. Zhang Huan is one of the big successes of the Chinese art scene and has a short video documenting a 1997 performance from Beijing where he recruited various migrant labourers “to raise the water level in a fish pond.” It’s a rural idyll of a pond in the same way that a feedlot is a bucolic grassland. The men gather around the pond stripped down to underpants which look as if they were designed by an unsympathetic committee in a time of great sadness. Embarrassed grins all round. Nearby, people drive tractors, buy fruit and generally carry on regardless. The men disperse themselves around the perimeter of the fish pond and look at it for a bit. They walk into the water, form a line, then move about until positioned in a sort of random clump. The artist gets in, a bit gingerly. He’s carrying a boy on his head. He starts walking and doesn’t stop until he gets out at the other end and…that’s it. It’s a ritual without substrate, perfunctory and functional, the boy now initiated into the adult world of disengaged labour.

The other video is Memorial Project Minamata: Neither Either nor Neither—A Love Story by Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba. Starts off with footage of Minamata, the fishing village in Japan where thousands of people contracted methyl mercury poisoning through industrial pollution. Kids laugh and play. There is a truly awful sentimental soundtrack that is both comforting and disquieting. Orange dye blooms in water, referencing mercury orange, a stain that shows where mercury goes in biological tissues—showing the parts mercury takes out.

Cut from the village to underwater, murky, a small group of divers. Bathers, no goggles. The divers are contained within a large dome-like plastic frame which, unaccountably, they try to manoeuvre along the ocean floor. The divers don’t carry their own air, their own life support. That’s supplied by attendants in full scuba gear. This is a high maintenance struggle.

Now cut from underwater to people dancing, bad disco music, shots of their feet, taken low. Anonymous glimpses of someone lying still on a bed. A fan turns. A mosquito net hangs like a hospital curtain. In the languid reverie of their illness perhaps they dream of the water, their breath slow and murky, now underwater, weightless, free, threatened with suffocation.


Grey Water, curator Robert Leonard, artists Bill Culbert (Britain), Marian Drew (Australia), Lawrence English (Australia) and Toshiya Tsunoda (Japan), Roland Fischer (Germany), Peter Greenaway (Britain), Roni Horn (USA), Zhang Huan (China), Abie Jangala (Australia), Rosemary Laing (Australia) with Stephen Birch (Australia), Teresa Margolles (Mexico), Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba (Vietnam) and Lawrence Weiner (USA); Brisbane River Festival; Institute of Modern Art, Aug 4-Oct 6

RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 46

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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