Water at Goma is not just an art show – it’s a profound space to process climate anxiety

Queensland’s major summer exhibition is dedicated to the finite resource and it couldn’t have come at a more pressing, bushfire-ridden time

Flying into Brisbane for the opening of Water, the major summer exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (Goma), means flying into what one airline pilot describes to passengers as “significant fire activity”.

“There will be an odour of that in the cabin,” was the warning. “It’s nothing to be concerned about.”

But of course it is. And for many of us it’s becoming increasingly difficult to process the panic that the climate emergency induces.

Water is dedicated to this natural element, and it provides a much-needed moment to connect with an otherwise paralysing range of emotions.

Several physical spaces exist for doing just that, including William Forsythe’s The Fact of Matter: a cloud of suspended rings that audience members are invited to traverse. One holds on to a set of rings and reaches for surrounding rings in order to move ahead – a bit like a 3D game of Twister where your opponent is your own weight and coordination (or lack thereof).

William Forsythe’s The Fact of Matter.
‘How will we learn to adapt to our changing environment, and move in new ways?’: William Forsythe’s The Fact of Matter. Photograph: Liza Voll

The installation, which was conceived in 2009, reflects how Forsythe, a choreographer, views dance – as a conversation with gravity. In the context of Water, however, it has added meaning. How will we navigate rising tides, learn to adapt to our changing environment, and move in new ways?

Meanwhile, in a separate room, you can stand among the life-size animals of Cai Guo-Qiang’s sculptural installation Heritage. Each animal has its tongue curled, poised to lap at a pool into which a single drop of water plops at intervals of several seconds. Inspired by a visit to Minjerribah (North Stradbroke island), Heritage is unsettling, simultaneously presenting an improbable assembly of animals in a paradisaical landscape, and what appears to be the last source of water on Earth.

Cai Guo-Qiang: Heritage
You can stand among the life-size animals of Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation at what appears to be the last source of water on Earth. Photograph: Mark Sherwood

Perhaps the most dramatic of all is Riverbed, a literal riverbed made of 100 tonnes of sand, small river pebbles and large hand-selected basalt rocks through which a trickle of water runs like a vein.

It is one of the most ambitious works by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, but unlike the original version for which Icelandic rocks were shipped to Copenhagen, Goma has used local materials, not only for logistical convenience, but to minimise the environmental impact of the work’s installation.

Like Heritage, Riverbed can feel a little creepy. Its overhead lighting casts no shadows. And the rocks crunch as one moves through the landscape, causing the work to sound as it looks: ominous.

Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed
Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed ‘can feel a little creepy’. Photograph: QAGOMA ImagingNatasha Harth

But the opportunities to reflect on the power and complexity of water exist not only in the exhibition’s works of grand scale, but in the more modest pieces too. The exhibition is held across several rooms and represents work of diverse materiality from more than 40 artists, including: a new painting from Judy Watson; Megan Cope’s installation of 12,000 cast-concrete shells, RE FORMATION; Yayoi Kusama’s painting Infinity Nets, from her long-running series of the same name.

Bonita Ely’s photos of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s largest water system, depict the river at two junctures: in 1977, and from 2007 to 2009. Ely, who has been observing and documenting the river’s decline for more than four decades, uses unpolished, crime-scene-like images to show the progress of pollution which led to the well-publicised mass fish death in January – which is set to recur through this summer.

Among the most transfixing and revelatory works at Water is a series of timber branches on which crystals have formed. Entitled ngayirr (sacred), these sculptures are the result of sacred acts by Wiradjuri artist Nicole Foreshew, who has buried the branches at specific sites on her country, Ngurambang, and added water to the earth. In this way, Foreshew, with her knowledge of country and the workings of the land, has accelerated naturally occurring processes, which even with her assistance can take years. The sculptures are not only physical objects. In traditional practices, they are used to relieve and revive the body.

There is so much to explore at Water, and it takes time. Each work tells a profound story and with considerable physical space between the works, one has the chance to let meaning unfold.

The exhibition is not didactic in this sense, thrusting messages upon you. Instead it is a space for exploring both what exists around us and what we contain. As Eliasson says of Riverbed: “It’s up to you to see if you carry a narrative within yourself. I would argue that we have presented half of the narrative and you bring the other half. Is this the beginning of something new? Is this about trusting the future to guide our present? Or is it the end of something, the past having ruled out our future existence?”

Vera Möller’s Vestibulia 2019.
‘Make no mistake – it’s also fun’: Vera Möller’s Vestibulia. Photograph: Natasha Harth

Make no mistake – it’s also fun. Whether you struggle to traverse Forsythe’s rings and settle for cheering on other more competent participants (children tend to steal the show), or gaze in amazement at the Mata Aho Collective’s gigantic waterfall-like tarpaulin, sewn together from 60 tarpaulins, or study the crooked smile of Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s refrigerated Snowman, Water offers joy.

But it’s got something else too. When Goma asked its Instagram followers how they responded to Heritage, one person replied: “I cried.” And with the city cloaked in haze from surrounding bushfires, the need to grieve is real.

Water is open at Goma, Brisbane, until 26 April 2020


Mia Timpano

The GuardianTramp

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