Birth water, sweat and menstrual blood: Museum of Water's Australian donations

Handwritten notes capture the meaning for each person who contributed, in a global project that’s about more than it seems

On a large shelf in the main gallery of Fremantle Arts centre sits a tiny jar containing a tablespoon of liquid: dark, thick and red, not unlike the artisan jam you’d expect in a jar like that.

But, according to the handwritten label, it’s filled with something else entirely.

“Menstrual blood,” it reads. “Collected Sunday 18.2.18. Created between 9am and 2.15pm.” After that comes the name of the donor (Sarah Thomason), and the item’s catalogue number: “1194.”

The blood is the 1194th sample of water to be donated to the Museum of Water, an ongoing project from London-based live artist Amy Sharrocks.

Since 2013, the museum has travelled across the UK and the Netherlands, accumulating ever-more items for display – three bottles of 129,000-year-old water here; a jar of birth-water there; a melted snowman; and some holy water. And since last year’s Perth festival, the Australian public has been invited to donate a sample of their own. Dam water. Bath water. Breath, sweat, tears.

The project ‘custodians’ set up shop in Fremantle in 2017, but also travelled to remote communities across Western Australia, collecting the stories of the people who brought them water for an audio project that runs alongside the exhibition.

And for the next month the full Perth collection – 541 bottles, along with 20 more from the global museum – is on display.

The Museum of Water at Fremantle Arts Centre, curated by Amy Sharrocks for the 2018 Perth festival.
The Museum of Water at Fremantle Arts Centre, curated by Amy Sharrocks for the 2018 Perth festival. Photograph: Jessica Wyld

The museum is billed as “an invitation to ponder our precious liquid”, but it’s more than that, too: it’s a way to give people a chance to share their story, and a musing on the role of museology itself.

“Who curates our collections? Who decides what goes into a museum? Who do we look to for authority?” Sharrocks tells Guardian Australia. “The world is hurtling in a certain direction right now, and it’s time to reconsider who we listen to, and to hear different voices in the world.”

The brief – to “choose what water is most precious to you” – is broad, and the way people interpret it speaks volumes. “People amaze me regularly with what they bring,” Sharrocks says. The project has been addictive; she travelled from the UK to Perth four times for the Australian iteration, and spent the rest of it checking her messages every morning to find out what new waters had been added overnight. When you give everyone a voice, she says, “extraordinary things happen”.

In Perth, there’s a baby’s bottle filled with water from a bath shared by two infant children, born after “four miscarriages, three unsuccessful IVF implants and countless drugs, scans and hormones”. There’s the melted snow of Kilimanjaro; 19,490-year-old water collected from Berkner Island in Antarctica (the scientist also brought in an ice core); and three jars of water from the three dams that irrigate the first avocado farm in Torbay, WA.

With each item comes a handwritten note – and in some cases an audio recording – detailing what the water is, and what it means to the person who brought it. From a child called Tobias comes one of my favourites: “Water that my mum cooked her egg in four times.”

19,400-year-old water, menstrual blood and a jar of cooking water.
With each item comes a handwritten note detailing what the water is, and what it means. Photograph: Steph Harmon/The Guardian

Sharrocks has focused on water in much of her work. In 2007, she invited 50 people to swim across London, through its lakes, lidos and private pools; in 2011, she completed her series of public walks tracing the city’s forgotten and long-buried rivers. The element lends itself to art because it exists both within and around all of us: a shared reality that transcends the personal, social and environmental to tell a political story too.

“The war in Syria, one of the causes was a drought – it is one of the world’s first water wars,” Sharrocks says. “It’s caused millions of people to leave Syria ... I never expected to see images of people in boats as we’ve seen over the last few years. They are images from history books brought to life, and the most disgusting reality.”

One jar in Perth contains bottled water an asylum seeker bought for her son; she and her two infant children spent 21 days on a boat to Christmas Island, packed in with 83 others. “There’s a lot of people on islands not being allowed into Australia,” Sharrocks says.

Climate change has also had a profound impact on Perth’s dwindling water supply, and the collection contains hope for a solution: a small bottle of water from the Groundwater Replenishment Scheme, donated by Minister for Water Dave Kelly.

The year after the project began in Soho in 2013, it was installed at Somerset House in London. Sharrocks remembers a woman arriving one day, waiting and listening for almost an hour while others told their stories, before simply placing a tiny bottle on the table and leaving the room. Sharrocks picked it up and read the label.

“It was a bottle full of tears after the death of her baby. And she walked out. I ran out after her – she never told me much more than what is on the label she attached, we just cried and hugged,” she remembers. “Sometimes stories are unutterable. There were so many tears in that bottle.”

Walking through the museum you’re struck by the generosity of the people who donated. Some of the bottles are so personal, so meaningful, it’s almost shocking that they’d let them go.

Bottle of tears
‘There were so many tears in that bottle.’ Photograph: Amy Sharrocks

“The woman who gave me her breaking waters and the water her baby was born into – I’ve never met her, but she emailed me saying, ‘I have this bottle, do you want it?’” Sharrocks says. “I was like, ‘What?’” The woman, in the end, thanked Sharrocks for the opportunity. “She said, ‘I never would have thought to keep the water of her birth, and I don’t need to own it, but I’m so glad that it exists ... Now when my daughter is older I can bring her to see it. It’s part of the world.’”

“I wish I’d thought of this piece 10 years ago, so I could have brought my own children’s birth water ... There’s this extraordinarily careful sense of give and take in the museum, where everybody gains.”

The museum’s Australian iteration features sound art by Rachael Dease, workshops and the audio archives, as well as short documentaries made by school children in WA – one, from kids in Perth, traces the passage of water across the city through pipes under the ground; another, from children in Karratha in the Pilbara, documents a spear-fishing trip and a turtle rescue.

In one room of the historic sandstone complex, which was once used as a psychiatric hospital, visitors without a donation are asked what water they would have brought. They have written or drawn their responses, and fixed them to cover the walls.

“I would have brought water from the part of the river where it suddenly drops off. The part of the river where I planned to drown,” reads one. “I would have brought the water from the river on the day I chose life, and courage, and everybody who I love.”

Museum of Water
Patrons slowly fill the walls with the water they would have brought, on opening night of the Museum of Water at Fremantle Arts Centre. Photograph: Jessica Wyld

The Australian collection has ended up slightly different to those in Europe. “In Australia, people seem really happy to get into the grit and dirt of the land, and the rivers, and the bodies of water,” Sharrocks says. “People have bored holes, and dredged up water – there’s this sense of river-in-a-jar.”

She brings it back to a connection to country that has been part of Australia’s history for millennia. “I’ve met so many Indigenous elders, so many Noongar people, who talked to me about the community of water. They said actually it’s not just about the water; the waterhole is an epicentre of social cohesion. It’s the water, but it’s the reeds and it’s the dragonflies, it’s the wind that’s in the trees,” she says. “Everything happens in a context. This world is composite, not exclusive.”

The Museum of Water at Fremantle Arts Centre, curated by Amy Sharrocks for the 2018 Perth festival.
The Museum of Water at Fremantle Arts Centre, curated by Amy Sharrocks for the 2018 Perth festival. Photograph: Jacqueline Jane

Of course, by its nature, the exhibition is ephemeral. In most of these jars the water will find a way out, evaporating through the glass, the plastic, through the porosity of the lid. For one woman, who collected her sample five years ago – the day her partner died – the water’s leakage represents an evaporation of grief.

“She has associated the lowering levels of her water with a kind of recovery. Her pain wasn’t over, her grief wasn’t gone, but her mourning had changed from desperate pain to a calmer, abiding grief,” Sharrocks says.

“It’s absolutely intended, in the museum, that the bottles are evaporating. But if the water is going out of the bottles, where is it going to?” she asks. The answer is that we’re breathing each other’s stories in.

“All of us are implicated in this process. This sense of: how are we going to share this world? The bounty of this world? How are we going to save it, and share it amongst these countries, among these little islands?

“That’s the question for all of us to answer – I would not want that question answered by a few white Western men. I don’t feel they do well at answering questions like that.”

• The Museum of Water is on display at Fremantle Arts Centre until 23 March and can be viewed online


Steph Harmon

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Perth festival 2018: Siren Songs to sound through city in a program 'full of ritual'
Robert Lepage, Helen Garner and Inua Ellams lead lineup, but death of a pilot at centre of major work casts a shadow over announcement

Steph Harmon

09, Nov, 2017 @10:30 AM

Article image
'A conduit for healing': Perth’s $400m Boola Bardip is a museum for the post-truth era
The new museum invites ‘difficult conversations’ about history and culture, with perspectives from 70-plus Aboriginal language groups

Rosamund Brennan

23, Nov, 2020 @2:37 AM

Article image
The disability-led stage production celebrating love – and Home and Away
Play takes audience on journey through the shocking history of Down syndrome in Australia

Steph Harmon

03, Mar, 2018 @4:44 AM

Article image
Siren Song: the ethereal sound art reimagining Perth's brutal CBD
This time in Perth’s architectural canyons, it’s like a JG Ballard novel, only more elegiac

Brigid Delaney

19, Feb, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Cyborgs, ecosexuals and a bed made of bees: inside Perth's strangest art show
It’s not for the faint-hearted, but the new group show examines our relationship with nature and science – with a tendency towards the erotic

Simon Miraudo

02, Aug, 2016 @8:52 PM

Article image
Perth’s Fringe World festival parts way with mining giant Woodside
Uncomfortable alliance between arts festival and fossil fuel giant appears to have run its course

Kelly Burke

04, Jun, 2021 @3:05 AM

Article image
'Plastic is political': upcycled art exposes Australia’s fraught relationship with waste
As millions of tonnes of rubbish are shipped offshore, artists across south-east Asia are sending some of it back

Rosamund Brennan

12, Mar, 2020 @1:13 AM

Article image
Activists angry over Perth festival Fringe World’s new deal with fossil fuel giant Woodside
Woodside has transitioned its sponsorship to ‘philanthropy’ at the festival’s parent company Artrage, which says it is ‘not in business of making political statements’

Mark Naglazas

23, Jun, 2021 @11:00 PM

Article image
Adele's first Australian show review – Perth succumbs to charm and glory
‘I don’t know if I’ll ever tour again,’ the star says – but for 48 hours she held a city in the palm of her hand

Bob Gordon

28, Feb, 2017 @8:45 PM

Article image
The 10 strangest artefacts in Australian museums – sorted
From a hangman’s journal to ‘The Poo Machine’, here are some weird, unnerving and oddly touching objects in museums around the country

Charmaine Manuel

27, Mar, 2022 @4:30 PM