Bing Dawe, Downstream under Aoraki – Tuna with Barrier, 2018. Image courtesy of Pātaka Art + Museum.

WAI – the water project


06 June–08 November 2020


Given the tension between the desire to create meaningful art experiences and the cliché of the art world’s notorious didacticism, it could be said that a soft mode of curatorial activism has taken over the outright political in recent exhibition-making. The most relevant conversations in exhibition-making seem to centre on the art world’s responsibility to its public, and how it is failing those most marginalised. This introspective tendency negates the accusation that curators should look inwards before suggesting how the rest of the world should conduct their business. Such a conscious shift away from outright political criticism and towards a mode of self-reflexivity is why I keep coming back to one one particular exhibition from 2020—one that seemed to embody the tensions of this changing trajectory. 


The group show, WAI - the water project, was exhibited at Porirua’s Pātaka Art + Museum from June to November, having opened shortly after the first nation-wide lockdown. The exhibition was originally conceived in 2018 by Ashburton Art Gallery’s Curator Shirin Khosraviani. The project evolved from a seminar and tour of local waterways—intended to familiarise the 13 invited artists with Canterbury’s freshwater issues from iwi and conservationists’ perspectives—into a touring exhibition. The exhibition has latterly been shown at Whanganui's Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua. The curatorial torch was passed on to two of the participating artists, Bruce Foster and Gregory O’Brien, adding another layer of interest to the project.


I find Khosraviani’s initial curatorial methodology a curious tactic given the divisiveness of freshwater issues in Aotearoa. Following from the logic that ‘opinions on the future of water seem convoluted and fraught with disunity', the artists were selected based on their perceived sensitivity to ecological concerns and/or te ao Māori. Provided a thorough-yet-isolated education on the issue at hand, they were tasked with an ‘invitation to ‘be the water’ and create new work[s] which challenge, inspire and call to action’. The resulting works largely resisted the overtly political or prescribed narrative that the project seemed to expect of them, instead responding to the challenge with delicate, aestheticised depictions of Aotearoa’s waterways, with only a few outliers. 'Successful art makes the reader or viewer think; it doesn’t tell them what to think', argued O’Brien’s artist-curator statement pointedly.


WAI – the water project. Image courtesy of Pātaka Art + Museum.

Brett Graham’s contribution echoed this sentiment the loudest. His restrained video installation Plus and Minus (2018)—a tiled projection of mechanical arms distributing cow manure—eluded being shoehorned into a predetermined curatorial framework. The rotating dials, filmed from an aerial perspective that transforms their subject matter, are recognisable as effluent spreaders only by the distinctive hue of manure; green and white fields of grass complicate the symbolic binary of black vs white (in this case, green vs white).


Graham’s work pushes back against the educational tour’s ‘vilification’ of mass agricultural irrigators in Te Waipounamu—where ‘lush green fields were declared the enemy’—his artist statement argued that not all irrigators are baddies: a farmer friend in Waikato uses these effluent spreaders to farm more responsibly. While still harmful to wai if mismanaged, this resourceful alternative is more environmentally sound than intensive dairy farms in dry regions like Canterbury’s Mackenzie Basin—senseless operations requiring tonnes of artificial fertiliser and irrigation pipelines to convert thin soils and native flora to green grasses for agricultural production. 

It could be said that the binary of good vs bad irrigator almost reads like a black-and-white argument itself, perhaps for the exhibition’s sake of conceptual accessibility. Regardless, Plus and Minus manages to complicate the simplistic narrative perpetuated by the urban liberal vs individual farmer culture war, demonstrating nuance that is often sacrificed (regrettably) for general audiences. It may be something of a cliché but the best political art really is that which asks questions, as opposed to offering answers—as O’Brien had originally intended. Graham’s work also serves as a reminder that not all artists hold identical political leanings.


Bruce Foster, Murmur #2, WAI – the water project. Image courtesy of Pātaka Art + Museum.

While grateful to see an urgent issue raised (if only lightly interrogated) in such an accessible space, I can’t say I was surprised by the largely apolitical approach most artists took—nor do I think they should have been better vessels for a greater political message. The main wall text explicitly named colonial appropriation of water bodies and intensive farming as key propellants of freshwater degradation—a bold move perhaps, given the backlash Te Papa received earlier in the year for a similar approach. Jenna Packer’s symbolic paintings reinforced this message by inserting narratives of colonial land conversion into early surveyor-styled illustrations. I’m not sure if the cow-manure tinge was intentional this time, but it worked. 

Bing Dawe’s wall text detailed contemporary efforts to save endangered tuna (long-fin eel) from brutal depopulation, while Phil Dadson’s video Moo Cow Blues (2018) was left out of this iteration of the project (perhaps for rendering the tour’s lessons too explicitly). With these exceptions, visitors could be excused for disengaging with the exhibition’s rationale. If it was a radical political statement Khosraviani was after, selecting artists who had conducted their own research on the topic may have resulted in something more persuasive. In saying that, the artist-curators Foster and O’Brien were given the agency to take the water project in the direction of their choice. Perhaps this saved the endeavour from being yet another didactic institutional experience.


Warren Feeney’s review of the Ashburton instalment of the Project argues that it ‘delivers on the sentiment of its claims and the credibility of what it calls on to respond…’, falling into that familiar and ever-so-kiwi mode of art 'criticism'. How exactly do Elizabeth Thompson’s illusionistic resin reliefs (breathtaking in their crystalline blues), Foster’s aestheticised vignettes of light dancing on water, O’Brien’s esoteric cartoons (which, despite their confusing iconography, still manage to look like educational resources), or yet another arrangement of pencil lead by Peter Trevelyan ‘create such a conscious sense of responsibility’ in its viewers? It’s not that all of the contributions to WAI were as conceptually delicate as these, but the repeated overstatement of the works’ literal efficacy certainly triggered a renewed interest in what curatorial activism might look like—not to mention a few eye-rolls.

All images courtesy Pātaka Art + Museum.