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‘Spill’: A New Exhibit Examines Humanity’s Abuse of Water

Toxic messes turn into blazing — and angry — works of art at Vancouver’s Belkin Gallery.

Dorothy Woodend 6 Sep 2019 |

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Oil slicks, toxic tailing ponds, poisoned aquifers, drowned landscapes and sludgy brown crude vomited up from the bottom of the sea. To say that humans have abused water is like saying the Titanic was a boating mishap.

The scale of this misuse is made as clear as a pellucid pool at the UBC Belkin Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Spill.

If you think that sounds incredibly depressing, you’re not wrong. But there’s another element at work — the blazing fire of anger and activism.

As Belkin curator Lorna Brown explains, the idea for the exhibition originated from a diesel spill in Vancouver’s English Bay in 2015. The incident reminded her of Melancholy Bay, the former title of Vancouver Harbour, given by Captain George Vancouver when he first landed here in 1792.

But melancholy doesn’t do justice to many of the situations documented in the show. Fury might be a better descriptor for the feeling sparked by this catalogue of human error, bad behaviour and insane decision-making presented in image, sound and installation, supported by exhaustive research.

Brown explains that although the artists featured in Spill — Carolina Caycedo, Nelly César, Guadalupe Martinez, Teresa Montoya, Anne Riley, Genevieve Robertson, Susan Schuppli and T’uy’t’tanat Cease Wyss — worked in different parts of the world, they were united by the common element of water. They also shared an activist approach and deep reservoirs of anger.

None are quite as furious as Susan Schuppli, whose large-scale installation Nature Represents Itself takes on the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

On April 20, 2010, an explosion tore apart British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, resulting in a massive spill that dumped an estimated 4.1 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion killed 11 crew members and generated a fireball visible for more than 60 kilometres. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. history and extended all the way to Florida, devastating marine life and coastal communities in its path.

But the blowout was only the beginning. What followed was a textbook demonstration of corporate skullduggery. For one, BP digitally altered an image of its Houston Command Center, replacing large video screens with photoshopped images in order to suggest a more rigorous response to the crisis. But as blogger John Aravosis noted about the fake image, “I guess if you’re doing fake crisis response, you might as well fake a photo of the crisis response center.”

The escaping crude, captured on underwater cameras, resembled a volcanic blast of oily diarrhea spurting out of the seabed. The image riveted the world, and Schuppli situates it squarely in her work in the form of an old-fashioned television monitor, anchored on the gallery floor.

582px version of SchuppliNatureRepresentsItself.jpg
Susan Schuppli, Nature Represents Itself (detail), 2018.

Nature Represents Itself takes an encompassing approach to the disaster, both surface and depth, but reserves an especially scathing takedown of BP’s continued disavowal of responsibility and compensation.

But even as BP was attempting to control the narrative, the scope of the disaster was being documented by a group of local residents, who went on to become Public Lab. Along with environmentalists, designers and other activists, they created their own aerial surveillance using balloons and kites affixed with digital cameras to document the scope of the disaster. Hundreds of thousands of images were collected and combined through an open-source platform to create a clear picture of the devastation wrought on the coastline.

Public Lab’s community-based approach continues to offer affordable tools for other communities suffering similar calamities and has grown into a vibrant and active resource for combating environmental devastation on land, sea and air.

Grassroots activism is also part of Teresa Montoya’s work Yellow Water, which documents the effects of another massive spill, this time in Colorado, when three million gallons of acidic mine waste were disgorged into Cement Creek, a tributary of the San Juan River.

Teresa Montoya, Yellow Water, 2016, photograph.

Trained in sociocultural anthropology, critical Indigenous studies and filmmaking, Montoya undertook a journey one year after the Gold King mine spill, traveling from Colorado to New Mexico to retrace the course of the spill and document the people and places affected.

In the Belkin show, the title of Montoya’s work is evident in four glass jars that contain murky brown water sampled near the spill site. A wall chart details the contaminants (heavy metals including arsenic, lead, cadmium) in the water, with indicated amounts soaring well past the safety levels established by the EPA. Another form of sampling occurs in the work as well, with soundscapes captured on site and played over headphones, as people organize and take action.

Sometimes the effects of humans messing about with water are so large, they’re difficult to see, much less understand. Artist Carolina Caycedo’s Be Dammed project looks at the massive changes brought about by large-scale dam-building. As Brown notes, the effects of damming rivers are so great, they’ve actually affected the Earth’s rotation.

Caycedo takes apart the issue in a couple of different ways, beginning with Serpent River Book. Culled from the artist’s research on large-scale dams, Serpent River is a collage of images, text and maps, as well as an extraordinary feat of engineering. The book is designed to unfold and recreate a serpentine-like course that mimics the turns and twists of a real river.

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Carolina Caycedo, Serpent River Book, 2017, artist book and customized table. Installation view, A Universal History of Infamy, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 20 August 2017-19, February 2018. Photo by David de Roza © Museum Assoctiates/LACMA.

Divided into five different sections, Serpent River Book moves from Amazonian concepts of natural forms to artisanal methods of fishing, finally wending its way through different means of resistance against corporate control and infrastructure. The book is supplemented with a two-channel video titled To Stop Being a Threat and to Become a Promise, which includes footage of Caycedo’s field work.

Genevieve Robertson also finds beauty in devastation in her work Still Running Water, which follows the Columbia River nearly 2,000 kilometres from its headwaters to alluvial plain. Along the way, she visits some of the 14 major hydroelectric dams that dot the river’s course.

Robertson’s images of sacred sites drowned by water and photos of drained reservoirs possess an uncanny familiarity that is discomfiting and creepy, but also oddly beautiful.

Robertson’s drawing Alluvial Fan, a new work that was recently completed for the Belkin exhibit, is made from silt she collected from the Kinbasket, Roosevelt, McNary and Wanapum reservoirs along the Columbia River. Ground into a fine powder and mixed with water and gum arabic, the silt resembles graphite but carries with it the materiality of place, referencing the nature of the river. As curator Brown explains, there’s a performative aspect to the work, as the artist allows the silt to drip, puddle and accumulate deposits of colour that recall the way a river spreads out as it reaches the ocean.

Spill runs until Dec. 1, with an opening reception on Oct. 17. In addition to the work on display, there will be performances, podcasts and a weekly radio broadcast. As Brown explains, the show was constructed to provide space for a number of performances that will directly interact with the work itself. For more information, check out the website.

Curated by Guadalupe Martinez, Spill: Response brings together activists, performance artists and educators to challenge the exhibition, allow for improvisation, get lively and, probably, a wee bit wet.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Environment

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