WATER, OR ITS ABSENCE, can be a serious subject. So many existential crises—brought on by drought and deluge, flood and famine, conflict and corruption—flow through the mind and mediasphere. Could my encounters with aquatic-themed art be spared such associations? A memory of Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle’s Stravinsky Fountain, 1983, visits me first as I recall the whimsical variety and vulnerability of the sculpture’s liquid outputs, each with its own quality of sound and motion, like the steady stream arching upward from an elephant’s trunk or the few dribbles leaking out of the top of a skull. But lately such fond reminiscences are few and far between, partly because of the surging tide of institutional pressure to produce easy-to-consume spectacles. Back in 2016, for example, a bit of dread crept into my encounter with Random International’s Rain Room, 2012, when the work made an appearance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. By design, I was able to stroll through the immersive downpour without getting wet. Fully in the service of the experience economy, that installation offered a carefully calculated thrill, one free from any sort of semantic depth about, say, the stakes of water or weather. The buzz evaporated quickly, like a brief spritz in the breeze.
This is not juxtaposition. Body and water are not two unlike things—they are more than close together or side by side. They are same—body, being, energy, prayer, current, motion, medicine.
We carry the river, its body of water, in our body. I do not mean to invoke the Droste effect—this is not a picture of a river within a picture of a river.
I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving within me right now.