Water as Art: 5 Artworks Turning Water from Motif into Medium


Water is the essential prerequisite for life. It is, therefore, no wonder that it has always been such a potent source of inspiration as well as a central motif in artistic practice. 

Paintings depicting seas, rivers, and even swimming pools are as ubiquitous as salt in the sea. Far rarer are works that manage to employ water as an artistic medium. 

Water’s mutable physical properties render it a particularly multifaceted medium. It exists in three different states––solid ice, liquid, or gas. It can also refract light, distort and reflect its surrounding environs. Colorless and formless, it can be easily dyed and fit effortlessly into any shape. 

In addition to these extraordinary material properties, water is deeply charged with symbolism. Water figures prominently across the narratives of a myriad of religions, myths, and fairy tales. There is magic in its ambivalence: it symbolizes both creation and destruction, life and death, fertility and transience. Water purifies the body and mind and is associated with the depths of our psychic subconsciousness. 

We take a look at five works by artists who have mastered the use of water as a medium, staging water as art, honoring both the materiality and symbolic power of this life-giving substance.   

Olafur Eliasson – Life (2021)

In the spring of 2021, Icelandic–Danish artist Olafur Eliasson flooded the Fondation Beyeler, letting nature take over the spatial experience, for an installation simply entitled “Life.”

There was no art to be peered at in the classical sense; instead, the glass facade of the Swiss museum was removed and water from the pond of the surrounding park was diverted inside. Verdant green water penetrated the interior of the museum and completely covered its floor. 

The acidic green color resulted from the addition of the harmless plant dye uranine, producing an unreal fluorescent shade of green under UV light and daylight, and is commonly used in hydrology to track underground water flows. The water lilies and aquatic plants which are part of the pond’s natural ecosystem were part of the exhibition, as well the sounds, smells, wind, and weather ushered in from the outdoor environment inside the museum. 

As the carpet of water made it impossible for visitors to wander freely throughout the rooms, black walkways were mounted, charting a course for visitors to navigate. The Foundation remained open day and night during the exhibition period. 

The water was intended to erase the border between the unreal world inside the museum building and the real world outside. It became a connecting element between the museum and its surroundings, between art and nature. 

Joseph Beuys and Nicolás García Uriburu – Rhine Water Polluted (1981)

Water with an unreal hue was also the subject of the work “Rhine Water Polluted” by Joseph Beuys and Nicolás García Uriburu in 1981. 

Unlike Eliasson, however, Beuys and Uriburu’s edition of 24 bottles of acidic orange Rhine river water did not transport the viewer into a fascinating parallel world but rather drew attention to adversities nature faces as a consequence of human activity. Due to its poor water quality, the Rhine has been considered the “largest cesspool in Europe” since the 1960s – a fact that the two conceptual artists highlighted in their collaboration.

Environmental activism had always played a central role in Uriburu’s work. Prior to his collaboration with Beuys, he had already dyed dozens of rivers green with harmless fluorescein during the 1960s to illustrate the extent of their pollution. The 24 neatly labeled bottles are not only a testimony to the state of the Rhine itself but also a memorial to the fatal effects that human activity can have on the environment.

SUPERFLEX – Flooded McDonald’s (2009)

The work of SUPERFLEX likewise addresses environmental calamity as a consequence of human activity. However, in the video “Flooded McDonald’s” the water is not a victim, but a force of nature against which human institutions stand no chance. 

The 21-minute video by the Danish artists’ collective shows a fast-food restaurant, recreated in meticulous detail, into which water is slowly seeping. The higher the water level rises, the more dynamic the video becomes. The initially motionless objects––a human-sized Ronald McDonald sculpture, burgers, fries, and cups––all begin to drift silently through the restaurant. 

As the food and fryer grease begin to cloud the water, it eventually fills the entire room, submerging the camera and viewer into an oppressively gloomy underwater world. Fries drift by and drink cups glide seemingly weightlessly past the frame. 

The video invokes the all-too-familiar images of the natural disasters which have increased in frequency worldwide as a result of climate change. Using the image of a flooded restaurant SUPERFLEX has criticized the irresponsible practices for which the largest of all the fast-food giants is notorious. 

Anish Kapoor – Turning Water Into Mirror Blood Into Sky (2003)

The water in Anish Kapoor’s work installation “Turning Water Into Mirror Blood Into Sky” is free from any political dimension. Rather, the artist is making use of the special physical properties of water. 

At first glance, the work is an enormous circular basin in which a dark, blood-red concave mirror curves inward. The reflective surface is in actuality water, powered into rapid motion by a motor at such a speed that it creates the illusion of a flawless concave mirror. 

“Turning Water Into Mirror Blood Into Sky” is one of Kapoor’s many works which employ sophisticated technology, invisible to the viewer, and created in collaboration between the artist and a team of engineers. For initial experiments, a record player and a cooking pot filled with water were used, and the concept of centrifugal force forcing the water into the convex shape was finally transferred to the final form. 

Yayoi Kusama – Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011/2017)

The reflective properties of water are also employed by Yaoi Kusama for her installation “Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life“.

The installation dissolves any sense of a viewer’s spatial boundaries through infinite mirroring, a concept the Japanese artist has been working with since the mid-1960s. 

The viewer enters a darkened room illuminated by a myriad of small LEDs. The lights glow in different colors, changing their hue to form new patterns and constellations that are endlessly reflected by the mirrors on the wall and ceiling of the room. The floor of the room is covered by a layer of motionless black water, which the visitor can traverse upon a path made of mirrored plates. The motionless water helps to create the illusion of infinity stretching out all four directions – that is, unless you mistakenly step into it! 

Yayoi Kusama – Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life (installation view)
By Natalia Kvitkova — Jul 22, 2021
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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