Water is timeless… or is it? This installation of works from the Spencer’s permanent collection explores contemporary artists’ perspectives on the elixir of life: H₂0. Many of the works assembled for this installation take an eco-critical approach to the subject matter, exploring pollution and scarcity, whereas others address water less literally and more symbolically, as a cleansing or destructive force. From this selection of 20th- and 21st-century works, a subtle visual dialogue emerges between the Kaw River of Kansas and the Yangtze of China.
On view now in the Spencer's Water exhibition, Lisa Grossman's 86 bends of the Kaw, made possible by a gift from Elizabeth Schultz and the Peter T. Bohan Art Acquisition Fund, ambitiously documents the shapes of the Kansas river at sunset from a low-flying airplane. The artist recently answered a couple of questions about her work.
What were your impressions of the Water exhibition, overall? Did you come away from it with new thoughts or ideas?
First of all, I appreciated the quote from Ben Franklin. I think most people are aware that water is a finite resource that our very lives depend on. It's been said that the next wars will be fought over water so I'm thrilled the Spencer is presenting this exhibit for reflection and conversation. I'm deeply honored to be a part of it.
It was fascinating to see my print panels juxtaposed with the Yangtze piece, opposite, and also with the film footage of the 1951 flooding in this region. Honestly, I can't stop thinking about the artist, Chen Zhiyuan, who drank from the Yangtze River. As I approached the photographs I was saying to myself, he's not really drinking that water is he? I'm pretty sure it's one of the world's most polluted rivers. Sure enough, he drank the water, and I wasn't surprised that the placard revealed that he became ill after the project. When I kayak on the Kaw or most waterways, I try to minimize my contact with the water and am very careful to not ingest any. I found myself thinking of this artist sacrificing his health to make a statement about the river, maybe in the way hunger strikers attract attention to an issue. Intriguing, and I hope he stays healthy enough to keep making art!
Was there a particular moment or observation that inspired 86 Bends of the Kaw? An “aha” moment that you would be willing to share?
When I began making paintings and prints of the Kaw from my footage, I was driven to find a way to grasp a sense of the whole river, all those sweeping bends that you see from the air. I started making series of woodcuts in an attempt to give a sense of movement and time passing. Stepping back from the prints, I realized they gave an impression of the frame-by-frame nature of my snapshots and video from my experience of flying back and forth over the river. I set out to make one large piece that captured the entire 170 miles of the river as if you were flying from Kansas City to Junction City, toward sundown.
I couldn't help but notice and appreciate the black and white footage of the '51 flood rolling next to my piece. It has a bit of that same choppy feeling in monochrome.
Did anything surprise you about the view of the Kaw from a plane at sunset?
Until 2002, I'd never seen the Kaw from the air. On a flight from Los Angeles back into Kansas City, I caught an unforgettable glimpse of the river as we were flying low over Lawrence where I live. I shot some video out the window of this gorgeous blue river snaking West toward the sunset. I had to see more, so I began flying the 170-mile length of the river valley with a local pilot so I could document it with photography and video to use for my work. Just a little elevation revealed the Kaw’s stunning beauty that most people never have the opportunity to see.
What is unique or crucial about visual artists’ contributions to conversations about the environment?
That's a huge question. Visual art's impact can be immediate and powerful. Some of it's shocking, saddening, confusing, inspiring…there's a place for every angle and approach. Artists can help people see, think, reflect, feel, and perhaps care, and I believe that's absolutely crucial for progress to happen in reinvisioning our place on the planet, in our bioregions, in the cosmos.