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CONTEMPORARY ART AND GEOPOLITICS OF WATER

Soyoung Park

 

Contrary to the trend of modern art that ahistorically emphasized aestheticism and formality, contemporary art has been concerned with diverse and complex geopolitical issues across the world in recent decades. Geopolitics here refers to a discipline of politics that deals with dynamical relations between geographically different continents and regions. Today’s geopolitical issues have arisen mostly from the system of global capitalism expanding ever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequently the two ideological regimes. For instance, the emergence and expansion of super states and transnational corporations have brought about new geopolitical conflicts in many areas and, specifically, problems such as  economic inequality, terrorism, cultural colonialism, and environmental destructions.     

Waterscapes: The Politics of Water can be seen as an exhibition illuminating those disputes and conflicts that have been globally occurring over water, apparently attributable to unbalanced power relations among states and ethnic groups, from a geopolitical perspective. In other words, this exhibition focuses on a phenomenon in which many changes resulting from ‘globalization’ take on geopolitical tensions and lead to such problems as social inequality, environmental destruction, and dissolution of community. This geopolitical phenomenon can easily be perceived in unequal exchanges between the North America and South America, Europe and Africa, and North East Asia and South East Asia. At stake is not simply a spatial or regional matter, but that one continent's or region's social abundance is predicated on the other continent's or region's forced poverty. From that view, Waterscapes is broadly committed to examining problems caused by globalization, neo-liberalism, and global capitalism by means of various geopolitical conflicts over water, and concretely to bringing up the following issues: How are conflicts and disputes over water shortage related to their regional specific issues?  What power mechanism has been in play behind those conflicts? Where do we, as locals, stand in this world? What do we need to be aware of?          

When looking at many different kinds of artworks by many different participating artists from the work, we can newly realize that water-related problems lie behind today's numerous socio-political conflicts and disputes. Thus, this exhibition enables us to see that although conflicts and disputes over water in each region appear to be those between nations, and between ethnic groups, the logic of mega-corporations’ profit in reality works strongly behind these conflicts. In other words, preexisting problems have become more serious and conspicuous due to the recent collusion of state and corporations. As referred to earlier, most countries’ competitive adoption of globalism and neo-liberalism results in various changes encapsulated as ‘water crisis’ as clearly seen in climate changes, environmental destruction, depletion of resources, and dissolution of communities. We experience and recognize those problems everyday as we find water vital in our daily life. Nevertheless, voices and visibility of locals suffering from water problems disappear in what we called ‘the society of the spectacle’ in which state, corporation, and media are in consensus. As seen in Waterscapes, many contemporary artists try to experiment with new aesthetic strategies and invent new artistic forms whereby to give these excluded people their voices and visibility. 

Alfredo Jaar’s installation “Geography=War” - created by ‘forcing his eyes open’ (as expressed by Arundhati Roy) and witnessing the pains of the weak – is concerned with visualizing those problems that people suffer from their forced incorporation into economic globalization, and those problems that stem from  dynamic relations of geography, power, and development. This installation piece deals with problems of violence that the First World has kept exercising against the Third and Fourth Worlds. Jaar took photographs of the local people suffering from the contaminated water by toxic waste that Italian tanks dumped in Koko, a port city, Nigeria, and placed them in light boxes suspended from the ceiling over fifty (water-filled) barrels that reflect as well as defract the images. The artist thereby lets viewers face the arrogance of the developed country and asks them to be aware of their responsibilities in the geography of power.  European developed countries may geopolitically treat Africa as a ‘potential dumpsite’. By appealing to their power, the advanced countries often act high-handedly toward the weak ones as if the former were privileged to dominate over the latter in today’s barbarous competitive system. What counts in Jaar’s work is our ‘attitude’ toward this barbarianism. Through his oeuvre, the artist has led us to be awake and reflect on our banal and indifferent attitude that serves to build a binary system of perpetrator-victim, according to which we are supposed to attack the perpetrators, to regard the victims as objects for sympathy, and thus to distance ourselves from both parties. This artwork, indeed, goes beyond mere representations of reality, and deals with our contemporary issues behind mere appearances, which will put both the artist and viewers in practical aspects of realities. As suggested in its title, this installation deals with problems of contemporary bloodless wars originating from geopolitical conflicts that grow up invisibly in the age of economic globalism by casting his critical eye on the water contamination issue in Koko, Nigeria.

There is also an art-piece showing how large corporations have moved their factories to the poorest countries for cheap labor and have committed misconducts there. “Holy Water”, a documentary film by a Swedish artist Lotta Ekelund, shows how a peaceful local community came to face crisis as a result of the Coca Cola Company's, say, a multi-national corporation's making inroads into it for profit-seeking, and how its villagers got to struggle against the giant corporation for survival. In a situation where water for agriculture dries up due to the Coca Cola plant's excessive use of ground water, even drinking water becomes less available, water and soil are contaminated by heavy metals from the plant, local residents cannot but struggle for keeping the bases of life. As they spend most of working hours on fetching pails of water, water shortage may push the poor villagers to sink into the more poverty. Nevertheless, the Coca Cola plant manager blatantly keeps saying that he has followed all the regulations during his fifteen-year-long management. Thus, under the system of global capitalism, such giant corporations reach to every village of the world, and replace its locals' conventional mental, cultural, economic, and social values with their capitalistic values. This phenomenon becomes more serious today, and is a result of the collusion between global capitalism and state power.

An Israeli artist Sigalit Landau’s “Standing on a Watermelon in the Dead Sea” is a simple video work showing the artist herself standing on a Palestinian watermelon, while trying to keep her balance, in the Dead Sea. The single-channel video implicitly symbolizes the dynamics of unbalanced power relationship between Israel and Palestine.

  Sigalit Landau, still from  'Standing on a Watermelon in the Dead Sea'  (2005)

Sigalit Landau, still from 'Standing on a Watermelon in the Dead Sea' (2005)

As a matter of fact, many conflicts in the Middle East are related to the water issue around the possessory right of river. We know about the unbalanced dynamics among nations in this area. As easily assumed in this piece, Israel tries to hold sway over Palestine and, furthermore, to hold hegemony in the Middle East. It is through her artistic language that Landau’s video-piece reveals the structure of this endless oppression and exploitation between the two sides, accountable for their subordinate relationship. Apparently, Israel won’t be the only big power whose presence comes into sight above the surface of water by hiding this oppressive structure under water and strengthening the structure further.

In addition to the above-mentioned three artists, most of the participating artists in Waterscapes deal with water-related problems of their own regions. In the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (the term was coined about half century ago by Guy Debord) where a state, capital, and media collude with each other, we usually get along without knowing these covert problems. Therefore, contemporary artists characteristically come forward to explore such problems by putting their imagination to critical use in the face of this clandestine reality. Today’s art newly arouses our senses on these contemporary issues and gives us clues whereby to differently perceive the world. In this context, Waterscapes seems to contribute to opening a new perspective by which we can newly think about how urgent and pervasive those international and regional water-related issues have become; how our village or state communities are interconnected to each other; consequently, what visions we should think, communicate, and act with.

 

Pohang, September 2015

Essay first published in the Pohang City Museum of Art ‘Waterscapes: The Politics of Water Catalogue


SOYOUNG PARK is currently Curator at the Pohang City Museum of Art (PoMA) , in the city of Pohang, South Korea. She holds an MA in ‘History of Western Art’, and is a PhD Candidate working on ‘Contemporary Art’ at the Deptartment of Aesthetics and Art History, Yeungnam University, South Korea.