Hyewon Lee & Melina Nicolaides

Hyewon Lee and I met up in Cyprus in the summer of 2014 to discuss the upcoming ‘Waterscapes’ show that would debut in Seoul the following November, and about our collaboration. While planning, we had a chance to talk about different aspects of her first curatorial initiative on the topic of ‘water’ held in India, and the impulse to pursue the subject further. We also had the chance to touch upon the issue of water politics in relation to the eastern Mediterranean region, and specifically to our own countries, Cyprus and South Korea.

Korea and India: water-related disaster and water as metaphor

Melina Nicolaides: Hyewon, let’s talk about the first project on water..

Hyewon Lee:  My first project on water was a residency and collaborative project between India and Korea that was held in Chennai, India, in December of 2013. Entitled Water Bodies, the project brought together artists from India and Korea, with the object of creating new works that would draw inspiration from the relationship between water and the local communities.

I wanted to initiate a collaborative project centered on the idea of art and the environment, and more specifically focusing on the existing water issues of the region. In addition, I hoped through this, we would also explore the many overlaps between India and Korea, and cultural interactions associated to the sea.

MN: So what was the main reason, from a curator’s point of view, that you specifically chose Chennai in Tamil Nadu, as your location in India?  

HL: In fact, I didn’t choose the city. The location of the project and its theme, ‘Water as the Object of Life and Danger,’ was an exciting venture proposed by Korean Art Council and the InKo Centre, which promotes inter-cultural dialogues between the two countries, and I was drawn to respond to the call. But this ‘given’ project turned out to be the biggest wake-up call in my career, making me entirely reconsider the vast issue of water, the role of art and artists, and even myself as a world citizen in the late-capitalist world where even ‘the rain’ has become a commodity, and seeds are patented by GMO-pushing corporations.

MN: Chennai is home to the second longest beach in the world, the Marina Beach. Was there a distinctive ocean culture there and what were the cultural connections to the water? Water throughout time has been a source of so many things - a source of identity, sustainment, a way of life, it has shaped traditions and customs, and also brought conflict and crisis.

HL: The first thing that struck me was that the city does not have a distinct ‘beach’ culture which one comes to expect in most cities that are close to water bodies. Instead, the beach there is the most democratic space for people - it is a free and open space where all divisions of class and social standing disappear. As the Bay of Bengal nestles the city of Chennai, it nurtures a very vibrant fishing community that has positively defined much of this biosphere; but in the area’s recent past, upheaval and grief prevailed when the great tsunami of 2004 that tore through the Indian Ocean and caused such tremendous destruction, and changed many people’s lives forever.

Fishermen along the coast at Marina Beach, from EBS Korean TV's documentary  "Water Retaliates: The Story of India"  (2014)

Fishermen along the coast at Marina Beach, from EBS Korean TV's documentary "Water Retaliates: The Story of India" (2014)

MN: So as ‘crisis’, the water issue from the perspective of natural disaster was very present in your experience there, especially the psychological side of the ‘after-story’ or ‘post-tsunami’ life, when the catastrophe funding has been used and the NGOs have left, and people must deal with the trauma aspect of water disasters and the enduring societal consequences. Beyond the obvious ecological impact, this disaster brings up so many other issues - economic, gender, displacement - women must find jobs and rebuild households, fishermen must face the ocean again or seek a new vocation, homes built by NGOs bring both forced and willed relocation of peoples - water refugees.

Christoph Draeger & Heidrun Holzfeind, image from    "Tsunami Architecture"  (Tagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, 2012)

Christoph Draeger & Heidrun Holzfeind, image from "Tsunami Architecture" (Tagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, 2012)

HL: The project and its theme felt as an urgent plea for us to reconsider our ill-defined understanding of water, above all because 2013, the year of the residency, was designated “International Year of Water Cooperation” by the United Nations; and because December 2013 marked the ninth anniversary of the tsunami which killed several hundred thousands of people in areas throughout Southeast Asia and India.

The first question that I posed to myself was “What can an art project do for a city where around 7,000 people lost their lives to the tsunami and many more lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of it and some of those who survived the tsunami are still forced to go so far as to sell their kidneys to make their living?” 

MN: And within this tremendous reality, what sort of work was produced for the residency?

HL: At the end of the residency, we had an exhibition showcasing the work of these artists as in-situ, videos, sound projects and performative installations at ‘Spaces’ in Besant Nagar, Chennai. Two documentary films were developed during the course of the residency by a specially commissioned crew from Korea using research collected and interviews with local architects, conservationists and representatives of key civic bodies, as well as survivors of the 2004 tsunami, and NGO’s involved in relief and re-construction initiatives. We also screened documentary films on the theme of water that were directed by filmmakers from India and abroad, while organizing speaker sessions by specialists, talking about ‘water’ from artistic, scientific, social, historical and civic perspectives.

But by the time of the opening of the exhibition, I felt like what we produced for a show was no longer important. In a way, we had to forget that we were there for an art project. Listening to the voices of those who were most affected by the Tsunami or sharing meals with them felt more important than the materiality of an artwork.

MN: Did you feel that there was significant interest from the public for this type of interactive art initiative, and for the subject of water?

HL: The show did receive a lot of media attention from major newspapers, national TV and radio etc. Over the period of time that the program was going on in Chennai, it drew in a large cross-section of very diverse people - from artists, academics, professionals, students, and the general public, but what touched me most were the kids and their families from the less-privileged neighborhoods in Besant Nagar who came to see the show and other collateral events. From what I was told afterwards, the reaction from most visitors was that this was a very novel way of drawing attention to what was a very critical issue, and that the projects did in fact impact on their lives and the community at large.

MN: Were there any lasting practical effects in the region following the project?

HL: Yes, it seems that from the specialist talks section of the project, the city’s Corporation Commissioner was made aware of certain practical suggestions and for the need of a focus group that could discuss how through artistic intervention, there could be greater awareness raised on the subject of water; a proactive action plan was drawn up that included cross-sectoral teams comprising of architects, town planners, environment specialists, designers, artists and the city’s waste and sewerage boards. 

Also, a team of water specialists from Korea visited Chennai to meet the Corporation authorities and presented examples of river restoration, preservation and of sustainable, regenerative methods of water management for a regional restoration project of the Cooum River in Chennai.

MN: Certainly, water means so many different things to different people, but in addition to water’s primal importance to all life, are its more abstract associations. In what ways did you touch upon the conceptual, broader thoughts about water in your discussion series 'Speaking of Water’?

HL: Taken as a whole, ‘Water Bodies’ was meant on a broader scale to allude to ‘water bodies’ as natural art forms - that could be both life-giving and life-threatening, a positive and negative force. This perspective also took into account the fact that human beings are made up mostly of water, and that Earth is more water than land. Too, that some of the most magnificent of artistic creations either use water as a medium (ceramic, painting, sculpture; architecture) or as inspiration (film, music, photography, sonic art).  If ‘water’ is liquid, fluid, defiant of form, then ‘bodies’ are mass, solid, defined by form. It is this dialectic, this creative tension that held this project together on all levels.

Still from    "Holy Water"  (2008) Dir. Lotta Ekelund

Still from "Holy Water" (2008)
Dir. Lotta Ekelund

MN: I lived my childhood in India, so it makes perfect sense to me that you chose to begin your ‘water story’, with India and Korea, which share the tradition of broad cultural associations and deep symbolic respect towards water as a concept and as the essence of life itself, or the river, water, as in India, worshipped as something holy. In many parts of Asia, the link of water as an element that is crucial at every human stage from birth and life to death and over again - is something we forget when we are in the West sometimes, its metaphorical significance is often forgotten. Indeed, water is the global crisis of our day, but water never stops existing on its spiritual, existential, and regenerative level and in that part of the world; that aspect is just as much part of the ‘water’ equation as the issue of access to sanitary water for drinking and for daily needs.

HL: Indeed, ‘Water Bodies’ aimed to highlight the life-giving and life-threatening aspects of water, which universally, but most particularly in Asia, has deep cultural associations that link it as an element that is crucial at every stage- creation, birth, life, death and re-creation. The project also aimed to examine how artists respond to water as a concept - how it defines their own work and what its integral relationship is to the site and space that inspired the creation of the work itself.

MN: In India, how did you frame the art and water connection?

HL: In all the projects, my colleagues and I approached the idea of water and art via the same keywords based on the fact that art and water share a number of characteristics.  Water, just like art, is a public asset shared by humanity and an important resource when it comes to shaping the cultural characteristics of a given society. Art and water also serve as channels for exchange between people, cities and countries. We were attempting to approach each issue from both the perspective of humans and of water: “water as a threat” and “water under threat”.

Image showing water protests against Coca-Cola Co. in India from  "The Whistle Blowers"  (2005), Dir. Umesh Aggarwal

Image showing water protests against Coca-Cola Co. in India from "The Whistle Blowers" (2005), Dir. Umesh Aggarwal

MN: What were the main points of similarity between Korea and India from the perspective of water as symbol and as an expression of metaphor? Water has always been symbolic of life, purity, happiness, cleansing and renewal, but it can also represent death.

HL: Though many Koreans recognize it as the name of a popular chain of local Indian restaurants, “Ganga” is actually the Hindi word for the River Ganges. Indians refer to the river as “Mother Ganga,” expressing their respect for water as the source of life. Conversely, the Ganges also symbolizes Shiva, the god of destruction.

These two contradictory aspects of water have long held a place in Korean culture, too. Since ancient times, water has symbolized women, especially mothers, as witnessed in the founding myths of two early Korean states: both the mother of King Dongmyeong of Goguryeo and the consort of Park Hyeokgeose, founder of the kingdom of Silla, are said to have issued from water. The power of water, too, was acknowledged in ancient rites such as “feeding the Dragon King” - an undersea deity believed to determine the fortunes of fishermen and sailors - a still-practiced ceremony in which women go down to water's edge and sprinkle salt into the sea on the first full moon of the lunar calendar.

Does water have any special symbolic occasion in Cyprus?

MN: Yes, in fact in Cyprus we have the water celebration of “Kataklysmos” or the Festival of the Flood, which comes fifty days after The Greek Orthodox Easter. In Cyprus specifically, this celebration has a mixture of references, the tale of Noah’s Ark in the Old Testament, the Greek myth of Deukalion and ancient ceremonies in honor of the island’s patron goddess, Aphrodite. On this day people pay homage to the "holy water fronts", and water activities are held such as water sports, boat races or swimming competitions, and even just splashing water on each other is part of the tradition. And of course, the religious ceremony is that church leaders in coastal towns will perform the ceremony of dropping a cross into the sea to bless the water.

Does Korea have a water festival as some Southeast Asian countries do, or something like India’s Hindu spring festival of color, celebrated with water?

HL: Every community in Korea used to have some sort of water rituals and fishing communities in the South still practice “feeding the Dragon King” on the first full moon of the year.  But these age-old rituals have become more and more touristy ‘festivals’ these days.

Korea and Cyprus: water supply and the connection to Hydropolitics

Island of Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean    (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | NASA)

Island of Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons | NASA)

MN: Cyprus has always had an issue with shortage of water, as is the case for most of the eastern Mediterranean. Rain has been the main source of household water, stored in our reservoirs. But in the last ten years or so, with annual rainfall decreases, supply has exceeded demand more every year, as a result of local population growth, foreigners moving to Cyprus, and the growing number of visiting tourists every year. The people of Cyprus are very aware of the shortage of water on the island, but there has never been a systematic government policy or program on how to implement water preservation. The compulsion has always been how to find water, not how to conserve it.

What is the general water situation in South Korea? Does the general population have a responsible awareness and instinctive reflex to conserve water in daily habits? And what have been past governments’ policy on water until now?

HL: Unlike in India where mainstream media bring up water issues almost every day and people know that they have serious water problems, Koreans tend to believe that they don’t have water problems even though privatization of public water systems has been spreading rapidly while so-called Four Rivers Project, government initiated river reclamation project, have devastating effect on our ecosystem. I should blame the media for this. They just don’t talk about water enough. 

Since we are here, tell me more about the current water situation in Cyprus.

MN: Effects of climate change have had a severe effect on our precipitation level drop over the past decade or so. We had a situation in 2008, due to extreme drought, dams were nearly dry and the existing desalination process was just not adequate that we were forced to bring water from Greece by ship, that we pumped onto land here. Fresh-water imports so to speak! Under that particular agreement with Greece, every day for the following six months two water-laden tankers would head for Cyprus..I believe the government was forced to spend upwards of $70 million for this process. It was after this extreme event that the government pressed forward with larger projects for desalinization, but this water is for domestic use purposes, not for our largely irrigation-fed agriculture.

HL: And what are the water politics of your country?

MN: Well, you and I both come from countries that were cut down the middle by political circumstances many decades ago - you much longer than us of course; but both our countries are divided by a green-line and DMZ, and we live with the constant ominous threat, let’s call it, looming from the North.

In terms of the water question, for Cyprus, the continued presence of the Turkish-occupied North and the unresolved political situation is a huge factor in the water scarcity and water insecurity issue.

HL: I understand that Cyprus is a very drought-prone island with permanent water shortage problems. In the Republic of Cyprus, I think you have several desalinization plants, a network of dams and you also recycle water. What about on the Northern side of the island?

MN: Since the 1974 invasion of the island by Turkey, groundwater supplies have been all but depleted because of lack of regulation (as was the situation in California until the recently-imposed statewide water restrictions). This severe water mismanagement has led to more groundwater being pumped out than nature could replace, and at this point most of the groundwater reserves have refilled with salty seawater, one of the results of over-pumping.

HL: A problem very common in this part of the world, where over-extraction of groundwater risks turning fertile land into desert.

What are the political implications for water with the island’s division?

MN: In fact, there is a potential forthcoming conflict in Cyprus, a lesser-known narrative of water politics of this region, unlike the well-known Israeli-Palestinian water-dispute storyline, the on-going water struggle of Egypt and Ethiopia, or the Turkey, Syria, and Iraq situation.

HL: Typically, water struggles are characterized either by peaceful cooperation or conflict, or water is used as a source of domination.

MN: In this particular case, it could potentially be any of the three.

What I am speaking of is project that was initiated several years ago by the government of Turkey, the ‘Turkey to Northern Cyprus Sub-sea Water Pipeline Project’ that should be completed by the summer of 2015. This project was carried out by the multinational company Trelleborg, which claims the project as an engineering feat - as the world’s first underwater pipeline of this type - to be installed 250m below the water level with a series of new technologies. On a casual level, the ‘suspended’ pipeline can be applauded from an engineering point of view, however, the collateral ‘water politics’ ramifications is what we are talking about here.

HL: It seems to me that for a divided Cyprus, this most basic element of life, water, will become hostage to political divisions and power-games?

MN: Yes, and this aspect seems to have been lost somewhere in this company’s pride at being a part of a project to get needed water from Turkey to the Turkish-Cypriots. In other words, lets call it what it is: water from the Turkish mainland is to supply water to the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey, as you know.

HL: So the water is to be provided to the Turkish-Cypriots, and how and if it will be supplied and sold to the government of Cyprus is still undecided?

MN: In fact, I watched the company’s promo video, and in the words of one of the project’s managers, “the Turkish people in Cyprus will have the water..”, and a site manager’s comment that they will“provide the water to North Cyprus as soon as possible..”. This pipeline project is an amazing example of future water politics in the eastern Mediterranean, and the issue is just heating up now.

HL: So how are Greek-Cypriots viewing this pipeline?

MN: Some, from both sides, have seen it as a “peace pipeline” that might somehow bring reconciliation between the two communities. But most Greek-Cypriots see it as an attempt to create a dependency on Turkey and instead entrench division. It is still unclear whether the Greek-Cypriots will even be allowed access to this new water source. Essentially, although the pipeline can potentially provide the entire island with water, it underhandedly also forces water dependency on the whole island by Turkey in the future for potable, industrial and irrigation water.

HL: Do Turkish-Cypriots see beyond the solution of water shortages to the obvious political angle?

MN: Both sides do. On one hand this pipeline is a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations between the occupied North and the Greek South to find a solution to the Cyprus Problem, and the Turkish side sees the water as an exchange pawn for the natural gas projects the government of Cyprus is currently planning with international companies. However, many Greek-Cypriot lawmakers from across the political spectrum have denounced the pipeline as another Turkish effort to further annex the north and to counterbalance the recent natural gas discoveries with the attraction of a plenteous water supply.

HL: Would the pipeline play a role in the peace-talks?

Graphics from Al Jazeera English Video Report,  "Pipeline won't benefit the Greeks"  (2013)

Graphics from Al Jazeera English Video Report, "Pipeline won't benefit the Greeks" (2013)

MN: Some have already taken to calling the project the “water of peace,” in the hope that a mutual need for this precious resource can bring energy to new rounds of reunification talks.  But for others, the pipeline not only gives the Turkish side leverage, a senior official of the government of Cyprus considers the initiative as an “act of aggression” dressed up as a well-intentioned gesture.

The irony of this set-up is that Ankara can propose the pipeline as a power-sharing and reconciliatory opportunity between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, but instead water as a buyable ‘commodity’, is potentially used as propaganda and wielded as political strength. The basic reality is that as this water comes from western Turkey, essentially Ankara will have the ability to turn the water on and off for the Turkish-Cypriots, not only the Greek-Cypriots!

I find it hard to believe that this could be a peaceful gesture, when it is being announced by the Turkish government that they plan to inaugurate the pipeline on the 20th of July 2015, the date that marks the anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974! How much more of a political provocation than that could one make over water??

HL: No!

So its not unlike disputes that stem from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, the Anatolia Project which has been such a hotbed of controversy for Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish people - conceptually one might regard it as similar in that Turkey is able to take advantage of water control not only for economic reason but for political purposes as well.

MN: Absolutely, with the pipeline project, Turkey is able to ensure its control over the satellite Turkish community as well. Although some there view it as a project that will further link their territory both physically and economically to their powerful neighbor and protector, some Turkish Cypriots are suspicious of the real motives - that the pipeline above all else serves Ankara’s overriding interests, as so often this community has been used by the mainland to further their own interests in the general region.

HL: This Southeastern Anatolia Project (that dammed sections of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers north of the Syrian/Turkey border), a massive hydropower undertaking which demonstrated that Turkey is willing to use water infrastructure projects as a political tool domestically and abroad – and controlling the headwaters of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin gives Turkey leverage over its neighbors’ water security. Historically, there has been a lack of formal agreements between Iraq, Syria and Turkey, adding a level of uncertainty to future water availability in the basin.

MN: Water issues continue to contribute to conflict with neighboring states that rely on the Tigris and Euphrates, and needless to say, this sort of water management is also a continued source of tension for minority populations within Turkey, especially the Kurds in the Euphrates basin. When speaking of control of ‘internal’ minority populations, the Turkish-Cypriots can fall into that category if need be, and this latest large water-management project is an indication of Turkey’s hopes to maintain influence and power over its regional neighbors.

In the Middle East we have seen many instances of how the established power balance can be radically affected when a down-river state has to fear that its neighbor up-river may shut off its water-flow…

HL: In her book “Water Wars” of 2002, Indian environmentalist and water activist Vandana Shiva explains how regions and states use extravagant water projects as a means of establishing their rights to the water sources of the region in question. The more a state or private corporation extracts and diverts water through giant projects, the more they can claim rights over it.  Consequently, giant water projects, in most cases, benefit the powerful and dispossess the weak.

MN: Indeed, despite that in theory, water is a commons and should not be owned as private property nor sold as a commodity; she even goes so far as pointing out that essentially, denying people access to their water either by privatization or the destruction or pollution or diversion of water sources is a form of water terrorism.

HL: I am sure too that this Cyprus pipeline also brings up questions of the status of bulk water transported via pipeline as a “commodity” which is still not an entirely settled legal issue. Another of Shiva’s points is that as water conflicts continue to escalate, to date no appropriate legal framework exists to resolve these conflicts. In your example, this could be a very complicated case, especially in the special circumstances of the unusual relations of the Greek-Cypriot government towards Turkey, as well as the severe and continued drought conditions of the island. 

Still from "The Water Seller" (2012), Dir. Mohammad Fuad     |   As he makes his daily rounds in Bethlehem, a Palestinian water seller comes face to face with the water crisis in the West Bank .

Still from "The Water Seller" (2012), Dir. Mohammad Fuad | As he makes his daily rounds in Bethlehem, a Palestinian water seller comes face to face with the water crisis in the West Bank.

MN: Where then do the Communal water rights lie in such disputed territories? And in such situations are not the people themselves stripped of the rights to decide on water access?

HL: That question is applicable to all of these drought-prone regions, and in the subsequent years the issue of water will take a much more visible stage. We all know water as common source of grievance and conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the Jordan River conflict among Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and the State of Palestine; and the Nile as another potential flash point because of Egypt’s reactions to Ethiopia’s giant hydroelectric dam on the Nile.

Still from  "Raz and Radja"  (2012), Dir.   Yona Rozenkier     | An Israeli soldier and his Palestinian prisoner who violates curfew to water his watermelons collaborate to jump-start a broken army truck in the presence of a persistent donkey. 

Still from "Raz and Radja" (2012), Dir. Yona Rozenkier | An Israeli soldier and his Palestinian prisoner who violates curfew to water his watermelons collaborate to jump-start a broken army truck in the presence of a persistent donkey. 

MN: Even with the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) we see the quest for hydrological control, which began in 2013 with the taking of their first dam in northern Syria, and since then it has been shown that their objectives in territorial advances have been strategically motivated to further this water pursuit in Iraq; creating something like a malevolent water route, where water has the potential to be used as weapon of war, to displace and control people, as water has to do with everything from hydroelectricity, irrigation, food production and thirst.

HL: Water disagreements eventually always emerge as a defining feature of the geography of conflict, where water is used as an instrument through which one population can suppress and exploit another. In the context of the Middle East, with a multitude of existing national, sub-national, ideological, ethnic, religious and pan-national tensions, conflicts and associations, water politics has already been considered to have played a major role in these tensions whether they have been obvious or not.

MN: The issues of water are inseparable from the issues of territory, and the necessity for water even in the oil-rich states is becoming more apparent. Was it not the crown Prince of the UAE who mentioned at an international water conference last year that water was now becoming more important than oil?

HL: In this part of the world we are in right now, territorial disputes over water could surpass current disagreements over rights to deposits of oil and natural gas. Many of the most important conflicts of our time, most often camouflaged as ethnic wars or religious wars, such as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are in fact conflicts over scarce but vital natural resources.

MN: It’s become more and more clear that people who still think that the West’s interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria are only about oil are mistaken. Broadly speaking, Western interest in the Middle East has been, but is becoming increasingly about a ‘commodity’ more precious than oil, as many experts have noted - namely water.

HL: Even in the case of Cyprus then, lies another potential instance in this region where it might come down to selling gas to buy water?

MN: Yes, it is very possible that in the future, once we have sourced our gas reserves, and if the present climate change effects continue as they have been in the past decade or so, we will be forced, as will the oil-producing and gulf countries, to sell gas and oil for water. Certainly, for all of us, perhaps the time has come to address water challenges in our arid regions and understand better the water - energy connection and come up with new solutions in which the people themselves have a say in future water, energy and environmental projects and legislation.

What water-sharing agreements do you have In Korea and what is the actual reality of the situation?

HL: When we speak about the many cases of shared water resources globally, what is perhaps remarkable is that there are no international legally binding treaties about water today.  Existing treaties exist in the form of bi-lateral or multi-lateral agreements usually to provide governance in relation to a particular trans-border water source, river basin etc.

MN: In Korea, are there any comparable water politics implications in regards to North Korea?

HL: To be honest, we don’t know much about the water situation in the North, simply because both governments don’t say anything about it, which is very different in comparison to your part of the world where everything is so vocal and open. Believe it or not, I haven’t heard of any water conflicts between the South and the North. Even if we did have any, we would not know about it.

Conversations about “Waterscapes: The Politics of Water” in Seoul

MN: You were telling me that your water curatorial concept took a shift for its presentation in Korea, and you dealt with the issue from a more focused political rather than ecological standpoint. What is the understanding of the water crisis issue in the general Korean public?

Still from  "Where are the Ducks?"  (2011) Dir. Wontae Seo

Still from "Where are the Ducks?" (2011)
Dir. Wontae Seo

HL:  As I mentioned before, the Korean public is generally uninformed about the various water crisis that we have. Although we may not have visible issues over water with North Korea, we do have internal issues, such as the “Four Rivers Restoration Project”.  By building dams, canals, diverting of the natural flow of the rivers and thus increasing erosion, this 20 billion-dollar “Green New Deal” project has had detrimental effects on the environment such as worsening green algae blooms along the Nakdong, one of the four rivers, not to mention mounting burdens on the state budget.

MN: This nation-wide construction project was also highly controversial from the point of view of internal politics too was it not?

HL: Indeed, the project was highly criticized by the public and those who were in opposition to the president at the time, and it was also regarded by many as a project that illustrated how ties to the private construction business, and media politics were able to supersede democratic processes and the expected proper environmental impact studies.

MN: It reminds me a bit of the corporate-political ties and the misuse of public money scandal in the City of Venice's  ‘Mose’ flood-prevention construction project.

And has the River project issue been widely translated into environmentally-engaged art in Korea?

HL: Not as much as I would have expected.

MN: Is there a point of view or approach unique to the Korean artists’ perception of the water problems?

HL: In India, I interpreted water as a medium for social, economic, cultural exchanges but the show in Seoul focuses on water as a political subject more than anything else. However, to be honest, I couldn’t find enough artists who have dealt with water as social or political issues in Korea. Unlike artists from the Middle East or South America, Korean artists do not pay as much attention to water-related issues as their realities. Many still have romantic notions of water as literati poets and painters did hundreds of years ago. Korean art and culture has traditionally represented water as something abstract or idealistic.

Wonyoung So,  "Digital World Water Conflicts Map" , installation view, Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul, 2014

Wonyoung So, "Digital World Water Conflicts Map", installation view, Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul, 2014

HL: Although as you may have already noticed, the show in Seoul had only a few Korean artists, their work was very strong and helped place the exhibition in its local context.

Image   from Suyeon Yun's  "  Miracle"  (2014 )  showing the 'green tide' algae bloom pollution in Korea's rivers

Image from Suyeon Yun's "Miracle" (2014) showing the 'green tide' algae bloom pollution in Korea's rivers

Wonyoung So, who created a web-based activated map of World Water conflicts from 3000 BC to the present; Suyeon Yun’s video investigates the complex chains of ‘drinking water’ in Korea, including the condition of its origin, its circulation in the ‘water market’, and its classed consumption from the arctic glacial water served to VIPs in membership-based sports clubs. This debate is also linked to the green tide from inorganic pollutants present in Korea’s four major rivers, a problem that remains neglected by authorities, and which has gotten worse since the Four Rivers Project.

MN: And tell me more about the use of new media in Korean art practices.

HL: New Media is a big thing in Korean art world but unlike new media artists in other parts of the world, Korean artists in this field tend to personalize science and technology as some sort of fantasy rather than using them as a means for social intervention.

MN: From the work I have seen already, Dongyong Lee’s  ‘No Trespassing’ for example, illustrates with a cityscape through the barbed-wire along the Han River, how an individual’s access to water is inseparable from the nation’s political realities, and the physical reality of division here.

Dongyong Lee,  "No Trespassing"  (2013-14)

Dongyong Lee, "No Trespassing" (2013-14)

HL: Exactly. Although it is not apparent most of the time here, water is inseparable from our political realities, and art should talk more about it, and artists should act more for it.

MN: Do you hope for a shift in public perception after the Kumho Museum and the Pohang Museum presentations?

Exhibition view, Kumho Museum of Art Seoul, 2014

Exhibition view, Kumho Museum of Art
Seoul, 2014

HL: Yes, of course. The project in many ways is for those who do not yet take the water crisis seriously, and for those in the general public who have not had the experience of going out to protest on the streets or of engaging in any form of activism in their lives for that matter. In my work I do not differentiate artistic practice from social practice.

What do you think?

MN: Yes, at the root of any socially engaged endeavor, is the impulse firstly to move people into action, because if we are going to be practical about the starting place of the matter, if there is no popular interest in a subject, there is no electoral motivation, and there is hence no policy change.

HL: Absolutely, and also art as social practice and one’s projects are in many cases inspired by one’s own lived experience of everyday.

MN: All of us who have tackled “issues” through our work, whether as artists of any field, or as curators, often do so from our own personal perspectives. In this instance, speaking of ecological issues, in order to preserve all of our environments, and specifically each of our own country's problems with water, the message must come from a place deeper than just the information itself.

HL: You were trained and practiced as a painter, does that have other effects?

MN: I think as a painter, and I have seen this in many cases, often for issue-driven work there is a need or desire to combine or shift into new mediums; this was certainly the case for me as I felt that in doing so, the imparting and sharing of ‘information’ was more effective. The thing about painters I find, when working in film for example, is that there is a slower and more of a layering process when dealing with an issue. The protracted sense of time that a painter or sculptor has, often brings a different momentum to the making of films with a socially-motivated perspective, or work that means to contribute to more understanding about a subject.

HL: Indeed, Waterscapes aims to contribute to the general public’s understanding of water, through every approach to the issue, but also it was also essential and appropriate to explore artists' roles as advocates for a socially engaged community and as instigators of change.

MN: Yes, and in providing an engaged voice, any message or exhibition without a deep awareness and implication of the human will to bring about change, is missing the notion that in art made in today’s world of upheaval, it is the human parallel that should be the indispensable part of the story.

HL: So important too in the artistic practice and the activist-artist aesthetic, is that it works in the spirit of envisioning for others too, in times of crisis.

MN: That is where we can all connect - in the ‘human will’ zone - in exactly the place where collective power resides, where the bigger picture is visible, where we can also tap into the roots of our own cultures for motivation too. Without this, the overall result will not be as convincing.

The aim is to produce work, projects, exhibitions, which people will really remember, artists and non-artists alike. Why shouldn’t everyone be involved when we take the understood idea of ‘social practice art’, whereby each person can contribute creatively, and the artistic and social act can be one and the same. What better way to do something positive?

HL: A powerful, lasting and constructive moment is just that. Water is essential, life-giving to all, and a human right. We should all be equally drawn in and inspired and provoked by this discussion.

I now envision us doing a further project on water together that will be stretched even more toward activism, and bring artists, activists, policy makers, and members of different communities to sit together to deal with these so urgent water issues.

MN: Absolutely.


Cyprus | S. Korea | 2014-2015

This essay was also published in the Pohang City Museum of Art ‘Waterscapes: The Politics of Water Catalogue (September 2015)