Catholic churches funding large scale art projects, from the Renaissance to Matisse, is part of Western art history’s dominant discourse. In New York, the cathedral of St. John The Divine made a bold statement by hosting Diamanda Galas’s Plague Mass in 1991, a work that critiques the body of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole for its indifference to AIDS. In its permanent National AIDS Memorial, the cathedral prominently features Keith Haring’s last work, The Life of Christ, a bronze triptich covered in white gold. Last month, one of the cathedral’s most ambitious contemporary art efforts, The Value of Water: Sustaining a Green Planet, “sought to convene and sustain a wide-ranging conversation about the use and misuse of water, one of the most fundamental, and threatened, elements of life.”
The New York artist Winn Rea has an installation in The Value of Water, the group exhibition on view at the cathedral until March 25, 2012. The show is curated by Fredericka Foster and features 42 artists, including Jenny Holzer, William Kentridge, Robert Longo, Kiki Smith, Pat Steir, Xu Bing. A mixed media artist and teacher for whom environmental concerns are basis for creative practice, Rea was in the midst of preparing for her third solo show in New York at the time of our conversation. Drawings, topology, installation, video, and concepts of geologic time are the tools of Rea’s study of the increasing disconnect between growing populations and shrinking natural resources.
For The Value of Water, Rea created Fountain: Falling Water 2, an installation of cascading layers of plastic water bottles, situated in the cathedral nave. We talked at length about creative practice, previous topological works and her upcoming solo show. What follows is an edited interview with the artist completed in December 2011.
Patricia: Winn, I was so pleased to see your piece at the Cathedral. It’s an amazing space and your installation transfers a sense of presence that reproduces the human relationship to water, in terms of size and necessity.
Winn: It is true, we humans are mesmerized by how water works in the environment—cascading through crevices and down cliffs, each drop seems fragile as it glints and refracts the light, but collectively, over time, their incredible power carves chasms in bedrock. Similarly, the tall, vertical volumes of spiral cut water bottles sparkle and glow—their immateriality belie the incredible forces exerted by the cathedral on the columns they inhabit.
Patricia: Your piece conveys that, completely. How did you begin to shape ideas for Falling Water 2?
Winn: The work evolved in both formal and conceptual terms: First, it began as an exploration of material. I wanted to take a common, readily available material and transform it. I considered the sculptural possibilities inherent in the plastic cylinder of the water bottle. The spiral cut worked in consonance with the geometry, and allowed gravity to create the form. When flooded with light, the mundane material is transformed into a seductive visual experience. Secondly, the concept was embodied in the form—that we are literally pouring out and wasting one of our most precious resources.
Patricia: Your installation is really two waterfalls facing each other. Why was that symmetry important?
Winn: They’re site specific. I met with the curator (Fredericka Foster) and the Cathedral’s V.P. for Events (Lisa Schubert). They had seen images of my former work using water bottles and suggested possible locations in the cathedral. We wanted the viewer to discover the works in more than one location. The symmetry echoes the symmetry of the cathedral—think of it as stereophonic visual experience.
Patricia: Oh, I like that, very much. The New York Times wrote, “By getting people involved in recycling plastic bottles for the installation, the artist is actively promoting her environmental message.” What is your environmental message?
Winn: Bottled water is so conveniently packaged that we consume it without thinking about the impact on our environment of the plastic bottles going into our landfills. Water rights are quickly becoming a global issue—whoever controls the water holds power. How do we want to allocate fair access and usage of water?
Our disassociation from the value of water is one indicator of a larger issue—how detached we have become from nature as a society. Children grow up having never played in a stream or explored the woods, finding it a fearful place. We speed through our everyday life cocooned in cars and work in climate controlled buildings with windows that don’t even open. It is no wonder we are surprised by the devastating power of recent hurricanes and floods because we operate within a hubris that we can dominate, shape, and control nature, rather than the understanding that we are a part of nature and subject to its cycles. With more awareness of our place in the larger picture we might use precious resources more wisely and live more gently on the earth.
Patricia: So, how did you collect all those bottles?
Winn: To collect the bottles, I worked with several schools and community groups that I would like to acknowledge: The Cathedral School, New Hyde Park High School, Massapequa Middle School, The C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, the Long Island Running Club, Bethany Presbyterian Church, and my own family all collected and contributed bottles for the project.
Patricia: What did it take to install something like this?
Winn: Strategic planning and assistance. Over the summer I created both sculptural components in the studio with the help of volunteer studio assistants and then “packaged” them by wrapping each monofilament around cardboard “shuttles” so they would not tangle in transit. On location in the cathedral a professional rigger placed the crossbars that support the piece and hoisted them into position. Then came two and half days of untangling the bottles themselves.
It took longer than expected so I sought out the help of several of my graduate students and Fredericka Foster generously asked her own assistants to help with the final stages of installing the work. Lighting is a critical component of this work that wasn’t resolved until the last moment, but it is amazing how the modest amount of illumination can make the work glow in the dim light of the cathedral.
Patricia: I totally agree. This work reacts to light in ways that actually, reminded me of the surface of Monet’s paintings of Rouen cathedral: how light falls on curved plastic reminded me of an Impressionistic experience. In a way, I think the Impressionists were aiming to describe that feeling of looking at the agency of light itself.
Winn: Yes, I agree. The installation functions as light that dissolves form—and form that reconfigures itself in light.
Patricia: Who are your current influences right now?
Winn: Bill Viola’s 1997 show at the Whitney had a major impact on me that continues to this day. His economy of means is something I aspire to. It is an honor to be included in the show with Viola. The author Annie Dillard captures in prose what I hope I am sharing with the viewer in visual form—the incredible renewing power of being watchful and observant in the presence of nature.
Patricia: I also love Viola’s work, that show completely enticed me. As a photographer, it opened up another experience of time to me. He almost makes time visual, rather than build timing as a device.
Winn: Viola’s The Crossing speaks to me about the simultaneity of time across space. The water continues to flow, the fire continues to burn, cyclically, eternally, transforming matter.
Patricia: Your previous work was topological. How is it to work topologically and with water? What is that process like for you?
Winn: Conceptually, water and topography go hand in hand—water shapes the land through erosion. That is precisely the concept behind my 2009 video installation, Stones Dreaming of the Mountain They Once Were. I closely identify the body and the landscape. In the video the water rises and falls over the contours of the body in a tidal cycle. Looking back I see the thread going through my work—water shapes the land and the land shapes the water.
Patricia: What were the circumstances surrounding what you define as your greatest creative accomplishment to date?
Winn: The Value of Water exhibition is definitely my most notable accomplishment to date, made possible by the incredible generosity and support of several people who knew or newly discovered my work: Nese Karakaplan, Fredericka Foster, and Lisa Schubert.
But, a second exhibition from earlier this year, Earth Matters is my most creative accomplishment to date. Made possible by the support of Lisa Chalif, curator, this exhibition included one of my reed topos and a video installation that subsume the viewer in a multi-chaneled experience of landscape.
Patricia: What’s projects are you working on now?
Winn: I’m preparing for my third solo show, Topo 3: Displacement/Flow, at the Phoenix Gallery in New York, for February 1-25, 2012. The show features companion works based on my observation of a stream in the Adirondacks: a reed topo, video installation, and a sculpture made of sticks washed down stream in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene that caused the worst flooding in over 100 years.
The works are a meditation on the patient power of water to shape the earth over eons of time—as well as the fantastic force unleashed in raging flood waters. The video, a 1hr. 15 min. loop, compresses 24 hours of time, beginning under cover of darkness when the stream is only heard, not seen, then records the increasing daylight, through dappled mid-daylight, and finally fading into twilight—marked by the constant sound and flow of water—that continues even as you read this text.