The methodology of water work: art as remedy?
Anne Byrne, 26 November 2015
Review of Slad/Trace, Ruth Le Gear, Laznia 2, Nowy Port Gdansk, Poland, 20 November 2015-1 Feb 2016
This review of Ruth Le Gear’s work is based on the methodological approach underpinning the exhibition in Laznia, an outcome of two residencies in Nowy Port. Le Gear’s chosen media are film, text, photography and installation, features of her water related exhibitions –Teardrops in Wonderscape 2007 (Limerick City Gallery of Art), Polar Forces: Universe of an Iceberg 2013 (Leitrim Sculpture Centre) and Water that Sleeps 2009 (Galway Arts Centre).
The Slad/Trace exhibition work is an expression of a particular methodology that offers the viewer an opportunity for a new understanding of the material world, presented through the element of water. Le Gear’s curiosity about the nature of water and it’s potency for story, is based on a deepening understanding of it’s scientific and homeopathic properties, combined with in situ observation in challenging physical environments. In considering Le Gear’s approach to her art, I am reminded of Gertrude Stein’s observation that ‘After all anybody is as their land is and sea and air is. Anybody is as the sky is, low or high, the air heavy or clear and anybody is, as there is wind or no wind there. It is that which makes them and the arts they make, and the work they do and the way they eat and they way they drink and the way they learn and everything’.
Water has no edges, no boundaries
Objects float on water
Water spills, flows,
cannot be held except by some container or land form
It manifests as snow, ice, steam, rain, fog, frost, mist, rivers, lakes, seas...the exhaled breath contains water moisture, as do tears.
What is being presented here by Le Gear? In seeking knowledge of water beyond its appearances, beyond our sensory experience of water, beyond how it affects us, Le Gear works to expand our knowledge and perception of water. Deploying homeopathy, (like cures like), to explore the boundless nature of water, Le Gear brings us on a journey in which knowledge of water is gained through its distillation. Beginning with the artist’s lived experience of water in Nowy Port, we are drawn gently inwards as we contemplate the
nature of water in this place and time and consider why it might be important for us to understand this most basic and powerful element. Le Gear writes – ‘Working with the waters of the Port, I made remedies for the water. Previously I had overlooked the polluted, dark, disturbed places and was drawn instead to the clarity of the Arctic and icebergs. Nowy Port is the site where the first shots of World War 2 were fired. Industrial activity leaves permanent traces and marks on the landscape and in the water. The remedy made from these waters and its layers of history is paradoxically full of light and hope and joy. I was confused at first and made it again. How can grief, trauma and pollution hold such light? As an artist, it is important for me to embrace those places that appear to have been destroyed or contaminated either by history or story. Understanding how nature heals or cures is part of my quest.’
In this site-specific exhibition, Le Gear accents the social nature of water. ‘In these waters, the historic experiences and private stories are reflected. The work attempts to transcend physical and mental barriers, resonating the past with a hope to evoke a lighter future, from a place where the waters would have possibly stagnated in inertia.’ Her approach is inductive, grounded in the data and observations made and remade while resident in Nowy Port, framed by the idea of ‘visit’ and ‘revisit ‘. Revisiting is an important aspect of any engagement with people and place, providing the opportunity and time for reflection, to move away from first impressions, fixed ideas and to consider alternative perspectives. What emerges is the artist’s perspective that reality is multiple, is cognitively embedded and subject to alteration by perception and action. She invites us to perceive differently, as we follow her homeopathic interactions with Nowy Port. Through the media of film, images and installation, Le Gear encourages the viewer to perceive differently while prompting awareness that social reality cannot be portrayed ‘accurately’, and that there are multiple and competing interpretations of this place afloat.
The methods of the natural sciences would appear in the first instance to be appropriate to understand the property of water, but this artist emphasizes the social properties of water – how water and humans interact - and particularly in the claimed healing properties of the water of Sopot. Water becomes a homeopathic remedy in this work, requiring a human agent to locate, produce and administer the homeopathic distillation through a process identified as ‘succession’.
Succusion potentises and imparts water memory to each dilution, it is claimed. The more a preparation is diluted, the more potent it becomes – an apparent contradiction to what is commonly understood by dilution. Nonetheless, water memory explains that in the dilution process, the memory of the original element is transferred to all water molecules. Le Gear explains: ‘Homeopathic remedies are normally prepared by serial trituration of insoluble substances, such as Quartz and Oyster shell, and by dilution of a substance with succussion, or shaking between dilutions, of soluble substances. The return of the remedy to the waters is always as a frozen sphere’.
Le Gear is not attempting to prove or disprove the ‘fact’ of water memory or the ‘science’ of homeopathy. Rather as an artist she brings the idea of memory to water; in observing her practice of infusing one body of water with the (memory) molecules of another body of water, we are moved to reflect on our own beliefs and knowledge claims about the world - and the methodologies we employ to make sense of it. For her, water has memory of itself and for itself – the potency of the remedies she prepares attests to the simple and volatile nature of water which may contain other dissolved elements – gases, irons, salts – which indicate the purity or otherwise of water. But in having memory of itself, her practice pays homage to Nowy Port and the transformative power of the bodies of water that continue to flow in, through and out of this place.
All artistic practice makes specific demands on the artist; in this case the artist produces the pre-remedy first, then ingests it and observing the results at a cellular level. The remedy is ready after testing and returned to the water – the remedy we understand is for Nowy Port.
In this exhibition, Le Gear reflects on the political, social, medicinal/healing implications of transformatory actions. In adding voice to film, the artist speaks the work as another layer for interpretation is twisted into the visual elements. Different moments of the artists’ conversation about water are evident in two distinct light box displays, overlaid by the artist’s narrative (in Polish and English). A shelf displays the homeopathic tinctures made from different bodies of water of the Gdansk region – their names inscribed in black ink on the diminutive bottles. A display case maps the artists’ process as text and images merge. A series of images on another wall trace water as ice, snow, as homeopathic remedy. A full
size projection of the artist in the final stage of preparing the remedy, succussing each vial on a leather bound book, completes the exhibition. The Laznia exhibition space is large, painted white and each piece is sensitively lit. As people enter the exhibition and walk around, there is a gradual and slow immersion process at work. Large grey beanbags become spaces of contemplation and a floor based vantage point from which to view the work.
The artist’s intention is evident in her spoken narrative.
‘My process involves serial dilutions, tiny poetic time machines, where each sample is explored to see what is held within the water.
For those who are drifting from place to place, who have no place to call home, and who feel powerless to direct their lives, this remedy heightens awareness of inner strength, promotes a sense of contentment with the present moment, and encour- ages peace of mind, even during times of transition and change. The Nowy Port essence helps us create a sense of being at home anywhere on the planet accenting the qualities of flexibility and adaptation. It is through an awareness and acceptance of the perfection of each present moment that we are able to access the support and energy we need, wherever we are, and translate this into strength and stability in our daily lives.’
Water is a ‘public good’, and this exhibition is located in a publicly funded institution. Particular publics may become engaged with the work in conversation with the artist – other artists, scientists, homeopaths but its public aspect is submerged, less evident than those of the Narratje 7 exhibitions. Nonetheless, this exhibition expresses a different understanding of our relation to water, (beyond purity and pollution), one that is social and expresses our interdependency with each other and with this element. Water is not separate from us or we from it, though it’s long history of commodification might suggest otherwise. This alternative way of perceiving with water is relational, social, historical and located in the everyday world of the people who live and work in Nowy Port. The unit of analysis is not on people themselves, nor on the constraints of time and place but the water that touches these. The exhibition Trace/Slad is an expression of this social relation with water that enables a heightened consciousness and possibilities to emerge as we consider the artist’s work as observers, no longer passive, as we allow the images, words and space of the exhibition to
work on body and mind. In Nowy Port, water is an everyday feature of the environment and frames the identities of those who work and live in this place. To this extent it may be mistaken as banal, ordinary, taken for granted. In emphasizing a social relation to water, the ideological processes that underpin and sustain the everyday become more prominent and we are slowly awakened to the ordinary capacity of water to transform.