On first thought, the Museum of Water seems a strange concept.
All water is the same, right? Why do we need a museum of something so common, so ubiquitous?
But it is that simplicity that has been the key to the success of London-based artist Amy Sharrock’s international project, which will come to Mandurah for Stretch Festival this weekend, May 5-7.
After bringing the exhibition to the UK, Holland, and now Western Australia, Sharrocks and all the museum’s donors have come to discover the complex and varied relationships we all have with water.
“It’s very simple really. I stand on a street corner, and say bring us your water. That’s really all it is: an invitation to spend time with water,” Sharrocks said.
“It asks you to spend time thinking through your days, and it’s kind of a mapping of our days, because each person chooses a different way that water has impacted on them.”
Sharrocks has received water contributions in all different forms and vessels: from bottles, shells and pots to frozen snowballs and Arctic ice cores.
When a person brings their water to the museum, Sharrocks or her museum minders sit with the person and discuss why they chose this particular sample, and what their journey in choosing and collecting it was.
“We spend time with people for as long as it takes,” she said.
“Some people might bring water and they only want a small conversation, maybe people don’t have more time to offer that day. And they’ve already offered their time by going to collect the water.”
Some will talk with the minders for an hour or so, recounting tales of climbing mountains, harvesting rain, or returning to childhood fishing spots.
In this way, Sharrocks not only collects the water samples, but also the stories and histories of the people who contribute, and their varying relationships to this universally common substance.
“I’ve spent the best part of 15 years looking at water, and making artworks about it, and people’s relationship to it, and it just goes on,” she said.
“It’s our most basic need, and yet we throw it away, we pollute it… but the more you look at it, the more it changes your relationship the next time you go back to it.
“I gave a talk the other day when I was in Perth, and someone came up to me at the end and said ‘I just went to the loo, and you’ve changed everything.’”
She said bringing the exhibition to Western Australia has given it a different meaning again, going from Europe where water is abundant and farmers must continually pump it away to get at the top soil, to a place where water is precious and scarce.
“In Australia you have a stronger sense of saving and hoarding it… This whole sense that you could measure out your days in reticulation and pipelines,” she said.
“I’ve spoken to so many farmers and ordinary people hand-harvesting grey water from their house, it was the only way to manage a garden, so this sense of carrying buckets, from sinks to gardens, as a daily ritual.”
Already the Perth collection has grown to include over 200 samples of water, each with its own story.
Sharrocks said it captured peoples imaginations because they own it, it’s a living artwork that belongs to everyone who has contributed.
“It makes everybody an artist, a donor, a patron, to the museum, and that puts you in a whole different relationship with galleries and museums world-wide,” she said.
“Who decides what we should care about? This is a really different model of a museum, and an artwork, and a choice of caring. We spend our time and our money and our efforts to care about everybody’s water, and everybody’s voice.
“It’s the chorus of voices around the world, each noticing a different detail, some soft impact of water on their days.”
The Museum of Water, part of Mandurah’s Stretch Arts Festival, will be on display and open to contributions over the weekend, May 5-7.
Water collected at Stretch will be part of a major exhibition at Fremantle Arts Centre for PIAF 2018, before becoming part of the WA Museum’s permanent collection.