Grey water from a laundry. Melted Antarctic ice. A splash from a Paralympian’s pool. These are just some of the 500 samples of H2O being exhibited as part of the Museum of Water. A joint effort between UK-based live artist Amy Sharrocks and a horde of West Australians, the exhibition features various liquid vessels ranging from flagons to pinkie-sized jars, each a response to the question: “what water is precious to you?”
For more than a year Sharrocks and a group of custodians has been towing a rusty pop-up trailer around the state and collecting water donations and the memories and stories behind them. The pieces tell of ancient Aboriginal lore, parched wheat belts, and childhood memories of shared, four-inch baths.
“It’s the only museum, that I know of, that depends on whether you get up in the morning to participate in it: you’re the donor, curator, artist and museum director,” Sharrocks says of the donations. “The people shape it. I remember one women talked, gleamingly, of her 25,000-litre water tank. There’s this extraordinary fetishisation of water. Water is like gold here.”
The traces of water provide a sweeping portrait of human experience and landscape. Perth donor Kris Williams’s ornate glass jar with Atlantic Ocean water collected from a trip to Cornwall tells of the inviolable bond of a mother and daughter, and the heart-pulling loss of an only child; Iranian migrant Mahin Nowhakht’s precious bottle of rosewater from Damask petals speaks of arrival and acceptance in a new land.
“On one hand, it's just water in a bottle, and on the other it contains something huge, like a genie in a bottle,” says Shamrock. “It’s the same substance all around the world but it’s so delightful how water shapeshifts beyond our imagination, both simple and incredibly complex.”
The collection harks back to Sharrock’s previous live artworks over the past decade that explored our connection to water. Each unlikely donation and story invites us to ponder water as a gift, not a given. Sharrock’s way of transforming the everyday matter into a marvel tends to foster a reverence for one of the world’s most essential life sources while challenging any certainty that water will always be available at the twist of our fingers.
“One of the things the museum aims to do is question our sense of ownership of water, and thereby our whole sense of ownership of the natural world and the land,” says Sharrock. “To question who’s in charge and who it belongs to.”
The large-scale installation will take on a different flavour to the museums in the rainy metropolises of London and Rotterdam, which used antique glass cabinets to display the water bottles. The new fittings used in the Perth show will reference the dry plains of WA and its rugged coastal escarpments. Even the lighting design will carefully mirror the warm, bright Australian sun. The visual spectacle will be paired with audio recordings of people telling their story with the subtle soundscape of water droplets in the background.
“When I came to Western Australia I saw the incredibly different landscape and a plurality of histories,” says Sharrock. “Australia is its own country with an ancient history far beyond European understanding. If we’d recreated cabinets, we would've missed the essence of Australia.
The live art and storytelling will be accompanied by a number of aquatic workshops such as walking tours along the hidden ecologies of Fremantle’s waterways with Whadjuk Noongar elders, panel discussions on protecting and sustaining our oceans and rivers, synchronised-swimming demonstrations with half the Rio Olympic team, and DIY boat building.
Museum of Water is part of the Perth Festival and runs February 7 to March 23 at the Fremantle Arts Centre. Entry is free.