Water, for most of us on campus, is so taken for granted that when something impacts our access to it—for instance, the first floor water fountain in Strong breaking—we feel irritatingly inconvenienced. Maybe it’s time for those of us so disconnected from the process of receiving and disposing of potable water (like me!) to engage a bit more with the history of redirecting water in New York state. Luckily for us, we have until April 9 to do so at our very own on- campus museum! “Surface Tension: Displacement, Archeology, and Artistry of Urban Water” is the current Spotlight exhibit at the Loeb, and it contains pieces related to the interaction between human engineering, natural sources of water and culture, particularly in New York City and the Hudson Valley.
What first caught my eye was Salvador Dalí’s work “The Pool of Tears” from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll (1969). I was confused as to how this work related to the otherwise rather realistic and local depictions of water sources, but the more of the exhibit I saw, the more I began to understand the connections. Conceptually, these works all ask the viewer to consider humanity’s role in the creation of water sources and the sometimes detrimental impact these man-made water sources have. While Dalí’s piece of Alice crying a pool of tears she then worried she would drown in does not quite serve as the basis for direct socio-political commentary that the other pieces do, it does introduce the conflicting roles that water plays in our lives. Artistically, this piece also echoes the rest of the gallery; the water is captured in vibrant blues and greens while Alice is a simplistic figure done in black. This contrast of color (nature) versus black-and-white (manmade) is reflected in several other works on display as well.
Perhaps the best example of this contrast is Charles Sheeler’s “Steel, Croton” (1953). Sheeler’s work is tempera on glass, composed of blues and grayscale. In my interpretation, Sheeler is juxtaposing the vivacity of the water with the muted strength of the engineered bridge. This contrast was personal to him; via the placard, “ in 1953, Sheeler depicted in tempera on glass, a steel-span bridge from 1931 located near his home in Croton-on-Hudson, which he described as a ‘beautiful combination of strength and beauty.’” Arnold Wilts’s black and white engraving entitled “Spillway” (1936) similarly explores the interaction of the natural and the unnatural in terms of water-related engineering through graphic lines and high contrast between light and dark. The perspective of this work places the viewer inside a dam’s spillway, looking up into a partly cloudy sky.
A particular focus of this exhibit is on the displacement of communities due to the construction of reservoirs in New York City. According to the placard, “Starting in 1906, seventeen communities were destroyed to create seven city reservoirs. Approximately 4,500 people became homeless; abandoned cemeteries are now surrounded by forest.” Working with organizations such as the Olive Free Library and the Time and the Valleys Museum, Vassar anthropology students have studied these areas in the past ten years. I found this connection to regional research a particularly special aspect of this exhibit. The impact of this displacement is somewhat minimally examined in the selected pieces, which focuses more on placing water in a context (leisure, tourism, survival, etc.) that is then explored in the text on the placards. However, one exception to this is the photograph titled “Last Day at Van Sternburgh Home Before They Flooded it for Reservoir,” in which two figures sit on the porch of, presumably, their home, and look directly into the camera. I found this piece perhaps the most intimate of the exhibit. It is placed alongside several Kingston News Service postcards depicting the Ashokan Reservoir as a tourist attraction. The pairing of these pieces almost made me feel as though I was showing these residents the postcards, telling them it was for the best that they were being relocated (read: displaced) and explaining how lovely the reservoir will be. These pieces make a powerful pair.
The linking of water and tourism is another theme of this exhibit, explored in photographs from a Hudson Valley family album and in Joseph Clayton Bentley’s steel engraving and hand coloring of a scene from the Catskills. Furthermore, the curators end the half circle of pieces with a couple photographs from New York City—a 2014 William Castellana of girls standing around a Brooklyn fire hydrant and a 1970 Garry Winogrand of people (and a dog) playing the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. The placard describes that “These black-and-white photographs show how intrinsic rural water is to life in New York City, both in Manhattan and the other boroughs,” connecting these urban images all the way back to the image of two people outside their soon-to-be-flooded home.
Although I’m not sure this is the intended order of viewing, I ended my perusal of the exhibit by peering into the glass display case, which houses Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “Marbletown, Catskills, Lake George” sketchbook, open to an Aug. 12, 1847 sketch of a serene body of water with ducks. I’m glad I saw this last, because it was quite different from the other pieces. I have a soft spot for sketchbooks, and this was no exception, especially because the spot depicted was so reminiscent of our very own Sunset Lake. The scene is messy—there are branches half in the water, scribbled shrubbery and no sign of landscaping. Immediately, I was reminded of the postcards from earlier in the exhibit, one of which had depicted a little house and a mowed lawn right on the edge of the bright blue reservoir. I felt this striking contrast was an appropriate way to end the exhibit.
I am delighted to have explored this half-room exhibit, and it left many questions in my mind. How is water central not only to our survival, but to our leisure? How do we access water? Historically (and presently), what has (does) this meant (mean) for marginalized and rural communities? This exhibition invites the viewer into the line of inquiry of so many researchers at and around Vassar through a thoughtful curation of pieces whose connections are realized through the historical background given in the text alongside them.
“Surface Tension” is open now through April 9 in the Loeb’s Spotlight Gallery.