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THE DROWNED WORLD
The Drowned World is a virtual exhibition located at the-drowned-world.com, curated by Daniel Michael Satele for Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust. The Drowned World features work by seven New Zealand-based, Pacific artists exploring the intimate connection between human life and water: Lesieli Finau, Nina Oberg Humphries, Sara Riordan, Elyjana Roach, Salome Tanuvasa, Jasmine Te Hira and Luisa Tora.
We can live three days without water, a good deal briefer than the three weeks a human might survive without food. For all their differences, each society must confront humans’ dependence on water and incorporate that dependence into everyday life in a mix of both conscious and unconscious ways. We use water domestically for cooking and washing while larger bodies of water often serve as sites for recreation and industry. In the modern era we have come to think of water in seemingly neutral, abstract scientific terms as the chemical compound H²O. Meanwhile we experience water in a variety of forms whose cultural histories are older than modern science: rivers, lakes, seas, rain, mist, clouds, glaciers, icebergs, snow, wells and fountains, for example. The waters covering over 70% of our planet’s surface also profoundly affect us. Flat and fertile land is often coastal leading half the global population to settle within 100 kilometers of the ocean with most of world’s major cities on, or near, the shore. Before the advent of air travel technology, shipping via rivers and seas was the main way to transport and trade both people and goods across long distances. Thus water has historically provided a site for, and a route to, cross-cultural meetings and exchanges.
As the twenty-first century promises rising sea levels and diminishing freshwater sources, our habitual water practices will be called into question. Getting a seemingly limitless supply of clean, safe drinking water piped to the home is an expected, largely taken for granted, part of contemporary modern life, but experts suggest the increasingly acute global “water crunch” will eventually thwart this lifestyle even for today’s well-off1. While we may grasp ecological water concerns in theory, in practice water consumption in first-world countries remains invisible to the ordinary person, thus positing ignorance at the heart of our basic relation to water use. For example, most of us are not aware that 140 litres of water are consumed in producing a single espresso2. Modern culture partakes of a deeply entrenched ideal of human mastery over nature that collectively we seem unable, if not unwilling, to relinquish despite the ways in which it may be driving us closer to humankind’s extinction.
It appears that the global divide between rich and poor will increasingly become a divide between those with access to drinking water and shelter from the encroaching sea and those excluded from basic life supports. The mass migrations our planet’s changing waterscape will cause have begun. 2014 saw Pacific Islanders fighting legal battles to become recognised as the first climate change refugees3. Meanwhile, experts such as Vandana Shiva argue that the global water wars have already begun too, misrecognised as ethnic or religious conflicts4. A human “right to water” is recognised in international law but in practice a layperson’s commonsense conception of this right is hardly guaranteed. In 2014 Detroit made the headlines by cutting thousands of its residents with unpaid water bills off from the municipal supply, showing that legal intricacies can in fact allow governments to avoid providing water for their subjects.
The Drowned World takes its name from the title of a 1962 novel by J. G. Ballard that is set in an imaginary future where the temperature rises each year and the polar icecaps have melted, flooding today’s major cities. While Ballard’s novel seems prescient of today’s concerns, it was written before global warming had become recognised5. In Ballard’s novel global warming is caused by solar storms not humankind. The novel therefore doesn’t moralise human impact on the environment or advocate environmental conservation. Instead Ballard’s interest is in how a changing ecology causes psychic and social, as well as bodily, changes in his characters. Ballard’s protagonist ultimately leaves the last remnants of today’s modern civilisation behind and heads south to discover what he will become in a hot, flooded environment, even embracing the possibility of his own destruction. Similarly this exhibition does not deliver an ecological message, or any prescription for solving the water crises we face. Instead The Drowned World questions how we interact with water and ascribe it meaning; how we understand and misunderstand water; and to ask what water can tell us about ourselves in our intimate connection to it.
- Daniel Michael Satele, Curator.
1James Salzman, Drinking Water: A History, (New York; London: Overlook Duckworth, 2012), 21.
2 Tony Allan, Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to Our Planet's Most Precious Resource (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 3.
3 Namely Ioane Teitoti of Kiribati and the Tuvaluan family that made news in August 2014 by being granted residency in New Zealand in part due to "exceptional humanitarian grounds" of climate change threatening Tuvalu.
4 Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privitization, Pollution and Profit (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002).
5 Jim Clarke, “Reading Climate Change in J.G. Ballard,” Critical Survey 25:2(2013): 7-21; 12.