It’s a contrast to the heat, walking into the air-conditioned, darkened blue hues of the Gallery of Modern Art exhibition, ‘Water’. Curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow has created an atmosphere that replicates the sensation of being submerged; there is a melancholy and quiet calm.

One of the first pieces of the exhibition, Holding On (2015) by Angela Tiatia, is a 12:11 minute single-channel HD video filmed on the South Pacific Island, Tuvalu. The work highlights the reality of climate change as Tiatia lays atop a concrete slab during the incoming tide. While the tide begins as a more meditative caress, it quickly becomes violent in its attempt to displace Tiatia. The work is a commentary on the rising sea level that claims more and more Island land each year and is a reminder of the Tuvalu citizens that this tide will eventually displace.

Angela Tiatia, Holding On, 2015, still, single-channel high definition video, 16:9, colour, sound, 12:11 minutes © Angela Tiatia. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

Tiatia’s work isn’t the only one to comment on the earth’s rising tides. Contingent (2008) by Rivane Neuenschwander is a video that begins with a map of the world outlined in honey. Over the course of ten minutes, ants swarm the honeyed landmasses, looking much like the tide, and eat the honey, leaving small islands behind.

While the exhibition examines the rising sea level, and in some cases the abundance of water, it also takes time to acknowledge the scarcity of the source, particularly when looking at the coolamons from Western Australia. The coolamons were used as a multi-purpose carrier that in some instances transported water throughout Indigenous history. Looking at the shallow, curved edged hardwood is a reminder that water transportation wasn’t always as easy as it is now, in a time when drought-affected areas are sent truckloads of much-needed water.

Patrick Pound, Divers (left) and Divers (right) (detail), 2019, found photographs, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, STATION, Melbourne and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

There are plenty of incredible pieces throughout the exhibition. Patrick Pound’s Divers (2019) captures the nostalgia of familial photography and of diving into bodies of water. Martina Amati’s Under (Depth) (2015) is a film that explores free diving and breath, the sense of calm and danger beneath the water’s surface. Time loses meaning when watching the video, lulling viewers into a trance. Judy Watson’s string over water (walkurrji kingkarri wanami) (2019) is a work that seems to be both beneath the surface and above it at the same time. Cobalt and indigo bleed into each other with splashes of gold and white, which creates a sense of the surface reflecting the sky. The black string that floats throughout the piece, provides cultural symbolism and a metaphorical link to family. Wiradjuri woman Nicole Foreshew’s ngayirr (sacred) (2015-17) examines water as a source that encourages growth. The sculptures, which are pink and ochre crystallised branches, were placed in areas throughout her traditional country that are rich in salts and minerals and watered regularly for years. While these pieces are different thematically, and in their approach, each is an essential addition to the exhibition.

Judy Watson, wanami, 2019, pigment and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 245 x 181cm. © Judy Watson. Courtesy the artist Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

One of the final works in the exhibition, Riverbed (2014) by Olafur Eliasson, is an interactive installation that encourages patrons to walk over its surface, to run their hands through trickling water, to move pebbles. The white-walled room is cast in a cool grey light. Dirt, rocks, and pebbles work their way into an incline and surround a narrow stream that trickles down from the top of the riverbed. Watching adults and children alike play and move within the space prompts the question of whether the interactive nature makes the work more realistic and cement it in reality, or does it ruin the original form?

The ambiance of the exhibition changes drastically from the darkened beginning when moving through toward the end of the exhibition. Heritage (2013) by Cai Guo-Qiang is in a large, open and bright white space that draws the eye to the feature of the room. The work is expansive, containing 45 detailed animals modelled from polystyrene, resin, and dyed goat hair. Guo-Qiang has created a ‘last paradise’ where these animals congregate around a hyper-realistic coloured body of water. Notably, there are no humans bar the observing patrons within this ‘last paradise’, which seems like the last word on the advent of climate change.

Tamara Holmes is a Brisbane-based writer and poet.

Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)
Until 26 April, 2020