“WHOSE WATER IS IT?” – This question, posed in big luminescent letters, is emblazoned on one of the exhibition walls. At second glance you notice other symbols underneath the glaring red letters – the euro sign for instance and the dollar sign. With this second “layer” located beneath the surface Ulay himself provides the answer to the question that he has asked. And his work references the background to the ownership situation regarding water.
It has long been the case that water is no longer a natural resource, fairly distributed and shared by everybody although it does cover a large area of our planet and is ostensibly accessible to us all. The right to access to clean drinking water is a human right and yet it is the few “big players”, the large multinational corporations, who control water, influence its distribution and sell drinking water, decanted into bottles, worldwide. Natural mineral water, table water, spring water – in its handy plastic bottles it often seems more like a lifestyle product than a basic foodstuff. If you allow your gaze to roam over the exhibition space it may well alight on Minerva Cuevas’ mural with its significant word “égalité”. It has long been the case that water does not belong to everyone – those with the euros or dollars “own” it and have it at their disposal. By overlapping the two levels in his work Ulay illustrates the discrepancy between market economy-related aspects and basic humanitarian questions concerning all aspects of water.
It has long been the case that water is no longer a natural resource, fairly distributed and shared by everybody although it (...) is ostensibly accessible to us all.
This direct, garish, political work is contrasted with one of Ulay’s simple, unexceptional, poetic works, a floor-based round aluminum piece. And if the viewer lingers only briefly in front of this seemingly unremarkable object it transpires that the work is not so unexceptional after all. Water drips onto the piece from above, or to be more exact, onto the middle of the hot plate that has been placed in the middle of the disc. When drops of water meet this red-hot plate a loud hissing sound is to be heard – as the drop of water evaporates, disappears in a puff of steam, nebulizes and finally disappears. This work confronts the viewer very directly with water, albeit only for one short transient moment.
Suddenly, it is less a question of socioeconomic correlations, of speculation with foodstuffs or the capitalist exploitation of resources that occur in connection with all aspects of water. Rather, the piece symbolizes many things that, at least for German speakers, are associated with drops of water – “Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein” (constant dripping wears away the stone), “der Tropfen, der das Fass zum Überlaufen bringt” (the final drop of water that causes the barrel to overflow), the hopelessness of a “Tropfen auf dem heißen Stein” (drop of water on a hot stone). Water with all its power, a power that can wear away stone, thus explaining to us that even small actions can have major consequences. Or that one last drop that can be enough to make rivers overflow, dams burst and cause barrels to brim over. However, if a drop of water falls onto a hot stone it may have no effect whatsoever. It simply evaporates, achieving nothing. And yet Ulay’s drops of water do achieve something. They demonstrate water’s material characteristics to us. As of a certain temperature its state of aggregation changes and it vaporizes.
The poetic qualities of water
That said, with this work Ulay also references the poetic qualities of water. It is transparent, has no color or taste, no smell. Water flows or drips or is stagnant but it always slips through our fingers. This elusiveness, be it in the artistic, poetic sense or in terms of the unclear, non-transparent circumstances surrounding its ownership has been preoccupying and motivating Ulay as an artist and as a human being for many years now. Back in 2006 he formulated this in a poem which makes this clear:
WATERS ON EARTH AND ABOVE
What are your secrets in no secrets …?
What is your livingness …?
What is your life givingness ….?
What is your life nourishing …?
What is your consciousness …?
What is your memory …?
What is your language …?
What is your color …?
What is your motion …?
What is your insolubility …?
What is your beginning and ending …?
What makes you die …?
With this string of questions Ulay highlights, in his own inimitable way, that water is the wellspring of all life (“life givingness”), that which nourishes us (“life nourishing”); however, he also alludes to water’s finite quality. He concludes his deliberations with the question of what causes water to die. Images immediately come to mind of springs running dry, empty wells and dried-out riverbeds. And, not least or rather especially in the context of PEACE something that might occur to us is the countless conflicts and wars that take place in connection with water throughout the world.
Spurred on by these considerations, Ulay has been committed to crisis regions for years now. Accordingly, in 2004 he held various workshops with children and young people in Palestine. For instance, with his project “WATERTOALL” he furnished participants with cameras and encouraged them to capture their own personal images of water, taken in the kind of places where children are confronted with water in their everyday lives.
He concludes his deliberations with the question of what causes water to die. Images immediately come to mind of springs running dry, empty wells and dried-out riverbeds.
Since the 2000s, water has also made frequent appearances in Ulay’s own artistic work. In 2012 he produced a multipart self-portrait consisting of Polaroids of glasses full of water. The work goes by the eloquent title of “Sweet Water Salt Water. Romancing a Paradox”. Although this may seem peculiar at first glance – a glass of water as a self-portrait – the whole thing starts to appear logical, almost inevitable when we think that the human body consists mainly of water. Ulay is aware of this fact and water has become an increasing focus of his work, particularly since it can act as a surrogate, a substitute for one’s own body.
This means that this preoccupation with water should by no means be regarded as a departure from the “body-driven works” in which he engaged for many years, the performance art to which he devoted his entire body for many years (from 1976 through 1988, together with Marina Abramovic). Over the years, the body, with its outward appearance, naked skin, only took a step back to make room for what conditions all things corporeal. Accordingly, the focus is never on sexual, social or political identity. His self-portrait is no longer of the same old white, Western European heterosexual male but of water with all its indeterminacy. Ulay himself puts this in a very fitting nutshell – “we are all bodies of water.”2
And because we are all water beings we should all be interested in the question of to whom water belongs and how this indefinable, impalpable resource can be “owned” and sold to the highest bidder. And even the drop of water on a hot stone which only seemingly disappears into thin air should really be enough for this.
Natalie Storelli has been a curatorial assistant at Schirn Kunsthalle since 2015 and has, among other things, been involved in realizing the PEACE exhibition project.