Water, water, everywhere....
Marie Hanlon's water-inspired exhibition in Skibbereen examines water pollution, water scarcity, and the future of the most precious finite resource on the planet.
On the wall in Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, there’s a curious u-shaped vial with what looks like clear water in one side, and what looks suspiciously like urine in the other.
“I’m unwilling to divulge the source of the liquid,” artist Marie Hanlon tells me with a laugh. “I think that’s the best position to take on that. I’ll say no more.”
I had asked Marie, who has been in the process of installing her exhibition, Water - More or Less for the past two days, if the liquid was really urine and, if it was, where she got it from. Because I was dogged by the suspicion that it might be her own.
No dice, but plenty laughter.
For a conversation about Marie’s latest body of work, inspired, as it is, by “loss of horizon, population explosion, extinction of the planet, loss of life,” it’s a pleasant surprise for there to be laughter.
“My personality is still in there and I’m still alive,” Marie says. “I have to make work, in the sense that Marie Hanlon is someone with a sense of humour. The doom is crisscrossed with fun; I suppose that’s true of all of life, isn’t it? People do laugh in the middle of tragedy. That’s who we are as human beings.”
Marie’s exhibition is made up of six installation works that approach the subject of water from a variety of outlooks: scarcity and pollution are there, but so too are desalination and the overabundance of water that Skibbereen itself is so familiar with in the form of flooding. And, in The Water You Drink, water recycling.
There’s certainly a large element of tongue-in-cheek humour to The Water You Drink, which also features a café table with drinking receptacles and a jug of drinking water.
But it is rooted in a desire to have a frank conversation about a topic that’s frequently cloaked in euphemistic language, Marie tells me: “As Irish people, we don’t really think about water recycling. We almost don’t think about water treatment, but we certainly don’t contemplate the notion that we might eventually be drinking the water that comes out of our toilets.”
“I know that in some countries they recycle their water; in England, Germany, America, toilet-to-tap water is already a reality. But I never found really direct language; it was often almost poetic, and it wasn’t really telling us what the reality of this is. You’d get phrases like floc formation, receiving rivers, barrier intrusion - all terms that describe water recycling. They’re hardly going to tell us about taking the solids out of the water and what that is.”
“I think I thought, this is something we just don’t entertain at all, but we have to look at ways of dealing with water into the future.”
For those readers not too squeamish to contemplate the entire implications of restoring sewage to a drinkable state, New York’s waste water treatment is the subject of this fascinating episode of WNYC’s Radiolab.
“A crazy equation”
Marie first became interested in water as a resource during the debacle that was the Irish water charge protests, a saga which has been ongoing throughout the past decade and is likely to rear its head again in coming years.
Her interest was not initially as an artist, and nor did she find herself falling neatly on one side or other in the political divide over whether water charges were right or wrong; she found herself drawn to the complexities of the issue rather than to its polarisation.
“The more I looked into it, the more I found myself out of alignment with both sides, really,” she says. “The government seemed to just be interested in getting money in quickly and, while the protests came at the end of a very long line of service charges, some of the protests were very aggressive which I didn’t agree with.”
“When I heard people say, oh, water falls freely from the sky so it should be free, I thought that was crazy because we all know that we drink treated water, not water that falls straight from the sky; a huge amount has to happen before it comes out of the tap.”
This triggered a broader interest in how we waste, abuse, treat and mistreat our precious planetary supply of H₂O.
“That equation of population rise and destruction of clean water struck me as a crazy equation, that it can only be a matter of time before we’re going to have a total clash,” she says. “In other parts of the world, the water thing is already a huge issue. Less so here in Ireland because we seem to have enough of it, although people working in the water industry will warn us that we’re already barely meeting a need.”
Simultaneously, as Marie looked deeper into the realities of this crazy equation, her own arts practice had been undergoing a change.
Best known over her almost 30 year career for her abstract, geometric paintings and drawings in two dimensions, she had been producing experimental video installations alongside the composer Rhona Clarke, a frequent collaborator, as well as sculptural works.
By 2017’s Lines Tell Lies, her work, still abstract, was clearly being pulled from two dimensions into a third. By the following year, with Water Table, she had started to tackle her environmental concerns about water in her work.
“For most of my career I made abstract paintings,” she says. “And it’s not that I look back at that with any kind of sense that it’s devalued by what I’m doing now. In many ways, what I’m doing now is on the back of what I did before. I’m still the same artist, very concerned with, how do I realise this in space, how do I place this, what is the relationship between this and this, what is the balance.”
Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink
The famous line in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is brought to mind by Drinking the Ocean, Marie’s installation on the theme of desalination.
The artist is based in Dublin, where she lives near the sea. She was aware that Irish Water had been considering a variety of proposals to pre-empt the water scarcity the capital’s projected population growth will bring, including water recycling and desalination as well as piping 300 million litres of water daily from the Shannon, the solution they finally settled on.
Despite Dublin’s proximity to the sea, desalination requires a vast amount of energy and projects in Spain and elsewhere have met with mixed success, in part because of their energy costs but also because they can pollute: they often discharge a super-concentrated brine back into the sea.
Marie engaged in a micro-scale desalination project of her own to produce a silver bullet whose tip is a vial of potable former Irish Sea water.
“I went out and gathered a bucket of water and boiled it,” she says, “but boiling it is not desalination; you have to catch the condensation, so you put one pot inside another. It’s what falls back down again when it’s cooling that is the desalinated water. I only needed a very small amount of it.”
“That was the old-fashioned way that sailors used to use if they were stuck at sea and needed drinking water, but it takes a huge amount of time and energy to get a very small amount of water. That’s not the method used in big desalination plants; they use a very, very fine membrane and a ferocious amount of energy to push the water molecules through the membrane while salt molecules and anything else is taken out; that’s reverse osmosis.”
Some materials and approaches are common throughout Marie’s six installations: clear materials like plexiglass feature frequently. There’s a certain cool, watery clearness, despite the urgency of the messages about fracking, pollution, scarcity and flooding events.
Skibbereen, of course, has its own history with water: the repeated flooding of the tidal Caol Stream that runs through the town, and a subsequent €35 million flood defence scheme covered in part in these pages. Water is a ravager and a destroyer as well as a precious resource and Marie has a piece devoted to flooding in her exhibition.
“When I put my Water Table piece into The Luan gallery in Athlone, there were sensitivities because the Shannon floods pretty badly,” she says. “But it also has meaning in other locations, because we all have our different connections to water.”
Marie has never exhibited in Uillinn: West Cork Arts before, but the installation in the Skibbereen arts centre has flowed smoothly. “We’ve had two terrific days with a fantastic team,” she says. “We’re flying along and I’m very happy with how it looks.”
Water, filler of forms
Of course, to a sculptor, water itself, as a material, is both a challenge and a draw: amorphous and mutable, a silent filler of forms.
Marie tells me about German artist Hans Haacke’s installation, Rhine Water Purification Plant, which also utilised glass and clear acrylics and which, with its overtones of political environmental activism, was a forerunner way back in 1972.
Haacke created a filtration system for water from The Rhine, which was then heavily polluted by companies including chemical giant Bayer, and installed a giant fish tank full of living fish in the resulting clean water, alongside a list of all the companies that the local authority had granted licences to discharge into the river: the museum in which the exhibition took place was a publicly funded one.
“It really was quite a political work in a lot of ways,” Marie says.
It seems like, over the past few months since Tripe + Drisheen started these Arts + Culture articles, artists working with environmental themes have cropped up again and again and across disciplines, from film to sound art and now to sculpture.
Of course artists reflect the world around them, and our media and our culture are increasingly preoccupied with environmental concerns, mostly in the form of climate change, from COP26 coverage to Don’t Look Up.
For Marie, she’s exploring the terrain, but she’s still first and foremost an artist, and she believes that art can bring something valuable to the table in our quest for environmental equilibrium on an increasingly crowded planet.
“I’m not a geographer or a scientist or even an environmentalist; I’m an artist,” she says. “This is just a way of pointing towards something that’s going on in the world, but the artwork as an artwork is, for me, the main thing. I’m not really interested in just imparting information; if I wanted to do that I could go out on the street with a microphone.”
“I’m more interested in making things that engage people and draw them in and are in some way intriguing, that are of interest in terms of what’s happening in the world, but that arrive at that point through the means of art that is unlike anything else.”
Water – More or Less by Marie Hanlon runs at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre from January 8 to February 12. Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen is open from 10am to 4.30pm Monday to Saturday weekly.