Hold a glass of pure water to the eye of the sun!
It is difficult to tell the one from the other
Save by the tiny hardly visible trembling of the water.
This is the nearest analogy to the essence of human life
Which is even more difficult to see.

Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘The Glass of Pure Water’


For centuries, water was a revered resource in Aotearoa. Fresh water was fundamental to the spiritual, cultural and economic lives of tangata whenua. Colonial settlers had other priorities and used waterways as conduits for waste from saw-milling, mining, and industry. Rivers flowing through towns became open sewers and the impact of deforestation was ignored.  

Apart from some notable exceptions, up until recent times, waterways were, by and large, taken for granted by the general public. Now, in an era of ramped-up environmental degradation from the intensification of agriculture and with colonial myths about our country unravelling, water is being reconsidered not only as a natural element essential to our wellbeing, but as a carrier of histories and traditions, myriad individual and collective meanings.

Over the next twelve months, thirteen artists will explore the cultural, conceptual and imaginative qualities of water in Canterbury and its crucial role in the well-being of our communities. The Ashburton Art Gallery will exhibit these artists’ works in 2018, an exhibition that will then tour other public galleries throughout the country.

Art offers a powerful means to imagine and creatively engage with physical realms whose complexities elude the conventional scientific formulations and assessments and can explore notions of public and private responsibility to our shared resources and our legacy for future generations.

As cultural commentator John Berger once observed, ‘works of the imagination can exert great social and political influence’. Closer to home, New Zealand artist Greg O’Brien asserts: ‘Successful art makes the reader or viewer think; it doesn’t tell them what to think’. Thus in a work such as The Water Project, the artist’s challenge is ‘to write or make art, not on behalf of a cause or an argument or an organisation, but on behalf of an ecosystem’. The time is ripe for just such an imaginative approach to the subject of our water.