New Yorkers have a new reason to look up. The American artist, filmmaker and activist Mary Jordan, has commissioned 57 acclaimed artists and innumerable New York City public school children to transform water tanks, fixtures of the city’s skyline, into works of art.
The project aims to use art as a form of social intervention to draw awareness to the global water crisis. The installation will be accompanied by a variety of street-level events ranging from educational programs and public tours, to social media activities and a symposium for fresh views on global water issues. The Project is a product of Jordan’s Word Above the Street, a non-profit organization that combines art and advocacy with a special focus on environmental awareness. Jordan was inspired to launch the Water Tank Project while making a documentary in Ethiopia in 2007, where she noticed the extent of the country’s water shortage.
The project uses water-themed graphics to convert symbols of an abundance that is often taken for granted into powerful reminders of the the shortage that affects one-fifth of the world’s population (1.6 billion people). Each American uses about 100 gallons of water per day, while the average sub-Saharan African uses two to five gallons. This dichotomy makes makes New York City, a place insulated from the crisis itself, the perfect location for a reminder. What’s more, Jordan reminds the Project’s viewership that water scarcity is a universal issue affecting people from all seven continents, many who may now find themselves in New York.
The project’s artistic cohort boasts household names including pop-artist Ed Ruscha, multi-media artists Jeff Koons and Laurie Simmons, sculptor Maya Lin and photographer Terry Richardson. But the project also calls attention to emerging artists, including public school children whose work was selected by competition. All of the tanks, standing 12 feet tall by 13 feet wide on top of some of the city’s tallest buildings, provide massive three-dimensional canvas space across which the printed vinyl works are stretched. Whether you’re on the sidewalk or 42 floors up, the pieces are impossible to ignore. In planning, Jordan referred to the large and ominipresent tanks as “a museum waiting to happen.”
The first four works are already on display in SoHo and Chelsea with the promise of 96 more to be installed throughout the following months. On August 21st, Laurie Simmons’s “The Love Doll/Day 24 (Diving),” an image of a young woman plunging into a pool with eyes open and pale skin, appeared on West 28th Street and 10th Avenue. The canvas features a figure that oscillates between human and doll — the real and the imaginary. She seems to throw her body deeper into the water, but expresses discomfort and even pain from it. Simmons offers a poignant commentary on water as both a necessary and under-appreciated resource. Too much water, not too little, is this figure’s downfall. Blocks away, Sigrid Calon’s graphic tank boasts bright red water droplets that seem to fall with venom as they wrap their way around a structure on West 25th Street in the heart of Chelsea. These droplets’ implied force and aggressive color call to mind the potentially disastrous repercussions of heavy or acidic rain. Lorenzo Petrantoni’s SoHo tank, “Water Means Life,” a patterned reinterpretation of a conch shell, provides a whimsical take on water’s aesthetic history.
The Water Tank Project lies at the intersection of art and advocacy. I look forward to seeing the tangible outcomes that arise from the combination of Jordan’s museum in the sky and activism on the sidewalk.