Water remains talk of the town in Picton

Barbara Speedy pours water back into Graham Bennett's "Pooling Ignorance" sculpture at The Diversion Gallery in Picton.
DAVID JAMES/STUFF

Barbara Speedy pours water back into Graham Bennett's "Pooling Ignorance" sculpture at The Diversion Gallery in Picton.

Michael Burry may one day be remembered as one of the most notable figures of the early 21st century.

You know: that guy that nobody's heard of.

Burry was one of the only investors who saw the looming financial crisis three years before the collapse of the markets in 2008.

Burry made an enormous profit by predicting the inevitable downfall of a complacent market, and the biographical film about the global financial crisis, The Big Short, admits that Burry's current investment focus is now in water.

If the actions of the smartest guys in the room are any measurement of future spoils, then why is water investment the new hot commodity?

Could it be they are forecasting another, even more dangerous crisis looming on the horizon?

The distribution of water, water rights and protection have been scorching topics here in New Zealand recently and a new exhibition called 'Water, Water, Everywhere …' brings to the fore questions about our water future and its current treatment.

Curator Barbara Speedy has pooled together a number of very notable and senior artists who all highlight environmental issues in their own work. Some of New Zealand's most prominent artists, such as Graham Bennett, Nigel Brown, Barry Cleavin, Bing Dawe, Fatu Feu'u, Gregory O'Brien, and Wayne Seyb have all contributed works to the show pertinent to the water protection debate.

"I think these artists are dealing with much more than the trivial issues we are normally comfortable with," Speedy says. "And they're basically saying to people, 'Look up, look out, and look around you', and see that there are bigger issues here to deal with."

As it happens, the exhibition is in no way reactive to the current debates that are swirling around Parliament on water protection. Instead, Speedy tells me the exhibition has been in the works for many months, and its opening just so happens to coincide with the quarrels about water in our country.

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"Recently with the shifts with the Labour Party and the Greens, suddenly, and finally, water is back on the agenda again and it's become a hot topic. So while the event is topical and may seem responsive, we've actually been planning this for months. We are all delighted that it's being debated now.

"I was thinking about some of the works that the artists I knew were working on, and I thought, 'actually we've got a great exhibition here' ... we could bring together the artists and let's stir up some debate in the lead up to the election. That's why the exhibition itself will now finish up on election day." 

Speedy says some of the pieces are highly topical and engaging, including Graham Bennett's 2016 work 'Pooling Ignorance' which was originally filled with water from Lake Ellesmere.

Since then it has rusted and been encrusted with the residue of the polluted water.

"Just reading the news about Lake Ellesmere the other morning and ECan's position on it, is a case in point," Speedy says. "The water has now dried out, leaving a polluted coating on the steel. And we are contemplating whether to add polluted water back in for the exhibition, but perhaps it will suffice to have a warning not to touch the surface."

But why should the public care what artists have to say about these very important issues? 

"The message that the artists have resonates with some people in different ways than what the politicians say," Speedy says. "And we hope this show conjures up some healthy debate. It's like artists offer a voice to those who have felt somewhat marginalised and powerless by what direction this country is going and the decision makers who steer it. People feel like they are perhaps a voice in the wilderness.

"The artists capture how people feel about these issues. Yes, that sense of powerlessness, but also a hope that 'yes' maybe we can make a difference."

But water protection is deeply complex issue that goes far beyond the contamination of our water resources. It also encompasses how we use water to produce our consumables.

"Wrestling with water issues is really a tall order for a politician to take on," Speedy says. "It's easier to go for things like law and order, and the usual rhetoric. So if a show like this can add just one more string to the bow, that the public is behind it, then maybe the politicians will have to listen. Voters turn up to these kinds of exhibitions, you know. And if you change a few people's minds, that's all that matters."

For those who see this wonderful exhibition, featuring some of New Zealand's best artists, you will no doubt appreciate the same message with different voices. While the meanings may converge, the aesthetic elements are diverse and unique to each artist's language.

"If people are engaging in these works, in a meaningful way, then I guess you could say they form a certain body of opinion and politicians should beware. People are fired up about this water debate. Maybe you need visual images to capture a feeling that the public has, and the politicians should avoid these kinds of stirrings at their peril."

The details

Water, Water, Everywhere … at The Diversion Gallery, Picton

Preview: Sunday, August 20 at 4pm

Runs until election day, September 23

 - Stuff

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