Of Water

Of Water: book: 8¾ ” h. x 6½” w., 36 pages; jar: 3½” d. 4¼ ” h.: 
watercolor on paper, linen, archival board, cotton thread, wheat paste, glass, shells, turquoise

You had to climb wide marble steps and go through the huge and ornate bronze doors of The New York State Education Building in Albany, New York to get to the New York State Museum. Here was truly a temple of learning in the Greek style, with its block long, monumental colonnade. Its very architecture emanated grandeur. Walking through the entrance made you feel important things were to come. A brass, cage elevator took you to the floor where the museum was located. The elevator operator was quiet and knew that the public was allowed only into the fifth floor museum. My young self imagined there were other fantastic mysteries housed on the other floors. When the elevator stopped and the squeaky door was pulled open, it took a second or two for your eyes to adjust to the dimmer light. You heard the sound of trickling water first, then you looked upon a full fledged recreation of a prehistoric forest. Giant club mosses the size of trees perched upon rocky ledges appeared to stretch into a humid distance. Strewn among this vision of Paradise were the fossilized stumps and logs of actual prehistoric trees. The adventure had begun; you were now in another world. 

It was in museums that I learned about collections. They were in oak framed cases with glass windows isolating their contents away from the chaotic world. Everything was labeled and had some sort of explanatory text, which gave name and context to the objects on display. Even the most mundane rocks were elevated to a place of importance. Museums gave everything an aura of worth. Not necessarily a monetary worth, but perhaps a worth of being studied, or a worth of being admired for some unique quality that set the observed apart from its peers. 

Of Water examines the notion of what makes a collection and what makes it have worth. My small gathering of mostly shells is of a common sort. They were collected by me over time from beaches or shops or the cast offs of pets. I had no specific end in my mind, there was just some quality about each object that captured my imagination: a mussel shell had a barnacle attached, the knobby texture of another was a pleasure to handle, or a snail that once spent its hours quietly slithering along the glass of my aquarium left behind an empty shell without an explanation of its inhabitant’s whereabouts. The accompanying book documents and finds the Latin name of each animal (except the stone, for which I give the chemical formula), giving each an identity and placing them among phyla of all the creatures on earth. From their small glass jar, they are ennobled and immortalized with a portrait; rendering them special among all of the other fish of the sea. 

The contents of this installation are all related by the theme of water. Even Turquoise was once considered a solid form of water and has water molecules as a component of its formula. As such, they come under the dominion of Triton, who heralds the opening of the book on the title page. Triton’s name means “of the third” which refers to his father Poseidon. The third lot of water fell to Poseidon when, with his brothers Zeus and Hades, they divided the ruling of the world among themselves. Zeus claimed the heavens, and Hades fate sent him to rule the underworld. The third lot gave Poseidon complete kingship over all of the waters of the earth. Thus, Poseidon’s son, Triton, he born of water, blows his shell trumpet to proclaim the strength and majesty of the sea. 

Museums offer an imposing entrance to other worlds. Whether a window to a prehistoric forest, a doorway into our human past or a peephole into the workings of the universe, they guide us to seeing and understanding what surrounds us. Perhaps this why we collect, to ponder the great mysteries in all things; of Gods and how their great forces act upon the world and of creatures, now in a jar whose curious, hidden lives lived in secret add up to Life.

Of Water was part of the exhibition Naming the Animals at 
Curious Matter and Proteus Gowanus, April 3 - July 17, 2011

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