The water project

6 June – 8 Nov 2020

Thirteen New Zealand artists explore fresh water systems in Aotearoa and the cultural, environmental and political stories that surround them. 

WAI - the water project is a multimedia exhibition that celebrates fresh water as a natural element essential to our wellbeing. It considers notions of public and private responsibility to our shared resources and our legacy for future generations.

Two years ago, thirteen artists were invited to explore the cultural, conceptual and imaginative qualities of water. Initiated by Ashburton Art Gallery Director, Shirin Khosraviani, they embarked on a road trip around Canterbury’s waterways—lakes, rivers and wetlands—in what was known as The Water Project. Bruce Foster and Gregory O’Brien were two of those artists and together, they have curated Wai/Water as an offshoot. Jacqui Colley, Phil Dadson, Bing Dawe, Brett Graham, Ross Hemera, Euan Macleod, Jenna Packer, Dani Terrizzi, Elizabeth Thomson, Peter Trevelyan and Kate Woods are the other artists in the project.

“Successful art makes the reader or viewer think; it doesn’t tell them what to think,” O’Brien says. In WAI - the water project, the artists’ challenge is “to make art, not on behalf of a cause or an argument or an organisation, but on behalf of an ecosystem”.

Traditionally, fresh water has been revered as an essential resource and is fundamental to the spiritual, cultural and economic lives of tangata whenua. Colonial settlers had other priorities and rivers flowing through towns became open sewers and the impact of deforestation was ignored.  

Until recently, waterways were largely taken for granted. Now, in an era of environmental degradation from intensive farming, water is being reconsidered for its cultural importance as well as a physical necessity to human and environmental health.

Gregory O'Brien discusses aspects of WAI - the water project and some of the artists/artworks that feature in it, including artist Elizabeth Thomson and her work. Video and still photography by Mark Tantrum, June 2020.

Poet & artist Gregory O'Brien in his studio, April 2020, reading his poem 'Conversation with a Mid-Canterbury braided river'. Filmed by Joni-Maree Philip.