Ode to the Water Gallery

Mihara Ken’s Kigen (Genesis) no 1 was one of the contemporary ceramics displayed in the Water Gallery until recently

“What we need more of is slow art – art that holds time as a vase holds water.” (Robert Hughes)

The Water Gallery is a narrow space hidden away on the lower ground level of the National Gallery of Australia. Floor to ceiling windows create the illusion that the pond, which laps against the building, is actually inside the space. Descending a staircase from the cavernous contemporary gallery into this intimate space makes coming here feel secret and special. I recently discovered that the works by contemporary Japanese ceramicists previously occupying this gallery is now gone, to be replaced by a new exhibition in December. I frequently visited this display, and its loss is one I feel keenly. For me, the space perfectly answered the call by art critic Robert Hughes for “slow art” as a response to the increasingly fast-paced commercial art world.   

Popular philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that art can offer therapeutic benefits which ought to be accessible to ‘ordinary’ people as well as artworld-initiated audiences. These benefits include providing hope, making us feel less lonely, and showing us the value in “everyday things”. When people look at art they intuitively seek something that can help them make sense of the world, connect with other people, see their own experiences reflected back at them, and deeply engage with new ideas – but often contemporary art fails to deliver on these expectations. A lot of the art that fills the ever-expanding art fairs and biennales across the world instead leaves its audience (including me) alienated, disengaged and confused.

Art historian Julian Stallabrass criticised the young British artists (think Damien Hirst’s ‘shark’ or Tracey Emin’s ‘bed’) for producing work which ‘looked like’ contemporary art but failed to engage viewers deeply, describing this phenomenon as “High Art Lite”. Robert Hughes took aim at the work of Jeff Koons and other “fast art” for presenting mere novelty without really having anything “fresh and vital to say.” Often on the contemporary art circuit the hype around new media – be it consumer products, animal carcasses, video, or virtual reality – can disguise the absence of meaningful content. This ‘fast’ or ‘lite’ art fulfils the market’s demand for a fashionable product that has the look of contemporary art, but it does not follow through on showing us new ways to see, to live in and to understand our world. The outcome for audiences is that we go in looking for art which helps us make sense of things, but what we get instead is art which leaves as bewildered – or simply bored – instead.

The trend in contemporary art appears to be to emphasise the plurality of conflicting perspectives. Art focuses on the particularities of experience, which often require local knowledge to understand, and bombards audiences with a dizzying array of technological possibilities, moral conundrums and ambiguous political messages. Themes of alienation and the inability to communicate abound. Compulsory postmodern self-awareness perpetually deconstructs but offers us no alternative structures through which to make sense of our world.

Undoubtedly this hopeless confusion reflects the reality of the contemporary world, but the problem for audiences is that we already know that living in today’s global digital world can feel overwhelming and uninterpretable. Art which merely replicates this chaos becomes just another stream of conflicting information and imagery adding to those which already bombard us daily, and tells us nothing about how we might actually comprehend our lives.

The antidote advocated for by Robert Hughes is ‘slow art’. In 2004, he said that we need “art that holds time as a vase holds water” – a maxim I feel was embodied by the Water Gallery display. The contemporary Japanese ceramic works housed in this space do not “look new”, but they demonstrate that contemporary art needn’t rely on superficial novelty to continue to be relevant. They acknowledge the value of tradition, gradual refinement of artistic forms, and painstaking processes of creation. The pieces and their interaction with the space itself invited us to take pause from our fast-paced digitally-driven lives, be fully present in this meditative place, and contemplate the quiet works and moving reflections of water on the ceiling.

Take, for instance, Mihara Ken’s Kigen (Genesis) no 1. The work does not shout for our attention or instantly gratify us with spectacle, it emerges slowly. Standing before the work, you would notice the gravity of the form in relation to your own body – the sense that it would be heavy to lift. I think that now more than ever in the context of our increasingly digital world we intuitively respond to that which is tangible and handmade. A work like this is something of a relief in an art landscape dominated by video and virtual reality.

Although the elegant form seems timeless, the work also speaks to the contemporary art world’s desire to embrace the cultural specificity of local and personal experience. Shinto culture is a key inspiration for the piece, particularly the importance of ritual, which is echoed in Mihara’s repeated firing and grinding of the ceramic. The distinctive deep metallic tones come from the high iron content of the Izumo clay, local to Mihara’s native Shimane prefecture. The result is textural and architectural; the form gives us a tangible sense of the landscape from which it is formed, the physical hand of the artist in shaping it, and the repeated, ritualistic processes involved. The design of the Water Gallery display was an essay in sensitive curatorship. The gently rippling pond outside echoed the Shinto ritual of water purification and created a meditative atmosphere, which evoked the practice of worship at kami shrines that remains central to shrine-Shintoism in contemporary Japan.

Aided by careful curatorship, works like Mihara Ken’s allow us to deeply engage with new ways of thinking about the world and connect with the experiences of others instead of reminding us how disparate and disconnected we are. The Water Gallery offered respite from an alienating and confusing world. It was a space that showed us that there is more to life than our everyday concerns and needs – something that great art has always offered, and which will continue to be a relevant aim of contemporary art today and into the future. My sense of loss at no longer being able to visit this display demonstrates the success of the Water Gallery in facilitating a meaningful and personal experience of contemporary art. I can only hope that the new display will be just as moving.