If you were asked to bottle the water most precious to you, what would you choose? That was the question posed two years ago by live artist, sculptor and film-maker Amy Sharrocks, whose work is often inspired by water. Since then she has taken receipt of more than 350 donations from the public, all of whom have bottled water in a vessel of their choice, accompanied by an explanatory handwritten note. The result is the Museum of Water, a live artwork currently at the Lightwells and Deadhouse at Somerset House.
The way to the temporary exhibit is past the old coal vaults – now filled with ‘A bit of the Thames leaked on 3.6.14’ or with old radiators or giant blue umbrellas – along dank stone passageways lined with moss and accompanied by Chris Watson’s atmospheric sound sculpture.
In the museum space itself, vessels of every kind line wooden shelves placed alongside the walls or in alcoves. Here you’ll find water from all over the British Isles; from someone’s favourite river or lake or bit of the sea; from their local lido or from the Thames at Limehouse or a garden in Peckham; even from every bridge and culvert along the River Kelvin (that’s twenty-three bottles).
Some samples and their accompanying messages tend towards the literal or prosaic: water used to make tea; water from a bath or from someone brushing their teeth; water used at a baptism; Holy Water; water from the kitchen tap. Others are more abstract or metaphorical, from rain bottled on last month’s Election Day to ‘corporate water’ collected from the Essex & Suffolk Water Company, from water representing someone’s ‘emotional baggage’ to tears collected when a woman miscarried. Whatever the message, each donation encourages the visitor to think about their own relationship to water and the role it plays in their lives.
The vessels themselves tell a story, not only in their varied shapes, colours and sizes (there are jam and coffee jars, test tubes and medicine bottles), but also in the dozens of different brands of bottled plastic water on display, reminding us of its commodification and scarcity in many parts of the world, despite one donor’s heartfelt message: AND ITS FREE [sic].
The collection is endlessly fascinating, incredibly moving and often rather amusing. It is also constantly changing: just as the water in each of the vessels slowly evaporates, so Sharrocks continues to invite visitors to the installation to leave behind their own contribution, in a beautiful evocation of the restless, ebb-and-flow nature of water.
Sharrocks has long worked with water and examined man’s relationship with it: how we conceive of it, use it, interact with it and what it means to us. The Museum of Water demonstrates just how much we use water to tell stories; water forms part of who we are, both literally and metaphorically. For some, water signifies pain, for others it might be joy or freedom; it might be linked to a moment of hope, or one of the deepest despair; it might signify life, or be linked to death and disease. Often it is linked to ideas of creativity and purification, and more often still it conjures up the idea of a particular place or moment in time.
As you leave, you are invited to write down the water you would have bottled had you been able to, and it’s difficult to imagine any visitor to this installation failing to be inspired by the hundreds of beautifully lit vessels and accompanying handwritten notes and not wanting to be a part of it.