Peabody Essex exhibit captures ‘H2O’ in all its wondrous forms
SALEM - Only here on earth does water exist as liquid, solid, and gas. If I had to choose my favorite just based on the art in “Ripple Effect, the Art of H2O,’’ the new family-friendly exhibit in the Peabody Essex Museum’s interactive Art & Nature Center, it would be water vapor.
Jane Winchell, the center’s director, organizes the show into groups according to what form water takes within the art. The gas section includes a wide black dish wildly spilling over with vapor, like a witch’s cauldron. It’s Ned Kahn’s “Sea of Clouds,’’ made with an ultrasonic humidifier, and you can run your hands through the fog to create currents and watch it condense on the sides of the dish.
Similar undulations roll through Simon Christen’s eye-opening video “Unseen Sea,’’ featuring time-lapse images of San Francisco taken over a year, and edited down to less than three minutes. As a moon rises, clouds hustle across the skyline like sprinters. Fog washes over the city with the motion of a tsunami. Ordinarily, we experience fog from within; to see it rise and crest like ocean waves - and over a beautiful city - is a revelation. “Ripple Effect’’ demonstrates how art can be a playful route into science, gorgeously (and sometimes incidentally) illustrating facts about water. Most of this is elementary-school-level science - that’s the crowd the Art & Nature Center plays to - but the art opens up the basic science in new ways. It’s a learning experience as well as an aesthetic one.
A label appended to the art information about Mags Harries’s two lovely handblown glass depictions of water drops tells us that water molecules cling together, even when stretched. It’s called surface tension, and it’s responsible for many of water’s amazing traits.
We may know that. But to see it in Harries’s glass works, “Droplet’’ and “Impact,’’ is to really grasp how flexible surface tension is. “Droplet,’’ a graceful, elongated drop, sets off ripples along the glass surface as it touches down. “Impact’’ captures the next moment, as the drop is absorbed: It resembles the nipple of a baby’s bottle, jutting off a rounded surface.
Harries has another piece, made with her frequent collaborator Lajos Heder, near the entrance to the exhibit. In their burbling installation “River,’’ water circulates into a long, clear plexiglass tray suspended overhead beneath spotlights. The viewer first hears the water’s rush, then sees its reflections and shadows hurrying along the floor, like a river’s ghost.
Next to “River’’ hangs Janet Fredericks’s drawing “Tracings, New Haven River.’’ Fredericks slips sturdy watercolor paper under the river’s surface and with a lithography crayon traces the lines and currents onto the page as they pass over it. “Tracings’’ is a scroll, topped with a branch and rounds of birch bark. The format echoes Asian painting and ink drawings, and so does the rich calligraphic fluidity of the gestures.
These all fall into the liquid part of the show, as do Los Angeles artist Daniel Wheeler’s bubbling, churning, effervescent color photos in the “GULP’’ series. “GULP’’ stands for two things: “Generative Urban Landscape Project,’’ a title making sideways note of how much water is pumped into Southern California from the Colorado River and other sources; and the single gulp of air Wheeler releases when he’s underwater in a swimming pool with his camera aimed at the water’s surface above him. The irresistible results capture light and color bouncing through ripples.
Last year, Jim Denevan went to Siberia to make what may be the world’s largest artwork: A circular snow drawing, nine miles in diameter, on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal. Using a broom and drawing mostly freehand, Donovan traced a spiral out of ever-growing circles, ranging from 18 inches across to several miles wide, and following the Fibonacci sequence. A satellite photo shows the pattern in thin lines on a background of black ice ruffled with white snow. It looks strangely precise and mathematical, yet it’s an echo of math found everywhere in nature.
It’s in the ice section of “Ripple Effect,’’ which does the best job of pointing out the pressures humanity places on the earth’s water. Wall text points out that glacial ice alone covers one-10th of the planet. Nearby, Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh’s sculpture “Moulin 1’’ from her series “Arctic Ice Melt: moulins of my mind,’’ is a lovely if forbidding evocation in foam, plaster, and sheetrock of cool blue tunnels made in the white ice by cascading water.
A video introduces viewers to Terje Isungset, a Norwegian composer and musician who crafts instruments from glacial ice, and plays them at an annual ice music festival. A guitar, a horn, and a harp all have their own almost tangy sonorous qualities - ice is in some ways a less generous substance than wood or brass. The percussion is terrific, making sweet, soft tones like a marimba. As the temperature changes, so do the instruments, and the sounds.
“Ripple Effect’’ is as much a celebration of water as a caution about its (and our) future. Winchell has put together an evenhanded and informative exhibit with a light touch, and fluid beauty.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.