Even though the Bay Area along with most of the western United States is a near desert, we don’t tend to think much about water. Of course during the rainy season we might get soaked to the bone or see streams near overflowing. And in the summer we might experience drought or fire. But most the time, water – its properties, distribution, qualities, and quantities – is out of sight and out of mind.
Jin Zhu’s series of photographs “Endless Stream: Water in the American West,” recently on view in Stanford University’s Wallenberg Hall as part of the new Your Art Here program, asks questions about “where we get our water, what we use it for and who we take it from” (artist’s statement). Zhu, a senior art practice and biology major, sees photography as a medium “most suited to asking questions” and her photographs tend to be layered and open-ended, calling attention to the strange ways in which water becomes visible in the vernacular, often roadside, landscapes of the west.
Zhu’s photographs are eclectic, so this small sample of three can’t really stand in for the larger body of work; I certainly urge you to take a look at more of her photos at her website.
A photo looking up from the base of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River – the second largest after the Hoover Dam – shows the strange and unsettling beauty of such vast structures. It’s an uncomfortable image to look at as we’re placed in a space that although vast, feels claustrophobic with the walls of the dam seeming to converge. Like many of Zhu’s western water photos, this one juxtaposes the unwatered (the surrounding cliffs) and the watered (the expanse of carefully mowed green grass at the base of the dam). The irony, of course, is that Glen Canyon Dam was created, at least in part, to enable such incongruous patches of green in the arid west. This then is a very special patch of lawn.
Other photos, including one of a gas station off the I-5 also explore the juxtaposition of irrigated and unirrigated lands. At a Love’s gas station the hulking forms of trailer trucks are bisected by the picture frame; the mid part of the photo shows lush, overwatered grass abruptly giving way to desert, broken only by telephone poles, sage brush, and trash. Zhu explains that “gas stations along the I -5 Central Valley corridor are desert oases for long distance travelers. The dividing line between the greenery of these oases and the bare dust of unirrigated desert can be incredibly distinct, and is the perfect illustration of the vast difference water makes in the natural desert of Central and Southern California” (artist’s statement).
A final photo shows a large mural (a public art commission) on the side of a gas station in Idaho that imagines Native American life before long ago. Two Indians wade through the meandering river, while two others carry a recently killed antelope, and additional figures are busy with daily life in the small settlement. Oak trees dot the rolling hills in the background. While the mural does seem kitschy – because of its location and its 1950s museum of man aesthetic – the photograph is smartly suggestive. Zhu writes “Some tribes have managed to hold onto their rights and it’s made them more economically stable, whereas others negotiated them away in the past, not knowing how valuable they would be in the future” (personal communication). In Zhu’s photo, the mural is framed by a narrow strip of gravel and large ornamental rocks of the sort that adorn the exterior of office parks, with most of the foreground a uniformly pale green lawn. In these layers and contrasts one can see a history of water use and distribution.
Singly and in series Zhu’s photos push us to see water in the arid west and thus to think a bit differently and perhaps to ask questions where before we’d had none. Her work is also admirable in that it avoids simply beautifying environmental degradation. To be sure, there is beauty in these photographs but it’s always off kilter and strange enough that our response doesn’t or shouldn’t stop with aesthetic appreciation.
Jin Zhu will graduate this spring with a degree in Art Practice and Biology. Currently interning with Futurefarmers on their Variation on the Powers of Ten project, Zhu plans to pursue a career in art photography.
Mark Feldman is a co-director of SUSS and a lecturer in PWR. He’s particularly interested in environmental aesthetics – more particularly the role that art can play in letting us more fully see environmental problems and imagine or enact solutions. This post is the first in an irregular series on art and ecology.