Josh Hoeks calls Water a “structural intervention” to his studio at The University of Iowa’s Studio Arts building.
The Rube-Goldberg-esque contraption Hoeks designed serves to siphon water from another studio into his—and to successfully dispose of the wastewater thereby generated. His studio’s need for water is increased by the fact that the nearest sink, a mere 15 feet or so from the studio door, has been placed in a steel cage by another department.
To overcome this impediment, Hoeks tapped into a sink in a fellow graduate student’s studio, snaked water through an adjoining wall (cleverly disguising the line in conduit, to match the electrical conduit dispersed throughout the building), and set up a purifying water retention unit that allowed him to create a drinking water tap and sink—which became the basis for a small kitchenette (including an almost certainly illicit hot plate). Wastewater was stored in a tank below the sink and then pumped through a copper pipe that could be extended over the hall into a hose that could be dropped into the aforementioned caged sink.
The intention of the project was to use the new water source to create possibilities for gatherings and communal activity surrounding the water source (as ancient a gathering place as any) in a way at odds with—if not explicitly prohibited by—the building’s structure, with its divided cubicle-like spaces and long lists of regulations. The incredibly clever mechanism was delightful to watch in motion, and the work provided a point around which conversations, meal preparation, canning, fermenting and other activities could proceed. Water would have been a joy to re-visit over time, both to engage with the artist and surrounding audience.
But, while there exists an art-historical precedent for treating these kinds of projects as art, it may be illuminating to ask an incredibly naive question: is Water, properly speaking, art?
On the one hand, the art-historical lineage for the work is rich indeed: anyone who has taken an Art History survey is familiar with the Roman aqueducts at Pont Aven, and anyone who has spent time in Europe will be familiar with fountains tucked around towns that were, at one point, the place where people gathered to collect water. The idea of a well or water source as a meeting place, and the sculptural character of the delivery system surrounding that water, is as established a genre as painting. Bernini did fountains, and there are fountains in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—Hoeks is not exactly establishing a new artistic medium in this installation.
On the other hand, this kind of structural work—as it typically happens today in the United States—is the provenance of plumbers, not artists. And the degree to which Hoeks’ installation falls under the rubric of “relational aesthetics” is intimately tied with the ways in which Hoeks’ project lies outside of “traditional” artistic categories. Relational art deliberately avoids the traditional structure in which the viewers relate to the artist (and to each other) through understanding the work—the relationship cemented by the work itself. On the contrary, relational art often acts as a meeting point where new relations begin. Relationships are instigated by the work and are free to develop independently of their origins.
Thus, it is the case that Hoeks’ work is, in fact, art (relational art in particular), precisely due to the ways that it isn’t art in a more traditional sense.
The primary goal behind relational art is to encourage audience members to interact in new, surprising ways and to enlighten onlookers to how they interact with others and the world. Hoeks’ project clearly falls within the purview of this sort of work because it takes what has become an essentially hidden process—the transport, distribution and disposal of water—and renders it visible. It takes a sphere of activity (like water gathering) that, while once a natural source of human interaction, has become in our society an almost exclusively private activity. At the center of his project is an attempt to recover a lost form of interaction and to reclaim, as sculpture, mechanisms of water delivery that now usually reside under the earth and behind cabinets.
What makes the sculpture compelling as a version of the town well is tied to the nature of its location—in a temporary facility necessitated by a flood—in which moving water to a desired point is actually difficult. While the distance that the water is transported hardly rivals that of Roman aqueducts, it is a distance, nonetheless. And while one might make the argument that the solution is (whimsically) overdone, the net result is hard-won access to water.
Most importantly, the work remains wholly engaged with the practical sphere (even if questions are raised and a critical attitude is taken toward said practices). The work is integrated into an artistic practice, that is, into the daily activities of the artist. Considered as an artifact, it retains the stamp of the life and use for which it was built, motivated as much by the practical exigencies of that life as by any abstract idea.
It is this last point that separates it most significantly from a more traditional sense of art. Historically, the arts have been classified according to their relative engagement with human examination. The highest of the arts (the free or liberal arts) were wholly bound up with contemplation, entirely “free” of material concerns (initially, these were philosophy, mathematics and music). Of the “servile” arts, the “fine arts” required engagement with materials for their making, but were considered to be born out of and to provoke introspection. The remaining arts were those wholly bound up in practice.
Defined this way, Hoeks’ work does not fall into the category of the “fine arts.” Of course, the aqueducts at Pont Aven would be in trouble, too, and the history of “fine art,” so defined, would be considerably less interesting for the omission.
Brian Prugh is a graduate student studying painting at The University of Iowa. He also writes art criticism for the Iowa City Arts Review, found online at iowacityartsreview.com.