Water Overdose

FotoFest 2004 will soak you to the bone

At FotoFest 2004's opening night, people strolled down Main Street, past fountains and photographs projected on a wall of water. They also walked through exhibitions featuring scores of water photographs. "Wow, I need to pee" became a half-serious running joke.

The theme for FotoFest 2004 is water. I suppose it's a pretty appropriate one for a festival located in the Bayou City. Houston's built on a swamp -- hence our booming house-leveling industry. Then there are our apocalyptic floods, exacerbated by unchecked development and the fact that the whole city is sinking due to depleted groundwater. Oh, and the Department of the Interior expects Houston to face serious water shortages in the next 20 years. Whee!

On a global level, things aren't any better. FotoFest's "Facts About Water" handout informs us that "water consumption is growing at twice the rate of population…20 percent of the world's population lacks safe access to water…half the world's rivers and lakes are seriously polluted." Water is a fascinating and multifaceted topic. But when you get to the thematic photo exhibitions of "Celebrating Water," the Tenth International Biennial of Photography and Photo-Related Art, you start to see the limitations resulting from the narrow theme.

Edward Burtynsky's Shipbreaking #4 is part of 
his stark, spectacular series at Reliant Energy Plaza.
Edward Burtynsky's Shipbreaking #4 is part of his stark, spectacular series at Reliant Energy Plaza.


on view through April 12; for information, call 713-223-5522 or visit www

Water is a pretty literal subject, and photography can be an extremely literal medium. Let's just get this straight right now: There are a lot of pictures of water on view around town. Expect pictures of lakes, streams, ponds, puddles, droplets, waves, rivers, oceans, waterfalls, water plants, dams...oh, and fish. There are a lot of fish, 'cause fish, um, live in water. Additionally, almost all the works are prints of one sort or another. I only saw one video installation and some sculptural stuff at Allen's Landing and Williams Tower. The 2002 FotoFest incorporated a much broader range of photo-related work and emphasized photography as a tool instead of a genre. This year, the theme and the succession of traditionally formatted photographic images becomes repetitive. Individually, there's nothing wrong with most of the photographs, and some of them are pretty great. But after hitting your sixth water-filled exhibition, the cumulative effect of all those pictures makes you want to drown yourself. But maybe that's just me.

At One Houston Center, there are -- incredibly -- two artists presenting large-scale, close-up, black-and-white pictures of waves. DoDo Jin Ming is showing some lovely, grandiose shots of waves that have the kind of romantic, hazy drama of a Turner painting. In the same exhibition, Kevin Griffin's close-up images of waves are cleaner and more menacingly immediate. (The waves at One Houston Center finally got to me. FYI: In these fascist times, security won't let you near the bathroom unless you leave your ID at the desk.)

On the upper level at Reliant Energy Plaza, Valdir Cruz's series of waterfall images were taken in his native Brazil, where spectacular waterfalls like these are disappearing due to hydroelectric power dams. The black-and-white images of velvety white-water cascades over dark outcroppings of rocks are stunning. The cascades become beautifully abstract in their blurred fluidity. And the prints are big, which more effectively conveys the whole grandeur-of-nature thing.

Also on view is one of the standout shows of FotoFest, Edward Burtynsky's "Shipbreaking," which was shot in Bangladesh and documents the process by which massive, outdated, single-hull tankers are systematically cut apart. The tankers are driven at full speed toward the shore during high tide, where they beach themselves. When the tide goes out, teams of Bangladeshi men move in, and using only hand tools they begin the highly dangerous work of dismantling the massive ships. The images are stark and spectacular.

J.P. Morgan Chase Bank is hosting "A Personal View," with six artists apparently presenting their personal views of water. Works by two of the artists serve as a reminder that it's not important which technology you use, but what you do with it. Gina Glover's Luddite pinhole camera photographs have a nice blurry simplicity -- a girl in a pink bathing suit stands in an expanse of calm water, bending over to fish something out. At the other end of the technological spectrum are Julia Hoerner's digitally overlaid and manipulated images of water and text. Unfortunately, she doesn't do anything interesting with all that technology -- they remind you of bad digital art from the early days of the medium.

FotoFest's Vine Street Headquarters features a variety of water photographs (!!) by nine artists, as well as images and video from the Institute for Flow Sciences in Herrischried, Germany. Their researchers have determined that pollutants change the ways water moves, as evidenced by "drop pictures" that capture the internal movements of water. The images are fascinating in a National Geographic, educational way, but their artistic appeal runs somewhere along the lines of fractals.

Steven Benson's "The Cost of Power in China: The Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River Valley," also at the Vine Street Headquarters, documents the human and environmental impact of this spectacularly wrongheaded project. The works depict families who will soon be displaced, their homes flooded by the dam. Also set to be buried underwater: "8,000 known archaeological sites, 250,000 acres of China's most fertile farmland and 1,600 factories that have been burying toxic materials in the ground for the past 50 years." It's another glorious communist project, ranking right up there with Stalin's forced collectivization of Russia's farms.

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