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.

Water Overdose

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.


FotoFest 2004

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

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.

The "Water in the West" exhibition at Williams Tower Gallery has a decent share of interesting work, and it's worth fighting the Galleria traffic to view it. Laurie Brown's lush color panoramas contrast the deep green of golf courses and deep blue of man-made lakes with the brown desert surrounding them. And Robert Dawson is displaying a choice juxtaposition of photographs. His black-and-white image of Disneyland shows glittering rides reflected back in an artificial lake. Hung next to it is an image of a polluted river that runs between the California and Mexico border. Big fluffy white globs of foam float on its surface; it looks like somebody dumped in some Mr. Bubble. Together, they are an ominous pair of images.

Also in the "Water in the West" show, Sant Khalsa's piece, Western Waters, documents the plethora of predominantly mom-and-pop "water stores" with dingy strip-mall facades and names like "Oasis Water Store" and "Paradise Water." The series focuses on the "necessity and absurdity of water stores." Khalsa takes her project one step further with Watershed, in which she creates a water product. It's here that Khalsa's California-ness manifests itself. She's labeled stacks of bottles and boxes with attributes that she believes are found in nature and wanted by humans. They are "creativity, inspiration, change, balance, integrity, harmony and grace." Now don't get me wrong, those are all great things, but the list strikes me as more than a tad New Age-y. Khalsa isn't exactly in touch with the rest of America. If you really want a hypothetical product that gives Americans what they desire, it seems like infinite wealth and washboard abs ought to make the list. I don't know how many people sit around saying, "Gee, I wish I had more 'grace.'"

The FotoFest 2004 catalog contains a few images from all the venues. Unless you're on a pilgrimage or have an inordinate amount of free time, you're going to want to pick and choose which shows to see. The catalog's water-themed artist statements are entertaining, too. While some of them are interesting, others are bad attempts at emphasizing the water-themed aspects of artists' works. Here's a choice example: "My thoughts on water tumble onto paper like rain on my pond, as difficult to rein in as it would be to confine a thunderstorm." Sheesh.

There's a non-photographic sculptural installation at the Sunset Coffee Building down at Allen's Landing. At FotoFest 2002, when I approached the Allen's Landing installation, the sewer stench hit me so hard that it was difficult to quell my gag reflex. I steeled myself for a similar experience this time, but the bayou's cesspool odor is gone! I think it was magically cleansed for the Super Bowl.

Inside the building is Malachi Farrell's installation, Fish Flag Mourant. The floor is strewn with a bunch of aquatic debris -- squashed milk jugs spray-painted orange and used as floats, an old tire, Mardi Gras beads and a Sbarro cup. In the middle of the crap is a shallow pool of grungy water. Segmented metal fish shapes are painted with various national flags, lie in the water and on the floor and even dangle from the ceiling. All of a sudden they come to life, flapping pitifully to an audio track that sounds like dolphins being tortured. It is amazing, the empathy you can feel for a bunch of fake fish in mechanized death throes.

At the opening of FotoFest 2004, there were boat tours of Buffalo Bayou. Amazing. I didn't have time to take the trip, but I asked the guys running it, Capt'n Pip (a Great Expectations escapee?) and Jim Richards, to describe what it was like. They pointed west and said if you go that way, it's pretty well landscaped. They pointed the other direction and said that as you head towards the McKee Street bridge, it gets more overgrown and natural -- sort of. The catch is that when there's a flood (flood? Houston?), all the trash washes down Buffalo Bayou. When the water recedes, the trees are decorated with plastic bags from Kroger and Fiesta. Wow, there's a photograph -- it sounded oddly pretty, just like Houston.


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