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Sculpting Through Water: Art and Its Relationship with Water

Water is a ubiquitous element that not only is present in our bodies but fills our planet in the form of oceans and air particles. It is not surprising, then, that due to its fundamental importance most artists, over the centuries, have become attracted by this element so unattainable and unpredictable. Spellbinding reflections, movements, shades, and colors convey this primordial element, depicted from the early stages of human living to modern times. One of the oldest examples of the human fascination with water can be encountered in the frescoes located in Località Tempa del Prete in the ancient Paestum (modern Italy). Regarded as a real Greek masterpiece, its creator is still unknown, but this doesn’t prevent our contemporary eyes from enjoying the magical and archetypal relationship between man and water.

Detail of the ceiling of The Tomb Diver, Paestum, Salerno, Italy

Under a symbolic aspect, water, according to the French philosopher, physician, poet, and professor Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) stated that water symbolizes profundity and its possible bond with infinity, identifying two distinct manners to describe its behavior:

“Water grows rancorous; it changes of sex. By becoming perverse, it becomes masculine.’’(Bachelard, 1942,p.15)

Many ancient cultures conveyed water not as a single part per se, but rather as a part of a whole composition devoted to the landscape, although it seems particularly difficult to trace any water depiction in an early American painting prior to the conquest. According to art historians, the earliest representation of a stream may be traced back to a statue preserved in the Louvre, representing its two jets which emerge from a vase held by a Gudea, the governor of Lashea during the Neo Sumerian epoch, respectively the Tigris and Euphrates. Undoubtedly a detailed early depiction of this mysterious element.

Gudea statue, 2120-2110 BC

Water, throughout the centuries of its perennial scrutiny, has been represented through the shape of tears, rain, and ponds. An early example of this latter configuration can be traced to the acclaimed masterpiece of the Italian Piero Della Francesca, the real father of perspective, who depicted a pond behind the painting Baptism of Christ (1450) now on display at the National Gallery of London. In this renowned masterpiece, Della Francesca represents Jesus in the act of being baptized by St. John, both standing behind the shallow water of the Jordan river. It is not a coincidence that the Italian painter decided to depict a pond if one takes into account that the ritual of baptism has been linked with water and its regenerative, purifying intrinsic powers. As a matter of fact, in the same Vangelis according to St. John, Christ explicitly declares that those who drink water can create in their interiority an eternal life.

Baptism of Christ, Piero Della Francesca, 1450, tempera on board.

It is in this frame that, through a contemporary approach to how the art of our times configures its relationship with this ancestral element, the Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias works.

Cristina Iglesias studied at the Chelsea Art School, conveying since the start of her art practice a profound interest in the interstices between art and nature. Art, in her own words, is constructed as a rather architectural element, communicating with its surroundings and all the elements taking part in the constitution of our environment. As a matter of fact, it isn't a surprise that one of her early inspirations was Mies Van Der Rohe, who in 1929, on the occasion of the constitution of the Pavillon of International exposition held in Barcelona, conceived one of the most daring and relevant structures of our times. The building is comprised of natural and artificial materials, the same elements that appear throughout Iglesias's works. It has to be understood the importance of the pond situated inside Van Der Rohe's structure which emphasizes not only a pleasant feeling but also the importance of the Japanese tradition of a harmonic dialogue between the interior and the exterior.

Water appears in many contexts in Iglesia's art: adopting an ambiguous approach toward the traditional constructing elements to create sculpture, the Spanish artist in 1992 conceives Sin Titulo (Muro XVII), the walls inherent in this piece are created deliberately with transparency which reflects light, acquiring, consequently, a color recalling water. Entrenched in an intricated steel armor, the translucent and yet captivating wall remains at the perusal of the observer who won’t ever capture its real essence as much as the inner mystery reigning in the element of water.

Muro XVII, Cristina Iglesias, 1992

A couple of years after Muro XVII, Cristina Iglesias developed her Deep Fountain, an installation still on display for many tourists at the Leopold De Waelplaats, in front of the Museum of Fine Arts of Ambers, in Belgium. The piece counts on an enormous rectangular mirror made entirely of water. In this sense, it may apparently be regarded as a commemorative piece, but it doesn’t want to retain this sense. It goes beyond any celebrative or commemorative intentions due to the lack of a statue or a fountain. What Cristina constructs is simply a profound pond with a recess at the bottom of it that could result in an abyss.

Deep Fountain diverts according to the significance each person makes when approaching it: The piece might start reacting as a simple mirror made of water or, in other cases, appear profoundly fragmented.

Explaining her installation, Iglesias states:

“In my pieces, there are no perfect mirrors. They are reflecting surfaces less pure, in which a reflection results indefinite.’’(Iglesias, 2009,p.111)

The piece uses 2,700 pieces of resin and cement processed and colored starting from 16 casts the artist prepared prior to starting her project. During the construction phase, Cristina admits that she always retained in her mind the examples of fountains made during the Baroque period, specifically those constructed by the two rivals Borromini and Bernini.

Elements such as the spectacularity of deep water, the fluidity of time, the movements of the tides, trams, and passengers passing by, water in the work of Iglesias becomes a faithful register of the incessant passing of time.

Deep Fountain, Cristina Iglesias, 1997-2006, Museum of Fine Arts of Ambers, Belgium

If Cristina Iglesias was concerned with creating a dialogue between her art and the environment that was supposed to host her creation, a relevant figure in the contemporary British art scene is Jason de Caires Taylor (1974). Professional photographer, sculptor, and environmentalist, de Caires Taylor is regarded as the first Land artist whose art research points to the underwater world. Contrary to Iglesias whose main artistic configuration is totally devoted to abstraction, de Caires Taylor created what Elizabeth DeLoughrey defined as sea ontologies (DeLoughrey,2020,p.2) a realm of male and female sculptures subjected to the erosion and transformation of maritime currents as well as the action of the inhabitants of the bio marine system: fishes, algae, sponges among others. Perhaps one can frame the art of Taylor in the context of the writer, poet, and art critic Jean Cocteau who, in the mid-50s, conceived the human body as follows: "Our flesh is composed of myriads of cells, each one of which contains a miniature ocean … comprising all the salts of the sea, probably the built-in heritage of our distant ancestry when some mutating fish turned into reptiles and invaded the virgin land” (DeLoughrey,2020, p.13).

An "Earth after us'' is therefore revealed through the evocative works of this activist, photographer, and sculptor of our times: encapsulated in an apparent stillness but subjected to the movements of tides and strong currents of water that modify inevitably his anthropomorphized space.

The presence of sculptures is not meant to be an intrusive practice nor an hommage to the several shipwrecks and relics that for centuries were situated in the deepest oceans of Earth, but rather the artist wants to highlight the strong bond which connects us as humans with water.

Beginning installations by doing in his studio a life-casting process on his models, de Caires Taylor create a series of molds that go on to be filled with high-density, pH-neutral marine cement as declared during an interview (Preece,2009, p.1). A detailed and painstaking task follows the molding process - the British artist is urged to look for the proper place where he can situate his creations, generally areas that have barren seabeds and are protected by some landmass.

Furthermore, it is relevant to mention the title that continuously recurs when it comes to providing a name for his works: Museums start being the identity of most of his pieces, not surprisingly highlighting the main concern of the artist which is the preservation inherent to these institutions. As such, echoing the words of the artist, when one is confronted with his art, the spectator is "reminded that we too are not separate to the environment but an integral part of it.'' (Preece,2009, p.2)

In line with his own ecological technique, de Caires Taylor combines his interest in Land Art with depictions of human beings mostly imagined as frail creatures, or in groups as in the case of the installation Crossing the Rubicon.

Jason deCaires Taylor, 2017, Canary Islands

Representing a procession of ordinary people, deCaires Taylor conveys an impactful metaphor around the consequences of climate change as we continue spoiling the resources of oceans, eventually leading to a catastrophic outcome. Belonging to the deCaires Taylor’s Museo Atlántico placed in the Canary Islands, this sculptural park compromises several works, all filled with symbolic analogies related to climate change. At the core of deCaires Taylor's work is a criticism of certain governments' stewardship of their country. Deregulated criticizes the stewardship of some countries like Australia for their implementation of new coal projects. The British artist isn't interested in fascinating spectators' eyes with his magical underwater creatures, but instead, through these eye-catching beings, wants to raise awareness about the irreversible impacts of global warming, unfortunately already in place.

Jason deCaires Taylor, 2017, Canary Islands

Robert Smithson conceived the most spectacular and representative piece of the conceptual art movement through Spiral Jetty. Situated in the Great Salt Lake in the USA, Smithson's conception of his art stems from ideas such as entropy, monumentality, and citations of the history of art. In the case of his imposing Spiral, the piece contemplates a process of entropy due to the action of water. According to this physical theory, the overall organization of any closed system can only decrease over time. This is illustrated by irreversible changes such as scrambling an egg (it can't be unscrambled) or mixing two differently colored batches of sand in a sandbox (Smithson's example).

Furthermore, the American artist has long been fascinated by the process of ruin that most of the art underwent through the passage of time, inevitably conveying this sense into his precarious and yet magnetic creations. Still, it is worth mentioning that one of Smithson's admirations and probably sources for the conception of his monumental piece is Chris Marker's film, La jetée (1964). The movie tells the story of a young man who travels back in time from a dystopian postwar future, only to return as the victim to a murder he'd witnessed on a rectilinear jetty as a child.

Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson, 1970, Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA

Nonetheless, a question has been left open since the artist unexpectedly passed away in 1973, concerning the maintenance and preservation of his work. Paradoxically, the element which renders Spiral unique has started to be a menace. The artwork is slowly disappearing under the water as sea levels rise.

Clearly, Smithson intended the work to embody a series of topics regarding the physical principle of entropy leading every time to new unexpected results. Curiously enough, from an aerial point of view, the Jetty, apart from maintaining its spiral form, is suggestive of a question mark leaving us in an uncertain state of mind.

Water, in the aforementioned cases, acts as an intruder, but artists learned to conform to its subtle changes. In this last section, the Algerian-born artist Hélène Mugot demonstrates through her piece Mur de larmes (Wall of tears) the inherent transparency of water. Comprised of around 400 crystal drops jabbed into a wall, Mugot's piece evokes the words of Elisabeth Blanchard, a philosopher, and teacher:

"One thinks of Cioran for whom “the true greatness of the saints consists in this unsurpassable power among all to cry without embarrassment, (…) to invoke the gift of tears”. These tears remind us that the eyes are not meant to see only, but also to mourn the impossible vision. Tears of joyful pain or painful joy that follow any Ecstasy."(Blanchard, 1997)

Wall of tears, Hélène Mugot, 1992

Finally, regarding her work, the artist explains that tears have always amazed her since they appear indistinctly as a consequence of sadness or joy. That is the essence of her creation: to express opposites at the same time while working on the inherent translucent qualities of water.

The result of this exploration of tears led her in 2004 to create a more daring installation called Blood and Tears, where the spectators clearly perceive the interest of the artist to retell duality when it comes to expressing human feelings. Again, it is still Elizabeth Blanchard who proportions us significance behind the Mugot's oeuvre:

"These tears remind us that the eyes are not meant to see only; some eyes bleed from having seen too much, can no longer even weep, but are destined to weep over the impossible vision.'' (Blanchard,1997)

This luminous hemorrhage of tears gives us access to the timeless. Between blood and tears, the alchemy has operated and if we can contemplate in tears a promise of light, it is because it conceals in its heart the memory of so many nights dazzled by them.

Alchemy, still, can be perceived when it comes to witnessing all these creations, making art more than a human action, but an act that communicates poetically with water, maintaining ancestral connotations.


Bachelard G., (1942). Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, Edith Farrell trad., Pegasus Foundation, 1983

De Cailor Taylor J official website

De Cailor Taylor J.,(2009). Sculpture Magazine , Interview by Robert Preece

DeLoughrey E., (2020). Moments in Passing: Maritime Futures of the Anthropocene

Hélène Mugot official website

Iglesias C.,(2009). The sense of space, Arnaldo Pomodoro Foundation, Milan

Iglesias C.,( 2013). Metonimia, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

Jason deCaires Taylor

Macagno M., (1992). Aqua Depicta

Land Art definition

Luft G., (2018).Water as Science in Art

Robert Smithson official website

The tomb of the diver in Paestum, a gem of Greek Painting, (2015).


Gudea statue, 2120-2110 BC, diorite, in the round

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Cristina Iglesias, 1992, Muro XVII , iron and resin, Fondazione Arnaldo Pomodoro, Milan

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Cristina Iglesias, 1997-2006, Deep Fountain, cement bas-relief of plant forms, eucalyptus leaves, fungi, Antwerp, Belgium.

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Hélène Mugot, 1992, Wall of tears, 500 pieces of crystal, nails

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Jason deCaires Taylor, 2017, bronze, plaster and a tailor made pH neutral marine cement, Canary Islands

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Piero Della Francesca, 1450, Baptism of Christ, tempera on board

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Robert Smithson,1970, Spiral Jetty, mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water,Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA

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Unknown author, 480/470 BC, The Tomb Diver, local limestone, Paestum, Salerno, Italy

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Author Photo

Martina Loiarro

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