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10 Must-See Artists at "The Value of Water," a Conversationist Art Show in New York

"The Value of Water," a massive, well curated show just opened in Manhattan. Here's a handy guide to our favorites.

The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, perched elegantly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is the largest cathedral in the world. Its arches and steeples stretch so high that, from the inside, you wouldn’t be too surprised to find that the precipitous particles up there had formed into small cirruses. It’s an elegant, pristine cavern of finely carved marble, yet its sacred air isn’t foreboding at all—its sheer size gives the impression of safety, protection from the outside world. And it’s big enough to provide a believable sanctuary of water.

The space is one reason The Value of Water, a massive conservationist art show, is so spectacular. Saint John the Divine is full of turrets and nooks, mini-chapels and throughways, each of which houses a small collection of paintings, sculptures, videos, or installations. It’s easy to get lost even with a map, but turning a wrong corner and seeing a new artwork is a pleasurable feeling, and the way the space and the water-themed pieces work in tandem is a great case for alternative gallery spaces. The vastness of the cathedral and the representations of water form a communique—the hugeness of the space lends to the feeling of water’s power and immeasurability.

Except it’s not immeasurable, and that’s the point. The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski puts it eloquently:

Water has become a commodity. Like other commodities, it now divides us between the haves and have-nots. Clean water and sanitation will further define us as nations, in how we carry forward our abilities to care for our peoples and our respect for the community of nations.

That conversation is placed under the roof of this great Catherdral in the spirit of drawing us together across faiths and cultures ot understand and to answer calls to action. I find it heartening, at a time when in the name of religion people have expressed differences violently, that water has the potential—as a shared faith symbol and as basic to all life—to bring us together.

The Value of Water is a profound and not-to-miss show, exhibiting a host of well-known artists including Jenny Holzer, Robert Longo and Mark Rothko, along with many new discoveries. Here are 10 that I thought were among the most extraordinary pieces.

1. Kiki Smith, Ten Elements of Dewbow, 1999

Iconic feminist sculptor Kiki Smith’s pieces are generally less explicit expressions of emotional turbulence, so from a distance her papaya-sized, light-refracting glass tears seem surprisingly direct. Look above them, though, and they lie angled with each other in shards, broken pieces of the same thought. Often split in two halves (Five Elements of Dewbow), the full collection is a powerful meditation on the preciousness of the elements. A dew bow is a rainbow formed in sphere-shaped droplets of dew, usually dispersed with the slightest touch. But Smith’s permanent versions, in this context, underscore their impermanence—they’re natural elements preserved for posterity, as if seeing a mastodon in a museum.

2. Nobuho Nagasawa, Bodywaves, 2011

A rotund rocking chair wrapped in woven optical fiber, Nagasawa’s interactive sculpture both visually represents a neon waterfall—complete with waves, recorded at the Pacific Ocean—and is an incomplete work without a human sitting in it. Standalone, it’s a bit like a twisted-up Mobius strip, strands of light folding in on itself. But when you sit in it, the fiber picks up the notion of your heartbeat, and gleams brighter around your body, like a giant biometric mood ring or aura. The technical: “As visitors sit and rock, their motion drives the accelerometers, layering additional real-time light pulsations (similar to biofeedback) and modulate her body waves; representing her relationship with others whom she encounters in her life.” Or, a reminder of how integral we are to one another, and how we’re made up of mostly water, anyway.