'Meditative' Artwork Explores Death And Decay In Rivers

Jul 6, 2018

Many artworks deal with mortality. Relatively few ask us to contemplate the fear of death in such a personal and visceral way as “Waterborne.”

River Separates Water is at Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown, through Aug. 26.

The audio work is by French & Mottershead, a British duo who have exhibited around the world. They make their U.S. debut with a 23-minute piece that describes how a human body submerged in a river decomposes on its journey to the sea.

“What a listener hears is a spoken narrative which has been written from forensic case studies of human bodies immersed and transported by water,” said Andrew Mottershead, half of the design team.

“Particles of silt and algae hang in the cool water that encloses your body, and the summer sun filters through the green,” begins the narrative, spoken at a deliberate pace by a woman with a British accent. “You are fully submerged, face down, drifting slowly along.”

“You” start to decay almost instantly. But what might be morbid is made to seem meditative, even reassuring. The idea, said Mottershead, is that your dead body – far from simply ceasing to exist -- will return to nature, and become part of the larger ecosystem.

“Waterborne” is one of three installations on exhibit at Wood Street Galleries as part of River Separates Water: French & Mottershead, Tuulikki, Xiangyu, a show that opens Friday as part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust gallery crawl, Downtown. The crawl is free and features art exhibits, live music and more at multiple venues.

River Separates Water is guest-curated by Justin Hopper, a former Pittsburgh resident now based in the U.K. The other works in the exhibit are “SOURCEMOUTH: LIQUIDBODY,” an audiovisual installation by Scotland-based artist Hanna Tuulikki. The work by the Anglo-Finnish artist incorporates elements of Indian culture to “consider how sound, gesture and language frame our connection with our environment, the more-than-human and one another.”

The other work is The Swim, a feature-length documentary by Chinese artist and filmmaker He Xiangyu. The work explores life in his hometown in Liaoning province, located on the Yalu River, which separates China from North Korea. Xiangyu, who is currently based in Berlin, is a former Pittsburgh resident; in The Swim, he looks into the black-market trade and attempts to swim the river.

While “Waterborne” can be experienced in Wood Street Galleries, Mottershead said it is best heard while a listener is physically on the river. Listening options include borrowing a set of headphones and a media player at the gallery and then walking a few blocks to the Allegheny River. Best of all, the exhibit is partnering with the group Rivers of Steel to stage two ticketed boat tours this Saturday, so that visitors can actually hear “Waterborne” on the water.

The tours, on the Ohio River, last an hour. Tickets are $10; an early tour is sold out, but at press time tickets remained for the 2:30 p.m. tour.

Mottershead said people’s experience of “Waterborne” tends to vary with “their proximity in their own lives to the subject of death or decomposition.” Most recently, he said, the work was presented in Hobart, Australia, as part of an arts festival called Dark MOFO. One visitor seemed particularly affected, he said.

She told Mottershead that her 94-year-old grandfather had drowned recently during a boating trip in the very same estuary they had just sailed on for “Waterborne.” “She said this was the first time she’d ever felt a sense of closure,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most pleasing bits of response that you can get from apiece of artwork, if ti makes them rethink something about their relationship to something going on in their own life in a positive way.”