Art project lets water discussion flow

If a picture paints a thousand words, Patrick Mahon hopes his ongoing project speaks volumes when it comes to the subject of water and its cultural and environmental importance.

Canadians know water as a seemingly ubiquitous resource and an increasingly desirable international commodity. Mahon’s project, Immersion Emergencies, uses the visual arts to offer opportunities for visual and socio-cultural engagement on the topic.

“Often times we stereotype the arts as operating in more of a benign, aesthetic place, where it might surprise or entertain us. But we don’t think it has a lot of purchase in real world problems,” Mahon said. “I think when artists present something, while it might be entertaining, often times it plants a seed for getting people to actually think about ‘What would I do?’ or ‘How would I deal with the world?’”

The goal of Mahon’s project – comprised of seven artists from across Canada – is to highlight a multitude of linked concerns of those individuals and their work. The project views water not only from diverse perspectives, but shows the uncertainty of the attitude toward such a ‘universal’ substance.

“It’s about artists addressing problems, but also not so much proposing solutions, but to suggest ideas and suggest possibilities,” Mahon said. “One of the things as an artist, and with the group of people I’m working with, is to be not so much the doomsayers, but try and propose possibilities of thinking differently.”

While the group is Canadian, a number of them originate from different parts of the world, including India, Iran and China. Mahon sees this project – almost two years into the four-year run – as a great opportunity for a wider discussion.

“I wanted there to be a strong sense of cultural differences because it’s not all about the address to the environment, but also the way different cultures have historically, and presently, been treating water,” he said. “In general, it is going to represent a myriad of points of views. As much as it’s a Canadian project, it is really about trying to use a number of perspectives and cultures, showing us there’s not just one solution.”

Questions as to how we understand the way visual representation affects our social relations in general, and how they are relative to concerns of the environment and sustainability, is important, Mahon said. Ultimately, the intention of the project is to form links between contemporary artistic representations of water, scientific and social science research.

“A number of scientists we’ve spoken to find that artists can be great message bearers to the community,” he said. “Art has a way of not just drawing attention, but sometimes, actually, is an indirect way of getting people to really take something seriously. Sometimes, when things are communicated to us in a more rational way, it starts to get filtered out and people don’t listen anymore. Whereas sometimes, if artists are doing something that people see as more creative, they may also see it as a more hopeful subject rather than something that’s all about doom and gloom.

“One of our aims is to make work that is beautiful and draws people in, but to also get them thinking and give them pause. Those are the kind of jobs that art does best.”


World Water Day, an international day to celebrate fresh water, was recommended at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The UN General Assembly responded by designating March 22, 1993 as the first World Water Day.

The event is celebrated every year as a means of focusing attention on the importance of fresh water and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. This year, the topic is Water Cooperation.

Western and EnviroWestern will be hosting World Water Day activities on Friday, Mar. 21 in the University Community Centre (Mustang Lounge) from noon-2 p.m. An interdisciplinary panel will include professors Brian Branfireun (Biology), Patrick Mahon (Visual Arts ), Slobodan Simonovic (Engineering) and William Cairns (Chief Scientist, Trojan Technologies).