Pipe Dreams: The Water Hole

Urszula Dawkins, 2009

The light is clear but uncanny around Steiner and Lenzlinger's The Water Hole - blue-tinged, like moonlight. The room is filled with a near-living thicket of PVC piping, mops of dried kelp and coloured household buckets, artificial flower-parts in strange permutations, plastic drink bottles, bones, gaudy crystals, and play-school spiders made of dead mobile phones and fun-fur. Amid the surreal vegetation, old ceramic handbasins and toilets are poised precariously, in soft-glowing pastels.

High up and brightly lit is an IV bag, half-empty; a longish tube dangling down into the sterile black sky of the gallery. It drips slowly into a mud-caked depression on a quilt-covered bed, into which a few pipes leading from the installation drain ineffectually. The dried clay and smooth, slurried pool are golden, like the coverlet. We've made our environmental bed; now it's time to lie in it.

The water hole signifies the origin of life, according to Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jrg Lenzlinger. In the water hole sits the snake, or the spirit. You stop at the water hole to drink; you stay there, because there's water. Animals come to drink at the water hole so it's the place to hunt - but also the place be hunted. Life and death meet at the water hole.

In the city, they say, water is transported to our private oases: the toilet, the sink, the bathtub. Unlike other animals, we soil our drinking water with our shit. We humans are famous for it. We all pray for rain.

Steiner and Lenzlinger have worked together for the past ten years on countless installations in cities around the world, since their first collaboration as part of Melbourne's one-and-only Biennial, in 1999. Their previous residencies have included such whimsies as the creation of a 'moon garden' in a medieval silver mine in the mountains of Alsace (2007-08); a grotto of 'lost objects' that visitors were invited to take home with them in exchange for a story, in San Antonio, Texas (2006); a Brainforest in Kanazawa, Japan (2004); and a mutating, semi-living Office in Brasilia (2007), to name a few. All their works result from a deep engagement with place over a period of time: between October and December 2008 they were resident at Melbourne's Footscray Community Arts Centre, gathering and building the component parts for an installation that occupies the whole ACCA gallery space and includes a number of smaller, subtly related works.

Lurid, ever-growing crystals feature in much of Steiner and Lenzlinger's work, and are intrinsic to The Water Hole. In hot pink, fiery red, electric blue, lime and yellow, they dangle like stalactites, branch like coral, fold like moss over disguised objects, or line the dried-out pools that lie beneath the climbing assembly of plumbing.

Lenzlinger explains that the crystals are formed by the industrial fertiliser, urea, and coloured by adding other chemicals. Urea was, he says, the first organic substance to be manufactured synthetically, and at the time (around the 1830s) scientists believed it heralded the creation of artificial life. A symbolic link between the synthetic and the natural worlds, "urea is in your blood, it's in your sweat, you find it everywhere, even in cosmetics. It's often used for glue, or even as an additional food for animals."

Of working with crystals, Lenzlinger says: "I became interested to work with the force of a substance - a force which is already inside the substance. I became fascinated with the process of crystallisation - how can a liquid just turn into a clearly organised structure?"

Steiner explains the link between urea and the recurring themes of nature and artifice, life and death that are central to the work:

"We can use it as the living matter, as living material which is independent and can grow chaotically. Urea loves to grow, we always reuse it, so it always grows better or faster, as if it would have a memory."

The use of urea also symbolises the conundrum of modern agriculture: "It needs a lot of fossil energy to produce it?plus the earth gets salted, because the fertiliser is [used] too much," she says.

The Water Hole also explores the idea of the 'cargo cult' - in which objects are arranged or rituals enacted in order to attract the 'cargo' - or in this case, the water. Lenzlinger describes the work as a kind of suspended vegetation that invites the rain, its pipes and tubes hopeful of collecting the downpour and channelling it to the half-dry dam.

Materials for The Water Hole were gathered from around Melbourne's inner west during the residency. "Second-hand material has a history," says Steiner. "It has its traces and it's inspiring for us to work with it." The assembled objects will have different meanings for each viewer: the installation exists, the artists say, simply to "open up the senses". In the same way that places create impressions that inspire the artists, they in turn see themselves as creating environments where visitors will feel their own sense of 'traces', themselves part of an ephemeral 'trail'.

To reach The Water Hole one wanders first through a twisting, rustling tunnel made of dried branches and reflective survival foil. After observing the scattered pyramid of discarded items and its forlorn water hole, the 'trail' leads to a hidden 'observation deck', complete with binoculars and one-way glass. The visitor is now "dissolved" or "digested" by the structure. As Steiner puts it in her exhibition note: "Isolated in the dark you have the overview, a protected and safe situation where you can gaze at your own species and study their behaviour in a reversed environment". A water cooler and plentiful plastic cups in this space further implicate the viewer.

Beyond the observation deck is a large room filled with projected, kaleidoscopic details from the Jardin de Lune, Steiner and Lenzlinger's 'moon garden' installation of 2007. Lying on a water bed, one is immersed in a constantly changing wallscape of curling white hoses, pale crystals and silvered leaves. In a sense, Jardin de Lune was another 'cargo cult': Lenzlinger says it aimed "to grow the silver back" in the exhausted mine.

"The whole idea came from the time," he says, "when alchemy was designed, and silver was related to the moon? The silver would [also] relate to the unconscious, and then you have the fertility as well. The moon garden is a mixture of an organism inside this stone [of the mine], also a laboratory to find new materials, and also a garden of dreams."

Three "treatments for balance" form the next step in the ACCA visitor's journey. For each treatment, the viewer lies on a white, leather 'bed'. Above one is a perfectly-balanced, slowly turning 'mobile' of dead branches strung with small objects, once again including plastic flower parts, urban waste and curious found objects. Over another hangs a 33-kg meteorite, on loan from Museum Victoria. Lying beneath its melted, scalloped surface, one can only contemplate its origin and hope it doesn't break the net in which it's held. The last bed is itself suspended - there is nothing above it but the cables and their shadows, moving across the ceiling.

The penultimate room holds a large collection of photos, taken during the trek across Europe and Asia that first brought Steiner and Lenzlinger to Melbourne ten years ago, when their collaborative work began. The pictures are 'snapshots' of people met along the way, and suggest a cyclic journey that culminates in the current residency.

Finally, almost hidden behind a wall: a miniature desalination plant for tears. A tiny laboratory flask and tubes, perched on a wire stand, a tee-light candle underneath, on an old laminex-topped desk. Diagrams on the wall show an eye, trees; labels for lacrimal glands, Lake Eyre, mountains, rivers and streams. A small CCTV monitor observes visitors as they drink their cooled water on the 'observation deck'. Of this final part of the installation Steiner says: "In the end, no worries, we can all drink our tears."

The creative process is for Steiner and Lenzlinger both a form of highly distilled 'play' with objects and ideas, and simply part of "creating a life" - they have moved almost constantly around the world over the past decade, producing dozens of major works. At the beginning of March, The Water Hole will be dismantled completely and returned mostly to where it came from: second-hand plumbing outlets, recycling facilities, the earth. When it happens, the artists will be on holiday together - somewhere in the Australian desert, they think. There is an almost-Buddhist sense of non-attachment: they celebrate their work's ephemeral nature as they move to the next place and leave it behind.

"There is a sadness in it but there is also a liberation," says Lenzlinger, "that this stream of life can go on. I think a lot of humans tend to attach to something, to an idea or to a material, and to go through life like this, while they are missing a lot of other things."

Steiner says that when the installation is decommissioned, "we will say to each other 'oh, today is the day they break it down' and we'll laugh". She laughs. "You are much more free if you don't have material around you - it's ideas, dreams, all these things that are un-material, or just material for a short time; it is all you keep. But material is like garbage?"

In The Water Hole, nature and refuse share the same aesthetic space, weaving elements of the suburbs and streets - grass seeds, twigs, discarded items - into the aspirational, cargo-cult whole that constitutes life in Melbourne. From the plastic and foam waste to the living/non-living urea, Steiner and Lenzlinger's work is a journey from place to place, from one end of ACCA to the other, from one end of the world to the other. It can't be owned, or kept. In Steiner's words: "It's like a gift you give away, and you know, you don't want gifts back.